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Beckham buzz grows: soccer star tours Miami stadiums, meets mayor

David Beckham toured Sun Life Stadium Saturday morning, and then visited FIU Stadium for an hour and a half, signs that he has more than just a passing interest in Miami as a Major League Soccer expansion city.

While at FIU, Beckham was greeted by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who gave him and his manager Simon Fuller keys to the city. FIU Athletic Director Pete Garcia led Beckham on a tour of the stadium, and then the school made a formal power point presentation over lunch, touting FIU’s location, 20,000-seat soccer-ready stadium, and its largely Hispanic soccer-loving student population.

Among those in attendance were FIU President Mark Rosenberg, Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe’’ Diaz, Jose Sotolongo, executive director of the Miami-Dade Sports Commission, and FIU soccer coach Kenny Arena, whose father, Bruce Arena, was Beckham’s coach with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Beckham posed for photos with a group of diehard local soccer fans who have been lobbying for years to bring MLS to Miami, and also with some football players who were participating in an FIU kicking camp.

The iconic former English captain has been in town since mid-week, exploring the city with Marcelo Claure, the Bolivian billionaire owner of Brightstar Communications who tried in 2009 to bring an MLS team to Miami. Claure is on the FIU Board of Trustees. They sat courtside for Thursday’s Heat-Pacers playoff game, and have had conversations with Dolphin owner Stephen Ross’ RSE Ventures and other local sports officials.

A source with knowledge of those meetings said Beckham is “clearly very interested and serious’’ about the possibility of returning MLS to Miami. The league’s previous Miami team, the Fusion, was intended for the Orange Bowl, but wound up playing at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale and folded after four seasons in 2001. The Fusion’s average attendance its final season was 11,177.

Beckham retired last month, is reportedly worth $275 million, and is looking for new business ventures. When he signed with the Galaxy six years ago, the contract included an option to buy an MLS franchise upon retirement for a discounted price believed to be $25 million. He has said he plans to exercise that option and is researching potential markets, with Miami being very high on the list.

Other markets interested in MLS expansion include Orlando, Atlanta and San Antonio. Orlando has plans for a $105 million soccer stadium in downtown, and its minor-league team, Orlando City, is averaging crowds of 8,300 this season. Beckham could also opt to take over the Galaxy, as his family has enjoyed living in Los Angeles.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has said it is a priority to add a team in the Southeastern United States, although there is no timetable. New York is getting a second team in 2015, so any Miami expansion would likely be after that. There is no East coast team south of Washington, D.C., and Miami is a passionate market that would serve as a gateway to Latin America. South Florida had the highest U.S. television ratings for the past two World Cups and also for the European Champions League telecasts.

Claure partnered with Spanish giant FC Barcelona in 2009 for a Miami MLS bid, but it didn’t work out. He remains determined to get a team here.

“Our presentation to Mr. Beckham addressed two things: Why Miami? Why FIU?’’ said Garcia. “There is no doubt Miami deserves an MLS team. Marcelo Claure is a big key for us. His passion for soccer in South Florida is unmatched, and with him being on the FIU board, we have been talking about bringing MLS here for a long time. FIU is the perfect venue, and with David Beckham and Claure involved, that’s the perfect combination.’’

Garcia 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.’’

He pointed out that the stadium was built to FIFA’s soccer specifications and that FIU would be willing to install natural grass if that’s what it took to get MLS there. Right now, the stadium has artificial turf. He said the stadium design allows for easy expansion, if need be – “We can add on like a Lego set,’’ Garcia said.

Sun Life Stadium is also built to FIFA specifications, has fancy suites, loads of parking, and has the benefit of having hosted crowds of 50,000-plus for international soccer matches in the past few years. The inaugural Guinness International Champions Cup Aug. 6-7 at Sun Life Stadium features seven of Europe’s most famous teams, including Spain’s Real Madrid and Chelsea of the English Premier League. An MLS expansion team could tap into that database of ticket buyers.

“David Beckham is the only one who can really make it happen in Miami,’’ said Roberto Sacco, who runs the semi-pro Miami United soccer club. “With his charisma and fame, and all the people who love soccer in Miami, it seems like the perfect partnership. Miami soccer fans want a big-time team, and Beckham and Claure can make that happen.’’