SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — South Florida was already throwing a smashing sports party. And then Lionel Messi decided to join the fun.
The Miami Heat are in the NBA Finals, the Florida Panthers are in the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final and the area is hosting championship-series games four nights in a row. During that unprecedented stretch, Messi announced he’s going to sign with Inter Miami of Major League Soccer, and for good measure the Marlins are surprisingly in second place two months into the baseball season with Luis Arraez hitting over .400.
All this after the F1 Miami Grand Prix and NHL All-Star weekend were staged in South Florida, the sudden center of the sports universe. It also had two teams in college basketball’s Final Four, a women’s team in the Elite Eight and the Division II national champions in men’s basketball.
“I’m so excited for the city of Miami, to be able to have a player of that caliber here,” said Heat star Jimmy Butler, who has often said soccer — he calls it futbol — is his favorite sport. “I’m excited for the city of Miami in so many different ways. Obviously, us being in the finals and having an opportunity to do something special. Now that he is here, I think all the futbol-slash-soccer fans from all over the world are going to come here and get an opportunity to watch him compete. I’m glad he is here.”
Some of it is coincidental, but certainly not all of it. Florida having no state income tax makes the contracts signed by Messi, Jimmy Butler and Matthew Tkachuk worth more than in many other places, and it plays a role in elite athletes wanting to call the state home.
“Every now and then all the stars are aligned,” said Ed Schauder, a sports and entertainment lawyer who now lives in Florida. “It’s just a perfect storm. What’s happening is Florida’s becoming the go-to destination. Of course, it starts with LeBron James when he announced that he was coming to Miami (in 2010). And the beautiful weather and the whole vibe, so it’s just a snowball effect.”
Schauder, a New Yorker who moved to Florida and works at Nason Yeager Business Law Firm, knows from decades doing deals with the likes of Derek Jeter and Carmelo Anthony how Florida has become so attractive.
“As more and more people are migrating to Florida, the same principle goes with athletes,” he said. “Athletes are going to want to live in a state that’s beautiful, weather is great, there’s a great vibe, there’s great nightlife. And there’s no income tax. And when there’s no income tax, it’s going to attract anybody.”
Also attractive? Winning.
The Heat have won three championships and the Marlins and NFL’s Dolphins two apiece. The University of Miami and Florida Atlantic each came two wins away from a men’s basketball national title this spring. Miami’s women’s team went to the Elite Eight, falling to eventual national champion LSU, and Nova Southeastern won the Division II national title in men’s basketball.
South Florida is the current epicenter of sports madness. No market before has hosted final round NBA and NHL games on four consecutive nights.
“It’s cool to be a part of,” Panthers forward Ryan Lomberg said. “Thankfully for us, (the Heat play) on the off nights, so for us they’re pretty easy to tune into. Any time you can support your fellow South Florida sports teams, it’s good.”
His coach, Paul Maurice, said to his wife a sentence he never had when calling home from Las Vegas: “The Heat game just ended.” Michelle Maurice was watching, too.
The hockey lifer, now a quarter-century in with his fourth NHL organization, hopes the concurrent team runs create more hockey fans in what’s still a newer market for the sport.
“It’s a great introduction for us — we kind of get to move together on this,” Maurice said. “There’s lots of sports going on, and when you get on one of these runs, the energy level just comes up. Well, in our market now, it’s up on two sports and it doesn’t end.”
Even when these best-of-seven series are over, Messi is coming. Fresh off leading Argentina to a World Cup title, the soccer superstar left Saudi money on the table to play in Miami — reportedly, for a lot of money.
“I appreciate the guys who went through a lot of struggles to even get us to this point where we can make decisions on where we want to be and it’s about us being happy,” Heat guard Kyle Lowry said. “To be able to turn down one place and go to where you want to be, that’s the ultimate goal.”
When Messi arrives, the Marlins look to remain in the NL East race — and hope Arraez remains on pace to join the .400 club. They were excited about the Messi signing.
“Felicidades, Messi!” Marlins star Jazz Chisholm shouted Wednesday in a video released by the team. “Dale!”
The message, translated: Congratulations, Messi, and let’s go!
He won’t play in South Florida until next month. So for now, the focus is on the Heat and Panthers, each of whom trail their respective series and have opportunities to claw back at home in front of fans charged up by the success.
“For all South Florida just being able to watch us one night, watch the Heat the other night, it’s very cool,” Panthers MVP finalist Matthew Tkachuk said. “Hopefully, can make for a fun last few weeks here. It would be nice if we could reward them all.”
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