What Miami needs is a real professional sports team. The Dolphins are paper tigers; watching their playoff hopes fade doesn't qualify as high-grade sports entertainment. The Marlins are, of course, the worst team in the major leagues and possibly in the minor leagues as well. The Heat has no players under contract, meaning the Heat doesn't actually exist at this point. The Panthers have been driven to extinction by exorbitant ticket prices and by the fact that no one is quite sure what city they call home these days. As for the Fusion, soccer is not considered a sport in North America.
But beginning Friday our needs will be fulfilled by the Miami Matadors, formerly the Louisville Riverfrogs of the southeast division of the East Coast Hockey League. This is no rinky-dink rink action. Bill Torrey, president of the NHL's Panthers, says, "The ECHL is a most competitive and exciting brand of hockey." Then again, what would he know about competitive hockey?
Doesn't matter. Hockey equals violence equals Miami. The Matadors (please don't call them the Mats -- as in door) are a developmental enterprise in more ways than one. First, they'd like to make a go of it at the Miami Arena, that venue so desperately needed ten years ago (for Miami's big-league image and for Overtown development) and since abandoned by all. Second, the puck slappers decked out in Matadors white (with gold, black, and red trim) will consist of a mix of Riverfrog vets, free agents, and a few players under contract to the Panthers.
It's a good thing the arena (which in its ten years has hosted 1577 events) has a tenant. It should be interesting to see the Matadors' motley crew of stickmen have at it in what promises to be an unpolished and thereby volatile brand of hockey, beginning with Friday's home opener against southeast division rivals the South Carolina Stingrays.
Winning isn't everything, and in the case of the Matadors it's just barely relevant. While the wannabe stars play their buttpads off in the fun and aggressive style of minor league hockey, fans will be treated to a number of diversions such as clowns, face-painting, a choreographed pregame show starring mascot Matty the Matador (an excellent skater, team sources say, so he might get playing time, too), and half-time activities that will involve the entire audience (the sources declined to elaborate on this aspect). Down the line, the team hopes to have dancers (read: cheerleaders) who we suspect will be called the Picadors.
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Big-time pro sports have been tainted to the point of being unconsumable, or at least undigestable, with overpaid prima donnas executing precise maneuvers as diagrammed by computer coaches. The fiercest competition comes during your search for a parking space. You wait in line for tickets longer than the events actually last. "Rarely are sporting events stress-free any more," says Matadors president and CEO Robert Snyder, "because of pressure on the field and the prices off it. I think our product will be fun, relatively stress-free, and very affordable."
The Matadors promise family frivolity in the stands and raw, boisterous action of the blood-and-sand, icemen-cometh sort between the boards. It might not be pretty, but the net results could turn out to be the best buy in local sports. And Miami needs fewer goodbyes and more good buys. No bull.
-- Greg Baker
The Miami Matadors play the South Carolina Stingrays at 7:00 p.m. Friday, October 16, at the Miami Arena, 701 NW 1st Ave. Tickets range from $8 to $24. For additional ticket information call 305-374-7283.