Miami has been missing something in its sports scene despite being a city full of international flavor, diverse culture and party-filled fun. Much of the buzz is in the past, and South Florida fans are spending a lot of time (too much time?) reminiscing about the glory days.
Granddad leans back in his chair telling stories of how Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino ran the NFL in the 1980s and 1990s with his lightning-quick release and pocket presence. Grandma jumps in by discussing how Jimmy Johnson and Michael Irvin made the Miami Hurricanes the “Bad Boys of College Football” must-watch programming every Saturday.
Groups of college friends play 21 on the blistering hot Miami hardcourt yelling out “Flash” in honor of former Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. Some of the tables at Domino Park in Little Havana go back-and-forth about how everything went downhill with the Miami Marlins when they traded Miguel Cabrera.
Those stars, and many of the ones who followed them, are all gone from Miami. And while there are several young players on the rise among Miami’s Big Four pro sports teams and Hurricanes football — including Xavien Howard, Bam Adebayo, Aleksander Barkov, Sandy Alcantara, Brian Anderson and Shaquille Quarterman — there is a dearth of big-name talent.
We enlisted a diverse group of ESPN personalities, writers, reporters and analysts with knowledge of the Miami sports scene to remind us of the past, catch us up on the present and project the future.
Which departure has had the biggest impact on Miami’s sports scene?
Andrea Adelson: The Dolphins still haven’t recovered from losing Dan Marino. A few years after he retired, when Jay Fielder was the quarterback, I had a group of friends over for dinner. They all knew how much my dad loves the Dolphins. Someone decided to bring up what was happening at quarterback. My dad, a man of very few words, looked up from his dinner and used a word that cannot be repeated in this family-friendly roundtable. He resumed eating. I can only imagine that’s how all Dolphins fans feel — even to this day.
Kelly Cohen: When Dwyane Wade left Miami, in what was clearly a breakdown of trust, the whole city felt defeated. It felt personal. My non-cliché answer? The departure of the Orange Bowl. Games at that stadium were legendary, and Miami’s college football scene hasn’t been the same since.
Alden Gonzalez: For the Heat, it was LeBron James, because it ended one of the greatest dynasties in the city’s history. For the Dolphins, it was the retirement — albeit brief — of Ricky Williams, who announced weeks before the start of the 2004 season that he was stepping aside. For the Marlins, it was, sadly, the death of Jose Fernandez — a star in the making with a magnetic personality who, as a Cuban American, perfectly identified with that fan base.
Cameron Wolfe: I see fans walking around Hard Rock Stadium with Marino jerseys, sometimes younger folks who aren’t old enough to have seen him play. There’s an acute nostalgia that stirs over the fan base like maybe one day they’ll get to experience that Marino feeling again.
Jeff Darlington: Ryan Tannehill, because it is symbolic of the Dolphins’ ongoing challenge to find “the guy” at quarterback. Wade, because it’s the end of an era. Giancarlo Stanton, because it validated the Marlins as a stepping stone — not a destination. And don’t you dare make me try to name a Panthers player.
Who is the most prominent big-name South Florida star?
Gonzalez: Josh Rosen. He isn’t the most accomplished and he isn’t the most recognizable, but he has the attention of South Florida more so than anybody at the moment because he is the Dolphins’ potential franchise quarterback. Rosen eventually will take over for Ryan Fitzpatrick, and when he does, the entire city will cross its collective fingers. Rosen could still be great. Or, at least, good. The city will take it.
Wolfe: Jimmy G. Buckets (Jimmy Butler). Miami loves its stars to have some grit. It makes perfect sense that as Wade retires, another Marquette kid with a rough, adverse upbringing is here to take over his crown. Butler is a clutch baller who is never afraid to speak his mind. That will play here.
Jorge Sedano: Butler. He is a top-15 player in his sport, and he plays in a league that pushes individuality.
Dan Le Batard: Butler? [Miami Heat team president] Pat Riley?
Darlington: Riley. The Williams sisters. Tiger Woods. And behind them, Derek Jeter and Don Mattingly. The problem with all of that? Three of them are in management — and three don’t play in front of a Miami audience very often.
Who will be the next star athlete in Miami?
Le Batard: It will be Rosen if he plays well and the Dolphins win. Two giant ifs.
Adelson: [Alabama quarterback] Tua Tagovailoa. That is, if #TankforTua can be believed.
Gonzalez: Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo. I have been so impressed with his athleticism and desire. It had been clear for a while that he was better than Hassan Whiteside, and now, with starter’s minutes and as a third-year player at 22 years old, he’s going to have a big season. He’ll form a nice pairing with Butler. And if he can develop an outside shot, he’ll be a monster.
Darlington: The quarterback who starts the 2019 Dolphins season under center. I’m not saying who it will be. For one, we have no way to know for sure how this all plays out. But I also refuse to tempt and tease the South Florida fan base with any possibilities after so much disappointment over the years.
Cohen: Adebayo has proved himself to be what Heat culture is all about. Every Miami fan is ready for someone as talented, dedicated and fun as Bam.
Adding a generational talent to which team would alter Miami’s sports scene the most?
Le Batard: This town wants to be a football town. Only LeBron has ever wrestled it away. You get a generational NFL quarterback, you take the town back for a decade.
Emily Kaplan: The Panthers sure could use a star. They have had big-name players over the years: Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Pavel Bure — but most of them came in their twilight or for a short period of time. This offseason, the Panthers added two-time Vezina-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, which is a coup, but the 30-year-old might already have played his best hockey. Plus, his 10-year term to his contract is worrisome. For the past five-plus years, the Panthers have had one of the most underrated players in the league, Aleksander Barkov, but he has not transcended into a household name.
Gonzalez: The Dolphins have the richest history, but the Heat now hold the greatest gravitas. Their arena is a 10-minute drive to South Beach, and their sport caters far more to the stars than football, baseball or hockey ever could. Acquiring LeBron and Shaquille O’Neal were two of the biggest moments in South Florida history; the career arcs of Alonzo Mourning and Wade made them area legends. Miami used to be a football city, and it is supposed to be a baseball city, but it is now, without a doubt, a basketball city.
Cohen: Miami longs to be a football city again. Whether it is bringing a generational talent to the Dolphins or Canes football, it would rejuvenate a wounded fan base.
Sedano: You clearly saw what LeBron did for Miami. The NBA is a glamour league. Miami is a glamour town. However, because the Dolphins have been so bad for so long, if they somehow got the second coming of Marino, it would be fascinating to see how the scales would tip.
The Hurricanes won five national title in college football from 1983 to 2001. What will determine when The U is truly back?
Adelson: I thought for three hours on a November night in 2017, when Miami absolutely walloped Notre Dame, the Hurricanes were closer to being back than at any point over the past 15 years. But since then, the Hurricanes are 8-9, so … not exactly “back.” The appetite among the fans for titles is insatiable, so in their minds, The U won’t truly be back until it wins a sixth national championship. Miami has to prove it can compete for titles on a yearly basis.
Le Batard: They can’t win the ACC. And you want me to put them where Alabama and Clemson are? A competent offense would be a start.
Cohen: The easy answer is to say win a championship, but that is hard to do in this era of powerhouse teams such as Alabama and Clemson. The U has to continually be ranked in the top 10, win bowl games, send players to the NFL and have successful recruiting periods in which the star players from Florida pick Miami over not just other state programs, but other national programs. The U needs to be feared again.
Sedano: What the Canes need is to have three seasons in a row of about 10 wins. That will get recruiting to a point where they can build real depth. Then they can put themselves in position to truly compete with Clemson. College football is just better when the Hurricanes matter.
When was Miami’s sports peak over the past 30 years?
Gonzalez: The Heat’s Big Three era, from 2010 to 2014. I was there the day the Heat staged that pompous pep rally in July 2010. My friend and I printed tickets at the last minute, drove 20 miles east to Biscayne Boulevard through rush-hour traffic and arrived just before LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh were vaulted onto the stage. I never felt an energy like that. It was mocked throughout the nation, but in that moment and in that place, it was celebrated with unbridled enthusiasm. It spanned four seasons and included two championships, and somehow that feels like a disappointment. The expectations were boundless when it first became a reality.
Darlington: We’re all going to be inclined to suggest that Miami’s sports peak must include a time dominated by Marino or Wade or Don Shula or LeBron. But somewhat ironically, the time when team success reached its peak really didn’t include any of them. I’m talking about the late 1990s. The Dolphins were consistently making the playoffs. The Heat were a championship contender anchored by Mourning and Tim Hardaway. The Marlins won a World Series. And the Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Yes, Miami has had better eras for individual sports, of course. But the late 1990s — across the board — created the closest thing to potential title runs over the entire landscape.
Cohen: When the Heat won back-to-back titles — 2012 and 2013 were truly something special. The beauty of Miami is that it’s a cultural melting pot — but there are always differences. Sports bridge those differences. The whole city united behind something that was new — basketball as the top sport.
Adelson: It has to be in the 1980s, when both the Dolphins and Hurricanes were the toast of the town and of the collective football universe. I will never forget sitting on the couch with my dad on Saturdays to watch the Canes destroy their opponents with a swagger and confidence that made them easy to cheer for, and then Sundays to watch Marino, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton transform what it meant to play offense. I remember asking my dad when I was around 8 or 9 whether it was possible to combine my two loves — writing and football — and do that for a job. He said yes. Those two teams, in that era, and the imprint they left on me, are the reason I am a sportswriter today.
Sedano: I worked in media in Miami from 1999 to 2013. There’s nothing that compares to the Heat’s Big Three of LeBron, Wade and Bosh. The first two seasons (before winning their first title) was like covering Game 7 of the NBA Finals every night.
Has the allure of South Beach dissipated?
Le Batard: The allure of living in Miami has not been diluted. You can spend your offseason here, or as Le’Veon Bell did (your holdout season) and enjoy it without having to practice in our August heat, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Sedano: The legend of South Beach gets more play than the practicality of actually going there regularly. It’s mostly a tourist destination. Road teams love South Beach because there’s nothing like it. However, when you live in Miami, you realize it’s always there whenever you want it. There are plenty of other places that are just as interesting to see and be seen.
Wolfe: It’s still another day in paradise for everyone who lives in Miami. But the culture around NFL and MLB free agency is chasing the most dollars, and NBA free-agency culture has centered on teaming up with other superstars. City appeal — even when it’s Miami — often plays second fiddle to other factors.
Darlington: Three of South Florida’s best assets — the weather, social scene and lack of a state income tax — will never go out of style. It will forever attract big stars. Hard Rock Stadium has never been better. AmericanAirlines Arena has proved to be a social mecca when the Heat are thriving. The Marlins have a beautiful new stadium. Super Bowls. The Miami Open. So on and so on. This area has it all … except for the one thing top-tier free agents desire other than money: wins.
How has the ghost of Marino affected the Dolphins’ failed pursuit to find their next QB star?
Darlington: Don’t you dare blame Marino — or his shadow — for anything bad about South Florida. He is a Golden God who continues to be a gem for the region where he still lives. Kidding aside, I refuse to blame the “ghost of Marino” when the Dolphins have had their chances to snag a quarterback — whether in free agency with Drew Brees or in the draft with Matt Ryan — but failed to do so for a number of excuses that are simply nothing more than excuses. Yeah, I get it, the Dolphins’ medical team believed Daunte Culpepper (knee) was a safer choice than Brees (shoulder). Yeah, I get it, Bill Parcells believed a left tackle (Jake Long) was a safer pick at No. 1 than a QB (Ryan). They might have been right about it being “safe.” But that doesn’t mean it was “right.”
Adelson: You could blame his ghost in the early years, especially since it has been reported he was hesitant to allow the Dolphins to draft a quarterback so he could groom a replacement. But now? It’s not so much the ghost of Marino as the ineptitude exhibited by many of the general managers and coaches whose No. 1 job was to find the next quarterback. Quarterback has been a consistent need for this team since 1999, yet only once since Marino retired have they drafted one in the first round.
Le Batard: This franchise has been a sinkhole at every position for two decades. The coaching job has swallowed Nick Saban, Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson.
How do you see the ____ getting their next star?
Kaplan: Free agency. Winning the draft lottery in the year of a generational talent is always possible, but the odds are slim, and Florida is poised to be competitive for the next few years. Florida — especially now with Joel Quenneville as coach — is a desirable team. Also, players truly value Florida’s tax advantage. As long as the Panthers have the cap space, they should be big-game hunters. The Panthers could be a potential landing spot for Alex Ovechkin as he winds down his career — in the chance he doesn’t retire with Washington. The Panthers should go after stars closer to their prime windows. Maybe that means going after 2018 MVP Taylor Hall next offseason or targeting Auston Matthews when his Maple Leafs contract expires in 2024.
Le Batard: They already have him in Barkov.
Le Batard: They need to become a destination again because they haven’t been for two decades. You have to be a football factory that gets people to the pros.
Adelson: It’s going to come one of two ways — recruiting or the transfer portal. Coach Manny Diaz did a great job using the portal to bring in former ESPN 300 recruits to help shore up his first recruiting class. Linebacker Shaquille Quarterman should have a big season. There is no doubt Diaz and his staff are going to want to sign a top-tier class and develop that talent — specifically at quarterback — to get this program competing for championships again.
Darlington: Free agency. 2020. That’s all I’m saying — for now.
Wolfe: Let’s project a Dolphins general manager Chris Grier double-dip in 2020. He finds his star quarterback in the NFL draft’s first round — Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert or Jake Fromm — and uses his projected $100 million-plus in cap space to add another star in free agency. Perhaps Jadeveon Clowney?
Le Batard: The league legislates equality, so the Dolphins are bound to land a star. But it is a true testament to the franchise’s incompetence that it uses all of its draft picks on offensive linemen and still can’t block anyone.
Cohen: This team needs to tank and get Tagovailoa. It’s time.
Le Batard: Riley tends to figure it out. I don’t know how the hell he got Butler when he had three better offers with better teams. I don’t know how he got a star while entering free agency with no tradable assets or salary-cap room, while the Knicks got nobody with all the money in the world. It’ll be easier to get a star bigger than Butler than it was to get Butler. He will have cap room soon, and he’ll convince someone to play here before he retires.
Gonzalez: Riley needs to work his magic one last time. Butler is a good start, and if Adebayo develops the way I think he might, that’s two legit stars — or something close to that, at least. They need to clear cap space, and they need to put themselves in position to attract another star to join them during the summer of 2021, which is setting up for a star-studded free-agent class headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Gonzalez: The Marlins have done a nice job of developing star players through their minor league system (Cabrera, Stanton and Christian Yelich among them). Their problem has been keeping them. They don’t have the sustainable revenue streams. The don’t draw well, and their TV contract is relatively unfavorable. Until that changes, their core issues will persist.
Le Batard: The league rewards tanking. Look at the Astros. The Marlins already have a top-five minor league system just from trading two MVPs and their entire outfield. They’ll hit on some draft luck, get better and then be able to trade for a young star once they’ve rebuilt it.