Miami-Dade County

Soccer’s Miami push revving up again, with Marlins Park on top of list

David Beckham, (center), Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber (left) and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez hold a press conference touting the prospects of bringing professional soccer to Miami in this file photo from Feb. 5, 2014. In the months that followed, two potential stadium sites were rejected, leaving the Beckham group to continue hunting.
David Beckham, (center), Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber (left) and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez hold a press conference touting the prospects of bringing professional soccer to Miami in this file photo from Feb. 5, 2014. In the months that followed, two potential stadium sites were rejected, leaving the Beckham group to continue hunting. El Nuevo Herald

Major League Soccer’s on-again, off-again flirtation with Miami appears to be back on, after a string of well-publicized social outings by David Beckham and some closed-door meetings by partner Marcelo Claure.

Photographers have managed to catch Beckham throughout his Miami trip, starting with his arrival Sunday at Miami International Airport. Monday night he was sitting next to Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine at a birthday party for fashion magnate Tommy Hilfiger. The two chatted about soccer, and Levine said Beckham gave a tacit thumbs-up to the idea of building a professional soccer stadium next to Marlins Park.

“He mentioned it,” Levine said. “I think he has a sense of openness and willingness to anything.”

Claure, Beckham’s soccer partner and the newly appointed CEO of Sprint, had dinner with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez last week and a private meeting with Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. Regalado said Claure talked to him about a new wireless Internet initiative for Miami, as well as about soccer. He said Claure talked of two potential stadium sites: land next to Marlins Park, and property in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood at a location that Regalado couldn’t identify. Levine said Beckham also mentioned a potential Overtown stadium site.

The Marlins Park option has been a favorite for political leaders since last year’s botched efforts to bring Major League Soccer to PortMiami or downtown Miami’s waterfront. Miami already owns parking garages that serve the baseball park built where the Orange Bowl used to stand, and the city also owns parcels surrounding the stadium that could be part of an assemblage for soccer.

Marlins Park also would bring the potential for Beckham’s team to sign the University of Miami as a partner, with the soccer stadium doubling as a football field for the private school. When the football program left the Orange Bowl for a new home in Sun Life Stadium, fans largely booed the move and UM was in talks with the Beckham group about moving football to the soccer stadium if it landed downtown.

The Beckham team’s embrace of Marlins Park marks a significant messaging change. Last year, when they were pursuing prime land at PortMiami, Beckham partner Simon Fuller famously called Marlins Park “spiritually tainted” when opponents of the port option brought up the baseball site as an alternative.

In a statement released Tuesday, Beckham’s Miami-based publicist, Tadd Schwartz, downplayed the timing of Beckham’s visit and Claure’s meetings.

“Miami is one of David’s favorite cities and he has numerous business interests and friends here, so he visits as often as possible,” the statement read. “David and his partners very much appreciate the strong support we’ve received from our fans and the league as we work hard to bring an MLS club to Miami-Dade. Our plans are on course and we hope to have positive and significant news for you soon.”

Regalado said he sees the Marlins Park option as workable, given the existing parking garages and the fact that Miami owns much of the real estate needed for the stadium. “There is plenty of room to do it,” he said. Earlier this month, Miami-Dade commissioners passed a resolution instructing Mayor Gimenez to try to negotiate a stadium deal with the Beckham group for the Marlins Park site.

“I really feel confident we can do it,” said Rosario Kennedy, a Miami lobbyist for the Beckham group. “Marlins Park is an historic location. And Overtown with soccer would [be] an economic boost to the area.”

A source close to the Beckham group said the plan is to field a team no sooner than 2017, but with the 2018 season being the more likely target date. Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer, said he plans another trip to Miami in pursuit of a stadium deal.

“David and his partners are continuing to work hard to finalize plans for a new stadium, and we are supporting them in their efforts,” said Garber, who was headed to Minneapolis for Wednesday’s planned announcement of an MLS team for that city, bringing the league’s franchise total to 23. “As we have said previously, we believe that with the right stadium and David’s passion, leadership and business acumen, Miami will be a great MLS market. We plan to visit Miami in the coming months and will meet with David and local officials.”

But if last year’s stadium hunt ended in a bust, the politics of soccer haven’t gotten easier in 2015. Backlash against the 2009 financing deal for Marlins Park remains high enough that Beckham’s team and government officials are still wary of latching soccer’s fortunes to the baseball facility, which may help explain why the option is usually referred to as “ the former Orange Bowl location.”

Meanwhile, the two mayors involved are in a proxy political campaign as Mayor Regalado’s daughter, school board member Raquel Regalado, is challenging Gimenez in the 2016 mayoral race. Mayor Regalado said the county’s recent overture toward a Marlins Park deal left him a little mystified, since Gimenez was instructed to broker an agreement for property under the control of a different government.

“The county passed a resolution to Gimenez: Make a deal with the Marlins site,” Regalado said. “The problem is all the land around the stadium belongs to the city of Miami.”

Asked about Gimenez’s private dinner with Claure, mayoral spokesman Michael Hernández said they discussed “the future of MLS in Miami-Dade County.”

“Mayor Gimenez continues to enthusiastically support bringing MLS to our county and will work with MLS and the Beckham United Group to make the dream of MLS in Miami-Dade a reality,” Hernández added.

While Miami controls the land, Miami-Dade would likely need to sign off on taking possession of the property in order for the Beckham group to avoid property-tax bills, said Bruno Barreiro, the county commissioner who sponsored the soccer resolution. Barreiro said he wants to create a special taxing district around the soccer stadium to fund a major expansion of the county’s Metromover transit system to serve both the new arena and Marlins Park.

Streets around the ballpark would also need to be redirected to make the site work. But the large inventory of publicly owned land would hand Beckham the prospect of scoring a stadium site without having to pay market rate for land elsewhere in the city. When Beckham and his representatives launched their efforts early last year, they pledged to fund construction of the stadium itself as long as the government provided a site for reasonable rent.

“The Orange Bowl is the one that I think is the path of least resistance,” said Barreiro, whose county district includes Marlins Park. “It’s already government owned.”

Another potential complication is Claure’s new day job. The billionaire tech mogul was named CEO of Sprint in August, months after the first soccer push collapsed. His ongoing soccer pursuit recently brought him an unflattering magazine profile, and people who have talked to him say he is wary of another political fracas in Miami.

In his meeting with Regalado, Claure said he didn’t want a drawn-out period of speculating where an MLS stadium might go.

“He said: ‘We’ve been looking for sites and we need to have answers in the next few weeks,’” Regalado said. “He didn’t say we want to do it here or there. He said, ‘We need to make a decision in the next few weeks.’”

Miami Herald staff writer Michelle Kaufman contributed to this report.