The weather at Tropical Park stadium that night is beautiful: mid-70s, calm. Twenty minutes before kickoff against Goleman High, Gables senior Rafael Burgos is sitting in the first row at the 50-yard line. His face is painted red and white, like a barber's pole, and he's wearing a football jersey with BURGOS on die back. He is certainly Gables's No. 1 fan, which is a lonely job, for right now he has an entire section of the stadium—the prime section—to himself. "We don't have lots of school spirit," he says. "People go out to the Grove, the movies, clubs. Everybody goes to the clubs."
Over in the next section Annie Black, a senior Gablette, is chatting up the rest of the dance team. "There's so much stuff to do in Miami, and teenagers have a lot of freedom here," she says. "Why would anyone want to come to a football game?"
Then why are you here, Annie?
"We have to be here."
Not counting the band and the cheerleaders and the Gablettes, 80 people are on the Gables side of the stadium at kickoff, including about 40 students. Hail, hail, the gang's all here! the cheerleaders chant without irony. New arrivals wander in slowly as the game wears on, but when they climb into the bleachers, many of them look embarrassed, like the first people to arrive at a not-very-cool party. "Omigod," one girl says. "Nobody's here."
Out on the field just before halftime, Cole squints toward the visitors' stands on the far side. "There are only going to be 200 over there," he says before turning to the Gables side, "and maybe 600 over here. We're just hoping to break even and not lose money tonight. We'll need about 500 paid to do that." He shakes his head. "It's sad to see it like this. You used to have the players' parents come to every game. Now they don't come anymore."
Pity. They miss a great game—Gables loses 25-23 when it fails to convert a last-second two-point try—but then again, this is the kind of football everyone in Miami-Dade County is missing each week. Even though the district's football players are the lifeblood of the juggernaut Florida college programs, even though the county had 24 alumni on NFL opening-day rosters this year, average attendance at district high school games dropped steadily from 1977 through 1996, from 2,511 to 1,006. "Everyone wants to go to pep rallies because they get out of sixth hour," says Ron Balazs, the athletic director at Coral Park High. "But when we put 4,000 kids in tile gym at two in the afternoon and then have 300 at the game, where are the other 3,700?"
Close observers offer several answers. Since none of the schools have their own stadiums—the district's 28 teams have access to only seven facilities—each week's games must be spread out from Wednesday to Saturday. Even if students know when and where their school is playing, why would they spend five bucks for an evening under the Wednesday-night lights? Second, four major professional sports franchises have arrived in South Florida since 1988, leeching fans from high school football. Third, many people would rather be watching fútbol. "You're looking at an international community, and in the majority of those countries they don't play football," says Cole. "If we pushed soccer and played it at night, I think soccer would outdraw football."
Perhaps most important, kids in Miami are busy doing other, more important things: working, going to the beach, hanging out. As Kevin Veras, a Hialeah-Miami Lakes High senior, puts it, "People would rather smoke a blunt than go to a game. For most people football games just aren't the thing to do. Maybe when my mom was in high school, but not now."
How does a lack of school spirit threaten the future of high school sports in Miami? Gate receipts affect athletic budgets. When mom was in high school, football revenue covered a school's entire sports budget. These days ticket sales don't even support football. After expenses Miami schools lose money on half of the games.