CENTER OF THE SPORTS UNIVERSE, Fla. — South Florida doesn’t need more nice things.
That exotic and unhinged utopia at the end of the U.S. map, it already has everything. Like, a whole ocean for its backyard. And four seasons, consisting of sunshine, more sunshine, severe thunderstorms just to keep its residents humble, followed by craploads of even more sunshine. And also, açaí bowls available on every street corner. For those of us stuck living elsewhere who might find it difficult to pronounce that word — Ack-uh-i? Uh-ca-ya?! — just know it’s very delicious and a supremely better breakfast option than an Eggo.
And now, even though South Florida doesn’t need anymore prosperity, this week it is hosting Games 3 and 4 of both the NBA and NHL finals. The Miami Heat and Florida Panthers, a pair of eighth-seeded overachievers, are vying for championships. Oh, and let’s not forget … the city’s baseball team currently sits second the National League East, ahead of a pair of mega-spending rivals. Its football team is a favorite to land one of the best rushers in the NFL. Also, the local college hoop programs have suddenly become powerhouses and, oh right, the GOAT is potentially coming to town to play soccer.
So recently, as I stretched out on the sands of Miami Beach, an umbrella providing shade and a superfood smoothie at my fingertips, I realized that I wasn’t just chilling in paradise, but the center of the sports universe. And trying hard not to be jealous of the lucky sons of a beach who live here.
“It’s a good place to be if you’re a sports fan right now down here, 100 percent,” local Mitch Mitchell told me. “There’s nothing to complain about. Everything’s going great, as far as being a sports fan. And then you have South Florida with the water and everything else we’ve got down here.”
The Mitchells — Mitch and wife Laura — were some of the fans I tracked down for this piece: an examination of the weird and wild sports renaissance happening in the southernmost part of the U.S. Throw in Lionel Messi potentially coming to Inter Miami, the University of Miami men’s and women’s basketball teams advancing to the Elite Eight, the Florida Atlantic Owls’ Cinderella run to the men’s Final Four, as well as the Miami Marlins’ early success and the positivity swirling around the Miami Dolphins — with newly added shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey and possibly running back Dalvin Cook — and South Florida is the place to be.
Because South Florida also happens to be in Florida and it’s governed by a beta Florida man who probably thinks a plastic rat is too woke. He’s already banned diversity, equity and inclusion programs in public universities, flip-flopped on vaccines to pander to a Trumpian base and, if you let him, he’d stand alone outside Space Mountain screaming: “Defund Disney!” So yeah, South Florida has its flaws. But for the purposes of living under a sports rock, it’s heaven on Earth!
“This is kind of the escape from reality for us,” Palm Beach County resident Laurel Serra shared with me, smiling widely beneath the Panther, fake rat and hockey puck affixed to her hard hat. She attends games with her custom headpiece — the rat is an inside thing for Panthers fans — and though she’ll admit there are many aspects she despises about her adopted state, she soon could be living in Titletown, Fla.
“Do you see the goose bumps happening?” she said, still unable to wipe the gleam from her face. “I love that FAU made [the Final Four] and that they did so well. And then now looking over to basketball here in the NBA, we’ve got the Heat going. It’s pretty amazing, especially being a hockey fan and we always get picked on for not having a huge fan base. So it’s nice the Heat are doing so well at the exact same time as us and kind of brought us some fans that don’t normally watch. I’ve got several friends who are huge basketball and football fans, who I’m now seeing them post pictures at the Panthers games. I’m like: ‘Ha! I told you!’ That’s what it’s all about — the air conditioner!”
Fans of central heating and cooling — and yeah sure, the Panthers, too — have flocked to FLA Live Arena during this Stanley Cup run. Before the puck dropped in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, I spotted several last-minute bandwagoners … er, shoppers leaving the team store and draping themselves in their newly purchased jerseys. There were also plenty of crossover fans. A guy buying beer in a Victor Oladipo shirt. A woman strolling the plaza level in a Jimmy Butler tee. A smattering of black Heat ball caps, which would’ve come in handy if someone like Matthew Tkachuk had scored a hat trick that night.
Laura Mitchell didn’t come wearing a traditional lid, rather opting for a polar bear hat and mitt combo. In her six years attending games as a converted Jersey Girl-to-Panthers fan, she’s learned to dress appropriately. But while she and Mitch pre-gamed at an outdoors bar attached to the arena, it was humid and 84 degrees. A vision of the blissful contradiction that is playoff hockey in South Florida.
Because of this, the Mitchells — they both hail from the East Coast — can no longer sympathize with the suffering of fans from Buffalo, Detroit or Ottawa. Those folks live in the cities with the longest hockey playoff droughts and they have to deal with state or provincial taxes and hypothermia. As the couple joyously partied ahead of watching their favorite team move one step closer to the Stanley Cup, I asked them to convince me why the rest of America shouldn’t hate them. Laura and Mitch, who live on the water and take their house guests boating, failed miserably.
“We’ve got to go to work every day. It’s like everywhere else,” Mitch offered. “You get up in the morning, you put your pants on the same way I do.”
No, Mitch. We don’t. Because we don’t put on our Bermuda shorts in February like you do. Nice try though. Next up, Alejandro Rivas, a 30-year-old lifelong native and Panthers neophyte, and his attempt to find common ground with other hockey fans.
“Man, look. It’s like what A-Rod said, I live in the mean streets of Kendall. It’s tough out there, bro. It ain’t sunshine and roses everyday,” Rivas joked. Another inside thing only South Floridians would understand, because Kendall is a comfortable suburb in Southwest Miami, although former baseball star Alex Rodriguez made it sound like he dodged bullets and hurdled crackheads while growing up there.
Again, not very convincing. Neither was Martin Schwartz, but he never actually tried to be. Schwartz is the type of proud Floridian who brags about never working from home over the last three years (pandemic schmandemic) and hands out business cards for his company but warns you not to flip it over, because it reads: “I’m CEO, Bitch.” I found Schwartz at the Heat game, wearing a Panthers jersey, and he was unapologetic about the bounty of sports blessings happening in South Florida.
“You’re happy. You enjoy it with your kids, with your family. You have memories, you have pictures, you have memorabilia. You laugh about it, you cheer about it,” Schwartz said. “Those are the things in life. Memories. Enjoy it. Have fun or what are you doing?”
After leaving the office — in flip-flops, of course — Schwartz plans to attend the Stanley Cup games, too. For sports fans like him, the sun keeps on shining in South Florida.