Major League Soccer is once again betting on David Beckham to spread the world's most popular sport in the U.S.
The former MLS star is set to announce this week that he is exercising his option to buy a team and will establish the franchise in Miami. Beckham has scheduled a VIP reception tonight to garner support in south Florida as well as a news conference tomorrow alongside MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez.
Beckham has apparently been considering owning a team for years. In 2007, when MLS brought him over from Real Madrid to headline the Los Angeles Galaxy, his contract included a clause that gave him the right to purchase a team for just $25 million. The deal is contingent upon the acquisition or construction of a privately funded stadium, which is still up in the air for Beckham's ownership group. In November, however, the London Mirror reported that Beckham planned to develop a 75,000-seat arena in South Florida that would not be completed until at least 2016.
As of now, the favored site to house the stadium is PortMiami, a major seaport bustling with cargo and passenger ships that was the world's busiest cruise port in 2013. According to the New York Times, the plot is owned by the county and had been marked for commercial development, meaning Beckham's group might have to fork over market-rate payments to compensate for the loss of public revenue. Miami is experiencing a real-estate boom that has sent land prices skyrocketing, which is sure to present an obstacle for a privately financed stadium. "We are not asking the city or taxpayers for public funds," Jeff Raymond, vice president of Rogers & Cowan, which represents Beckham, wrote in an e-mail. Financial considerations aside, it's a smart move politically, given the lack of support for subsidizing sports franchises after the debacle with the Miami Marlins' $639 million, taxpayer-funded stadium. (Gimenez himself was extremely vocal in his opposition to the Marlins deal.)
If you're looking to expand soccer's reach, you couldn't find a better spokesman than Beckham, whose international brand is enough to ensure buzz and interest in the team in its initial phases. The league is hoping he can follow in the footsteps of Magic Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Mario Lemieux, former athletes who now own professional teams in the sports or cities that made them famous and have managed to parlay their star power and savvy personnel decisions into bottom-line and playoff success.
Even with Beckham's name recognition, however, soccer could face an uphill battle in Miami. The Miami Fusion, the last MLS club in south Florida, was disbanded in 2002 after losing $250 million in its first five years. At the time, Fusion owner Ken Horowitz described the challenges his team faced in building loyalty: "The fan base is very diverse down here, and many people simply don't have local ties to the area and have trouble identifying with the local sports teams," he said. "They typically identify more with the teams from states or countries they might have come from."
One would think that Miami-Dade County, which boasts a 64.3 percent Hispanic population, would be an ideal breeding ground for soccer, a sport that enjoys worldwide success and is especially popular in Latin America. The Fusion's flop, coupled with the monumental disaster that is the Marlins (another team whose sport is wildly popular in the home countries of the city's ethnic population), doesn't bode well for Beckham. But it's not 2002, and Beckham isn't Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins owner who has never been shy about scorning taxpayers and fans in the name of shameless profit. MLS clearly believes in the reach of Beckham's brand, which at the very least can attract Miami's international glitterati and turn a south Florida soccer game into a place to see and be seen. And as the fan base of the flighty but currently emboldened Miami Heat demonstrates, local success is as much about spectacle as it is about winning.
It's a gamble worth taking, on both a sports star and a city well known for their sex appeal.
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