SOCCER

David Beckham’s bid to bring soccer to S. Fla. and win over fans is no easy task

 

mkaufman@MiamiHerald.com

David Beckham fits South Florida like café con leche. The global soccer icon and his pop star wife, Victoria, are glitz and glamour personified. They would look perfect sitting courtside at Miami Heat games, and dining amongst the rich and beautiful at Prime 112.

Which is why the thought of Beckham owning a Major League Soccer franchise in Miami has had local fans and media hyperventilating since last June, when he showed up to explore the area (and watch a Heat playoff game) with Bolivian billionaire Marcelo Claure, founder and CEO of Brightstar Corp., a Miami-based global wireless distributor.

The Beckham hype machine was running full steam last Wednesday, when it leaked that Beckham, who had targeted Miami as his No. 1 choice all along, had, in fact, chosen Miami as the place he’d like to bring an MLS team.

As part of his contract with MLS six years ago, he was given the option to buy a franchise for a deeply discounted $25 million upon his retirement. He retired last spring, said he’d like to exercise the option, and word is he hopes to present his plan to the league board of directors by the end of the year.

The Beckham marketing people are masters at keeping his name in the news, so last week’s book launch, a global digital book signing, and the Miami MLS news grabbed worldwide headlines.

Can Miami become a big-time MLS market? That is Beckham’s $25 million question.

Not to mention: Is Beckham’s star power enough to turn the fickle South Florida sports market into a passionate MLS audience? Will Miami’s sophisticated soccer-savvy fans, who lead the nation in TV ratings for World Cups and European league matches, ever care as much about Real Salt Lake as they do Real Madrid? FC Barcelona drew 71,000 at Sun Life Stadium for an exhibition match against Chivas Guadalajara last summer. But will those same fans (some might call them soccer snobs) show up to watch a Miami MLS team play FC Dallas?

Can Miami come close to the Seattle Sounders’ league-leading average attendance of 44,038 — which is double the Mariners’ attendance and would rank second in Major League Baseball behind the L.A. Dodgers?

It is a complicated set of questions, which is why Beckham has spent the past six months vetting potential investors and consulting with business advisors. The project will likely cost a couple of hundred million dollars when you include a stadium and player salaries. Beckham’s management company, 19 Entertainment, is run by British entrepreneur and American Idol creator Simon Fuller, who figures to be a major player in Beckham’s MLS team, if it happens.

Beckham and Fuller are not known to make rash decisions. They do their due diligence. And right now, they’ve got as much homework as a Harvard medical student.

“It ain’t gonna be easy, no matter how big a celebrity David Beckham is,” said Tom Mulroy, president of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, who play in the second-tier NASL. “Yes, Beckham’s huge. He bends over, people write about it. He’s news. He’s a celebrity. And anything that helps the sport I love is great. But it’s not as simple as, ‘OK, Beckham wants to be here, let’s do this.’ ”

Domestic soccer is a much harder sell in South Florida than international soccer. The melting pot of nationalities makes it a natural soccer hotbed, but those immigrants’ hearts remain with their favorite teams abroad. Their perception of American soccer must be changed.

Mulroy has been part of the local soccer scene since he played for the Miami Toros in 1976. He has lived through several incarnations of the Strikers since their heyday from 1977-83, when they boasted stars such as George Best, Gordon Banks, Nene Cubillas, Ray Hudson, and Gerd Muller. He watched the births and deaths of the Miami Gatos, Miami Freedom, the Miami Sharks and the Miami Fusion, one of the original MLS teams, which was launched in 1998 and folded in 2001.

Before joining Strikers management last year, Mulroy spent 20 years as a soccer promoter, pushing everything from youth tournaments to international exhibition matches. He knows what sells down here.

“People aren’t going to fill a stadium just because Beckham is the owner,” Mulroy said. “I remember when Carlos Alberto, from the World Cup-winning Brazil team, came to Miami to coach the Miami Sharks at Ted Hendricks Stadium, and they didn’t draw 400 people. Nobody goes to watch the coach, and people don’t go to watch the owner.”

Mulroy said for MLS to work in Miami, Beckham will have to “build a watch with every single part working.” He needs to put together an ownership group with vision and commitment, Mulroy said, and find a perfectly situated stadium that offers a first-class experience like Heat fans find at AmericanAirlines Arena.

“Stadium hospitality used to mean a hot dog and a beer, now it means sushi and champagne,” he said.

Then, he will need to lure “a handful of sexy big-name players” to attract South Florida’s knowledgeable and demanding soccer fans, many of whom would rather stay home and watch world-class players in European leagues on TV than drive to a local stadium and watch what they consider an inferior brand of soccer.

Beckham surely can find the right partners. Potential investors have contacted him from as far away as the Middle East and Far East. He has met with Claure on a few occasions since June, and they continue to negotiate. Claure owns Bolivar, the biggest team in Bolivia, and has been trying to bring pro soccer to South Florida for many years.

The stadium issue seems to be the biggest hurdle. Beckham toured Sun Life Stadium and FIU Stadium during his June visit. Neither is the perfect solution.

Sun Life Stadium was built to accommodate soccer by Joe Robbie, who loved the sport. It is the perfect venue for big international matches, and it has plenty of skyboxes. A crowd of 67,273 showed up in August to see Chelsea against Real Madrid in the International Champions Cup final. A Mexico vs. Colombia friendly match drew 51,615 last winter.

But the average MLS crowd (18,594) would get lost in the cavernous building.

Claure is on the board of trustees of FIU, and Beckham met with school leaders there, who believe their stadium is the perfect fit.

“Our presentation to Mr. Beckham addressed two things: Why Miami? Why FIU?” said FIU Athletic Director Pete Garcia. He cited the campus’ central location and easy access to soccer-crazed pockets in West Dade, Kendall, Doral and Homestead.

He said 61 percent of the school’s 52,000 students are Hispanic. “We could fill the stands with our students alone,’’ he said. “And big new dorms are being built directly across from the stadium.”

But league sources are not keen on FIU or Sun Life as permanent homes. They have told potential investors they prefer a privately-funded soccer-specific stadium of 20,000 to 30,000 seats, if possible in an urban area with restaurants and shopping nearby.

According to two sources, Beckham’s people have explored the option of using Marlins Park as a temporary home until a permanent stadium is built. Scheduling would be difficult, as MLS and MLB play in the summer, and the field would have to be reconfigured. But the location and amenities are attractive.

Meanwhile, a London-based investment group led by Italian financier Alessandro Butini is also making a pitch. Butini is partnering with the University of Miami School of Architecture to develop ideas for a viable soccer-specific stadium, and launched a website — MIA4MLS.com — to drum up fan interest.

Butini had an exploratory meeting with MLS commissioner Don Garber in New York early this year and Garber told him a soccer-specific stadium in the right part of the city was paramount for a successful bid. Butini said his plan would include a privately funded stadium.

His partners include Marco Novelli, who has been successful in real estate ventures, and Suzie MacCagnan, a former New York financial advisor who more recently has brokered deals between foreign investment groups and English Premier League clubs.

“Commissioner Garber told me the stadium is the biggest variable, the No. 1 priority, so I am tackling that issue head on,” said Butini, who gave a presentation to UM architecture students and a few local architects on Monday.

“MLS is looking for an 18,000- to 20,000-seat venue with covering for the fans, good drainage, FIFA compliant, luxury suites, and first-class media facilities,” he said. “I told the UM students we’d be looking at a $70 million budget for a project like this, knowing that it would likely cost closer to $85 million.”

The UM students will present their final project in early December.

MLS is hoping to add four more teams by 2020. A New York City team owned by the New York Yankees and Manchester City, an English soccer club, will join in 2015. Groups in Orlando and Atlanta are also lining up bids, with Orlando in the lead.

Orlando City SC is set to join MLS after Orange County commissioners voted last week to direct $20 million toward the construction of a new 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium. MLS president Mark Abbott said last Monday that Orlando will be awarded a team shortly after the stadium deal was finalized.

And so, South Florida fans will sit and wait for Beckham’s next announcement.

“I am excited about owning a team . . . continuing to be part of the MLS in the future,” Beckham said last week. “Miami excites me because I think it’s a city that is very excitable. I’ve been to watch the basketball there. I’ve seen the [NFL’s Miami] Dolphins play. It’s a city where the people in the city love their sport.”

Question is, will they love MLS?

“Can Beckham make this work? Yes, I believe he can,” Mulroy said. “People here want first-class, and Beckham is first-class. He has brilliant people working with him. But he’s got to do it right. People here have heard every song you can sing them. They won’t settle for anything but the best.”

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