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.