David Beckham dreams of an iconic stadium on the shore of Biscayne Bay. Tens of thousands of ardent fans walk over from the mainland to watch some of the world’s best footballers playing for Miami’s own Major League Soccer team.
That vision is still far from becoming a reality. But Wednesday, Beckham took a significant step toward his goal: MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that Beckham, a retired English player, will get an expansion franchise, and its home will be Miami — if Beckham and his investors score a new stadium.
Nothing will be made final until that takes place — probably not for months, if at all. The team wouldn’t start playing until 2017, most likely.
Yet, in starstruck Miami, those caveats did little to tamp down the frenzy that surrounded Beckham’s visit.
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“This is an exciting time,” Beckham said at a crowded news conference. “It’s something that we’re really looking forward to bringing to Miami.”
He was welcomed by Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who pointed to five county commissioners in attendance as evidence that there is some political support for a new stadium.
“The world’s most popular sport is coming to the world’s hottest city,” Gimenez said.
Several hundred people, including British reporters and staunch MLS fans, gathered on the patio of the new Pérez Art Museum Miami with an unobstructed view of Beckham and his investors’ preferred site for a 25,000-seat stadium: the southwest corner of PortMiami.
“We don’t want public funding. We will fund the stadium ourselves,” Beckham said to applause.
Fund the construction, perhaps, but the tract of land at the seaport is owned by the county. The Miami Beckham United investment group is seeking a deal with Gimenez’s administration to build on the property.
The investors have also hired Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard to ask for a state subsidy. Beckham told the Miami Herald that the team wants a Florida sales-tax rebate “to be treated exactly like every other sports franchise.”
“There will be a certain amount of funds from that, but, yeah, the build of the stadium is privately funded,” said Beckham, who would become the first former MLS player to join the ownership ranks as the new team’s managing partner.
He also told the newspaper that he is open to the possibility that the University of Miami Hurricanes football team, who have had trouble filling the Miami Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, could someday play at an MLS stadium.
“That’s definitely one of the options,” he said. “We want this to be a stadium that Miami, the city of Miami, can be proud of. And I think we can achieve that solely with soccer, but if there’s other things like you say, you know, there’s always options.”
Beckham exercised an option in his MLS contract — he played six years and won two titles with the LA Galaxy — to purchase a franchise for a below-market $25 million. His investors include his business partner, Simon Fuller, who created American Idol, and Marcelo Claure, the Miami-based billionaire chief executive of the global wireless distribution firm Brightstar Corp.
Local politicians still feel burned by the public financing deal many of them approved for the Miami Marlins — an agreement so unpopular that it contributed to the ouster of a former county mayor.
Nevertheless, Claure told the Herald that, if private investors are going to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to bring soccer to Miami, then local government needs to have some skin in the game.
“They have to contribute a site; we have to contribute a stadium,” Claure said. “Other cities are contributing sites and stadiums. There are very few private sites left. This is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world that doesn’t have a team.”
The Miami Fusion folded in 2001, in part due to poor attendance. And even with Beckham’s star power, a new team remains risky. Fans here are notoriously of the fair-weather variety. Before LeBron James arrived in 2010, not even the National Basketball Association champion Miami Heat sold out all its games.
Beckham said he thinks soccer can succeed because a stronger MLS has grown steadily since the Fusion’s demise. So has Miami, which has become younger and more international.
“I wanted to create a team that we can start from scratch,” he said. “I know this city is ready for football — soccer — this time around.”
Beckham cited the Heat’s recent success as a model, saying he has spoken to Heat owner Micky Arison and seen how top-shelf players can lure fans. While he wouldn’t name any players on his wish list, Beckham said some have reached out to ask when the new Miami team will kick off.
As part of his plan, Beckham would also open a local youth soccer academy to train the next generation of home-grown talent — benefiting not only the Miami franchise but also the U.S. men’s national team. Beckham was mobbed by children, parents and reporters Wednesday afternoon when he visited Kendall Soccer Park.
Earlier in the day, Beckham courted the business community by showing up as a surprise guest toward the end of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon.
“I was sitting near the front row and was almost run over,” said Jack Lowell, a former Chamber chairman. “I haven’t seen that kind of enthusiasm at the Chamber in a while.”
Beckham also courted the grass roots, joining an online video chat with the Southern Legion, a group of dedicated MLS fans that planned a party Wednesday night on Brickell to celebrate the day’s announcement.
“This is the furthest along we’ve ever been” to getting a team again, fan Brian Corey, 28, said at the morning news conference.
Fans cheered when Beckham said his group intends to build a stadium near the public transit hub in downtown Miami — even though some politicians have questioned potential traffic gridlock and parking nightmares.
Elsewhere across the globe, Beckham said, fans create a sense of community by trekking on foot to see their teams.
“Football fans — soccer fans — they love, you know, to commute. They love to walk,” Beckham said. “I’m hoping that’s the same in Miami.”