Soccer steps to the plate as it becomes Miami’s new favorite pastime

AT PLAY: Children in a Miami park play soccer on a baseball diamond. (Photo by Matthew Rembold)

AT PLAY: Children in a Miami park play soccer on a baseball diamond. (Photo by Matthew Rembold)

A soccer ball made its way across the infield, rolling toward third base. In the shadows of I-95 in downtown Miami, players honed their soccer skills where a baseball team once played.

In South Florida, the national pastime is slowly becoming past tense.

“You walk on a baseball field to find it empty,” said Daniel Prenat, executive director of Miami Youth Soccer. “And then you walk on a soccer field to see it full of kids playing.”

Prenat has observed a recent shift in local sports popularity. Slowly but surely, soccer is replacing baseball as South Florida’s favorite sport.

“Kids are not playing baseball in their own neighborhoods to the degree that they used to,” said Gaspar Gonzalez, a guest curator at the HistoryMiami Museum.

Given baseball’s regional stronghold, few sports enthusiasts saw this coming. The city has been home to minor league baseball teams, including a first and second version of the Miami Marlins in 1956 and 1962.

South Florida’s mild year-round climate made baseball attractive, along with the draw of Spring training and the ease with which one could set up a baseball field in flat Florida. With the Cuban influx into the area in the early 1960s, they brought with them an additional love of baseball that further boosted the game’s popularity.

In 1993, Major League Baseball found its way to Miami. Despite early success, the Marlins never developed the strong fanbase that other cities have.

“People said, ‘We’re gonna sell out every night,’ and that hasn’t been the case,” Gonzalez said. “The crowds have not materialized, and you wonder what it’s gonna take to bring people out.”

Meanwhile, area youths are relocating from the diamond to the soccer field. And the trend is being felt across the country, too. According to a Sports and Fitness Industry Association study, the number of 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer in the United States rose 100,000 in 2014, the year of the World Cup.

That same study found even greater growth in 2011, when youth soccer participation peaked at more than six million with 600,000 new soccer players, the year after the 2010 World Cup.

Major League Soccer is also growing in popularity. Though bringing in fewer fans than the NFL and NBA, the MLS reported a 12.7 percent increase in attendance from 2014 to 2015, according to Soccer America magazine. Florida, with 114,000 reported soccer players, is the fifth most active area in the country.

“A lot more kids are growing up playing soccer now than ever before in Miami,” said Gonzalez. “And there are reasons for that.”

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Baseball has grown more expensive over the years. Local leagues are being replaced by travel leagues, which can cost thousands of dollars a year. Also, the cost of equipment is higher in baseball than soccer. Parents usually pay upwards of $120 just for a baseball glove.

“Cost is a factor, because if you look at all the equipment you need to buy to play baseball and then you look at soccer, there’s 22 kids playing with just one ball,” Prenat said.

According to the census web site City Data, more than 70 percent of Miamians identify themselves as Hispanic, the majority of which were born in Central and South America, where soccer is king.

“Soccer has replaced baseball because of the demographics of the area,” said Otto Camejo, Miami Springs Little League president. “With the demographic model of Central and South Americans in Miami, they have certainly brought that culture here.”

In addition to this nationwide swing, former soccer star David Beckham is on the hunt to bring professional soccer to Miami’s Overtown area.

“Miami embraces things that are new,” Gonzalez said. “So I think if you did have a pro-soccer team down here, you probably would see a spike [in participation]. All of a sudden kids would be picking up soccer balls.”

Even families are dealing with divided interests when it comes to sports loyalty. Prenat’s wife, who is Cuban, likes baseball. But she raised their son to love soccer.

“She did this because she saw all of the kids playing soccer outside,” Prenat said. “In soccer, 22 kids are moving at all times. And in baseball, kids sit around waiting to see if the ball is hit to them.”