David Beckham, investors hire Tallahassee lobbyist for Miami soccer push

01/10/2014 4:45 PM

01/11/2014 10:55 AM

In their campaign to establish a Major League Soccer franchise in Miami, retired footballer David Beckham and his investors have repeatedly pledged to stay away from public funds.

But that promise only applied to county dollars.

The investment group, as expected, plans to seek state funding for a downtown Miami stadium and has hired a top Tallahassee lobbyist to help out.

Brian Ballard will work on behalf of Miami Beckham United to pursue a state sales-tax subsidy similar to what other professional sports teams across Florida have received for building new facilities.

“We’ve been retained to make sure that Miami Major League Soccer is treated like every other professional sports team in the state,” Ballard said Friday.

He wouldn’t specify how much the investors might request — the funds are considered a rebate of sales taxes collected at qualifying stadiums — but the number is expected to be similar to past deals for other teams.

In the 1990s, for example, the Miami Dolphins received a $2 million annual subsidy over 30 years to retrofit Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens for baseball.

Beckham’s representatives won unanimous approval from Miami-Dade County commissioners last month to begin negotiations with Mayor Carlos Gimenez over potential stadium sites — under the condition that the investors don’t ask for any local money. Talks have not formally begun.

The top location mentioned privately by Miami Beckham United, the local corporate entity for Beckham Brand Limited, is the southwest corner of PortMiami’s Dodge Island, which is owned by the county. Gimenez has said any potential agreement to lease the land to a soccer franchise would require a rent payment — and not a token lease of, say, $1.

Vowing to keep their hands off local tourism taxes was key for the county, where any public financing for sports teams has been a political hot potato since Miami-Dade signed off on a generous deal for the Miami Marlins’ Little Havana ballpark.

But now Beckham and company must deal with similar skepticism in Tallahassee, following the Dolphins’ failed attempt last year to obtain an additional state subsidy to renovate Sun Life Stadium and add a canopy.

Several franchises tried to compete for funding last year, but legislation went nowhere after the Florida House of Representatives wrapped up the annual session without a Dolphins floor vote. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has since drawn further ill will by lashing out at House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and targeting Miami lawmakers who opposed the public financing.

But Ballard said a Miami soccer franchise could be successful in the state Capitol because it wouldn’t be asking for any different than other teams have already received for new stadiums.

“You can succeed in Tallahassee if you have a reasonable, responsible request,” Ballard said. “You don’t try to over-ask. You don’t try to demand too much.”

The Dolphins, in additional to lobbying for local hotel-bed taxes, had asked for an additional $3 million annual state subsidy over 30 years. Their funds for the Marlins retrofit end in 2023. The baseball team moved out in 2011.

For Beckham’s team to obtain funding, lawmakers would first have to add Major League Soccer to the state’s list of professional sports teams. A state representative tried to make the change last year — and secure a subsidy of up to $2 million a year for 20 years for an Orlando franchise — but the effort stalled.

Last year, MLS announced an expansion Orlando team. The league has also sounded supportive of a Miami rival owned by Beckham, who retired from MLS last year with an option in his contract to purchase a franchise for a discounted $25 million.

After adding soccer to the list of sports, legislators would have to craft a competitive funding mechanism for new franchises to apply for the sales-tax funds, Ballard said. If a soccer franchise makes the case that it’s going to generate more money than it would receive in its subsidy, then legislators have an incentive to grant the funding.

“There’s little policy difference between the Tampa Bay Rays, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Tampa Bay Bucs — the original funding they received —and Major League Soccer,” Ballard said.

“We’ve very confident there’s going to be legislation moving that’s going to address this.”

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