David Beckham’s interest in starting an MLS franchise in Miami had long been rumoured, but it was only on Tuesday that a report from the Associated Press affirmed the former LA Galaxy midfielder’s intentions to bring topflight soccer back to South Florida.
Devoid of MLS since 2002, when the Miami Fusion were controversially contracted due to financial difficulties, Miami had been pegged as the ideal location for Beckham ever since new first came out that his original five-year contract with the league contained the option of buying an expansion franchise, in any market expect New York City, for the discounted fee of $25 million.
Widely considered one of the prime untapped soccer markets in the country, efforts have been made over the past few years to return MLS to Miami, including an ambitious but ultimately ill-fated attempt by FC Barcelona, as well as a campaign began by fans of the South Florida Strikers, who currently ply their trade in NASL.
Neither bid may have got off the ground but Miami’s potential to be a major player amongst a growing MLS fraternity was never lost on league officials, with Commissioner Don Garber keen to stress at any opportunity that the plan was always to return to South Florida.
Despite the City being saddled with a ‘fair-weather fan’ reputation, Miami’s large Hispanic population (a 64.7% share of the metro area – by far the largest in the country) has always made it an appealing location for MLS but many argued that, after the failure of the Fusion, a franchise would only be able to succeed if it bought the big names with it. Clearly Beckham’s is one of those which will be able to draw fans, even when only working behind the scenes, while South Beach is certainly an attractive destination for any potential big-name designated players.
There are however a few fairly significant hurdles for Beckham’s camp to clear before they can eventually seal an expansion franchise. Firstly, the high financial demands dictate that a number of other co-investors will need to be in place. Beckham’s long-time business partner Simon Fuller is widely believed to be part of the consortium, while Bolivian-born millionaire Marcelo Claure, who tried unsuccessfully to engineer the Barcelona bid, has also been in talks and in fact joined Beckham in looking at potential stadium locations around the Miami area last June. Miami Dolphins owner Steven Ross has also recently been rumoured to be involved and other sources say that Beckham is even speaking to investors from as far afield as Qatar, Singapore, and Japan.
With all these names involved, Beckham’s investment group certainly won’t be short of cash, thought that still does not solve the obvious issue of a stadium plan. The recent debacle with the Miami Marlins likely means that a publically-financed stadium will not be popular, while real estate in the area for a proposal this expansive will certainly be a precious commodity. Some have proposed that the team could play at FIU Stadium for the first couple of seasons (as the Barcelona bid originally planned to) before moving to a new venue but that would be a far from ideal situation and one MLS would likely wish to avoid, given its 20,000 capacity, poor location and turf. The league has made it abundantly clear in the past that a soccer-specific stadium is a requisite for any potential franchise and, though the recent New York City FC bid was hazy in this regard, it would still feel mighty hypocritical if MLS simply allowed Beckham’s group to waltz in without any sort of plan in place.
The $25 million expansion fee which is being quoted is also likely to stir up questions of favourable treatment and even resentment in some quarters. While the figure may have been originally written into Beckham’s 2007 contract, back when the fees where considerably lower, it is still unlikely to sit well with some that a group with such obvious financial clout should have to pay only 33.3% of what the Orlando City bid is having to pony up to join the league.
Beckham’s involvement in MLS is an obvious coup for the league but, when others with well thought-out proposals but fewer resources are desperately trying to find a way in, it certainly doesn’t seem right that a group of multi-millionaires should get such an easy ride.
With both Orlando City (whose own stadium bid was recently approved) and NYFC planning to begin play in 2015, reports are that Beckham hopes his team will be ready for the 2016 season. That currently feels a rather overly ambitious goal, yet after Garber’s comments in July that the league intends to expand to 24 sides by the end of the decade, it’s clear that the league is moving fast in its plans for further growth.
Atlanta is another city which has been linked with a franchise, with Falcons owner Arthur Blank behind the bid, and recent images of the new stadium set to open in 2017 have included renderings of a soccer field made for the purposes of hosting MLS matches. If that were to eventually occur, the previously vacant Southeast region would jump to three teams in a matter of years and have instant rivalries to match those which have made the Pacific Northwest (with the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps) such a soccer hotbed and major draw for the league.
However you want to look at it, Beckham’s involvement is certainly another major coup for MLS and a sure sign of their intent to grow to the point where they can challenge the other major professional sports in the US. Names like Beckham’s are always going to attract headlines and interest, as has already been demonstrated during his playing career, and having him on board for the future does the league’s profile a world of good.