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  Heat Will Challenge Dolphins for Top Billing
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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South Florida is a football “town”. This has been the case for the past 50 years or more. Nothing will change this over the long term.


But for the next five years, the Miami Heat have captured a significant share of the bright spotlight from the Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes. That’s the new reality created when the Heat pulled off one of the most remarkable and stunning superstar talent coups in sports history.


The return of Dwyane Wade, together with the arrival of Chris Bosh and LeBron James, perhaps the best all-around player in basketball, altered South Florida’s sports and entertainment axis. Really, it shifted the axis of American sports itself. No sports team in recent memory will capture a more powerful and broad focus that the Miami Heat will next season and beyond.


The importance of the moment cannot be understated. For all the criticism ESPN has received for airing LeBron’s “The Decision”, they quickly understood how his reported move to the Heat would change the American sports landscape.


For the Dolphins, this is unfamiliar territory. They’ve always been the kings of South Florida. Always. Even when the Hurricanes were in their glory years, there was never a question that the Dolphins were the biggest show in town; Dan Marino and friends made sure of that. But today’s Dolphins have little to counter the allure and expectations that King James and his pals have brought to the big arena on Biscayne Boulevard.


Yeah, they’re gonna be that good.


Let me be clear; this is not a slam on the Dolphins. They have made great strides since their 1-15 nadir in 2007. To their credit, they’ve conducted a total house cleaning including ownership, coaches, and players. These changes have affected every facet of the team in an overwhelmingly positive manner. In just two seasons, the Dolphins achieved the single greatest turnaround in NFL history with an amazing 11-5 record in 2008. They won their first division championship since 2000, snapping a seven year playoff drought. They found a good young quarterback in Chad Henne (finally), re-built their offensive line into one the NFL’s best, found two outstanding young cornerbacks, and pulled off one of the biggest trades in team history in acquiring WR Brandon Marshall, one of the top five receivers in the game today.


This is a high level summary, of course, but a good list of accomplishments under the Bill Parcells regime. There’s no question these Dolphins are on the right path towards gaining elite status, perhaps even this year.


Yet we must concede that in a remarkable, historic moment on the evening of July 8, 2010, the Heat caught lightning in a bottle when James declared his intent to join Wade and Bosh in Miami. The move instantly transformed the Heat from a good NBA team to an elite one, probably the best one; a team with enough young talent to power a multiple championship dynasty.


Yes, the Heat still must fill out their roster with good role players and the right chemistry must be developed amongst them for their potential to be realized. But that won’t be a problem for Pat Riley, every bit as good at his trade as Bill Parcells is with the Dolphins. When Riley is done signing players, there isn’t much the rest of the NBA will be able to do about it for a long time. This includes last year’s finalists, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.


As for the Dolphins, we’re not sure if they have enough on defense to make the playoffs this year. Again, this is not a slam on the Dolphins; they’re doing all the right things. The Heat just got better and, perhaps, sexier faster. This is sure to grab massive amounts of media and marketing attention and, with it, large sums of advertising dollars…resources and attention that used to flow mostly to the Dolphins.


Not anymore.


The challenge for the Dolphins now is to retain their fair share of the public focus which, in the past, has sometimes been more generous than their performance justified. The key to this effort will be in how the Dolphins handle the overlap of the two seasons.


The Heat will begin training camp in late September, at about the quarter point of the NFL season. The buzz surrounding that event will certainly start to divert attention away from the Dolphins. By the time the NFL playoff push begins in November, the Heat’s regular season will be underway with multiple games per week. That will translate into a larger percentage of TV and talk radio time being absorbed with Heat related topics and spectacular highlights, along with related ad spending…all resources that used to belong to the Dolphins.


The only way the Dolphins can offset this is to win. A winning Dolphins team will always be the most popular show in town. If the Dolphins are in contention for a playoff berth, and qualify for the postseason, they’ll get their fair share of coverage and attendance.


The nightmare comes if the Dolphins are out of contention. Even a slow start like last year’s disappointing 0-3 slide out of the blocks could quickly kill public interest past the point of recovery. After all, who but an extreme loyalist will want to put up with another average Dolphin team when there are fireworks and dominating performances to be witnessed at the Triple A? This is especially true during tough economic conditions.


This is the sobering new reality in South Florida: win or become an afterthought. The Miami Heat have now raised the bar. The Dolphins must work harder than ever to respond, because if they don’t, there’s another team in town that will for years to come.



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