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David Beckham makes presence felt at Miami Heat game

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were not the only famous athletes at AmericanAirlines Arena for the Heat-Pacers playoff game Thursday night.

Global soccer icon David Beckham, in town exploring possible Major League Soccer expansion, sat courtside as a guest of Marcelo Claure, the Bolivian billionaire owner of Brightstar Communications who tried in 2009 to bring an MLS team to Miami.

Although an expansion team would be years away, and nobody knows where the team would play, the possible partnership of Beckham, an A-list celebrity worth an estimated $275 million, and soccer-savvy Claure has local fans abuzz.

A group calling itself “MLS Miami Bid” organized a pre-game rally to welcome Beckham to Miami and display the local fans’ passion for the game. About 75 fans decked in soccer gear chanted “Vamos! Vamos Miami!”, carried MLS Miami banners, and waited outside an arena gate for nearly three hours expecting a greeting from Beckham. They — and members of the media — had been told Beckham would stop by to say hello. Neither he nor Claure showed up.

Nevertheless, they felt Beckham’s interest in Miami was reason for excitement.

“He’s a walking billboard, definitely has pulling power, and if he wants a team here, I think the community would get behind him,” said Ed Serrano of Kendall, wearing a jersey of the defunct Miami Fusion.

Michael Hook and Darren Jury, tourists from London, stumbled upon the gathering after buying tickets to watch the Heat game. “Having Beckham bring a team here would be a massive plus, wouldn’t it?” said Hook. “He gets followed wherever he goes. He’s iconic. Doesn’t get any bigger.”

Beckham is said to be researching Miami, Orlando, San Antonio and a few other cities.

“From what I understand, [Beckham] is visiting cities, including Miami, to explore the possibility of MLS expansion,” said former Miami mayor Manny Diaz, who has been a longtime advocate of pro soccer in Miami. “At this point, it’s very early conversations. I don’t know what will happen, but it’s terrific that he is looking at our city as an option.”

When Beckham signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy six years ago, the contract included an option to buy an MLS franchise for a discounted price believed to be $25 million. There have been reports he would buy the Galaxy and move back to California, where his family was very happy. But he also happens to love Miami’s beaches and international flair.

It’s no secret MLS would like a team in the southeastern United States. There is no East coast team south of Washington, D.C., and Miami is a soccer-crazed market that would serve as a gateway to Latin America. The league once had two teams in Florida — the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny, both of which folded in 2001.

Orlando is pushing aggressively for an expansion team, and league officials say that market has the edge right now over Miami, which is known to have a strong passion for international soccer but has not proven yet to be as supportive of domestic teams. There is also the question of where the team would play. FIU Stadium and Marlins Park have been mentioned as possibilities, or a soccer-specific stadium could be built.

“Our focus is on the second team in New York [in 2015], and Orlando City SC’s owners are very aggressive about bringing an expansion team to Central Florida,” MLS vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche said last week. “We’d love to be in South Florida at some point, but we currently do not have any specific plans for an expansion team in Miami.”

Thus far, there have been no talks between Beckham and Sun Life Stadium officials, according to Charlie Stillitano, CEO of Relevant Sports, the soccer arm of Dolphin owner Stephen Ross’ RSE Ventures.

“It makes sense that Beckham would look at Miami because people here love soccer and MLS has no team in Florida,” Stillitano said. “Lots of European and South American players have condos here and this is a hot city for soccer fans. The key is to convince the classic Miami soccer fan to support MLS. The stadium has to be right, the ownership has to be right. If they have that, it could work.”