Miami-Dade County

How Miami almost lost David Beckham’s soccer stadium. And what’s next for the site.

Partners of the Miami MSL team Marcelo Claure, left, and David Beckham congratulate fellow partner Jorge Mas, right, while being greeted by MSL commissioner Dan Garber during the announcement of the new Miami MSL team on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, inside the Knight Concert Hall at The Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.
Partners of the Miami MSL team Marcelo Claure, left, and David Beckham congratulate fellow partner Jorge Mas, right, while being greeted by MSL commissioner Dan Garber during the announcement of the new Miami MSL team on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, inside the Knight Concert Hall at The Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.

Last fall, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure set up a meeting with David Beckham, his celebrity partner in a bid for a Miami stadium for Major League Soccer. The agenda: whether to finally kill the effort after four years of local pushback on stadium sites and league resistance to giving Beckham and partners a significant discount on the $150 million MLS expansion fee.

“We were very close to losing this,” Claure recalled Monday, minutes before joining Beckham and other partners for a triumphant announcement in downtown Miami celebrating MLS approval of the expansion franchise. “I took a breakfast meeting with David. It basically was to call it a day. Then we looked at each other, and said: ‘Do we really want to kill it? Should we give it one more shot?’ 

Claure said he returned to an email that Miami business titan Jorge Mas had sent him on Nov. 7, pitching his role in the soccer bid after a failed effort last year by the Mastec chairman to buy the Miami Marlins.

[David Beckham began his Miami stadium quest in 2013, and it continues nearly five years later. Read a Miami Herald recap of his pursuit.]

That correspondence amounted to what Claure described as a last-minute lifeline to rescue the teetering Miami deal, which was on the verge of collapse after the former lead investor, Todd Boehly, pulled out over league resistance to his proposed majority stake in Beckham’s discounted expansion franchise. Mas and his brother José, CEO of Mastec, joined the partnership after a New Jersey dinner with Beckham, Claure and others, informally sealing a deal that led to confetti cannons, fan chants and an official MLS celebration Monday welcoming Miami as the league’s 25th team.

“Let’s be honest: It was very difficult at times,” Beckham said from the stage of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, his red-soled Louboutin shoes pivoting on a piece of confetti launched minutes earlier to celebrate MLS approval of the franchise. “There were times when, like Marcelo said, there were setbacks and we said this is not going to happen. It’s too difficult, too hard. But I don’t give up.”

Monday’s announcement sought to retire four years of drama over Beckham’s Miami ambitions, with the new leadership of local business executives paving the way for constructing a 25,000-seat stadium with private dollars on private land without government subsidies.

Even so, the Beckham partnership does not yet fully own the nine-acre site in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood announced in late 2015 as the franchise’s chosen location. In private discussions, the Mas brothers have had discussions about other potential sites. The city of Miami must approve zoning changes and street closures required to build the open-air stadium where Northwest Sixth Street meets Sixth Avenue, and the Beckham group has until later this year to fully close on three acres of Miami-Dade land needed to complete the site.

At Monday’s scripted event, with speakers reading off prompters on the stage floor, the word “Overtown” was not used. In interviews conducted before the event, both Mas brothers and Beckham responded to questions about Overtown by confirming it remains the partnership’s choice for a stadium site. “You know where the site is,” Beckham said. “That’s where we’re going to be playing.”

One potential complication could come in the courts. Bruce Matheson, a wealthy activist who was a driving force behind the Miami Open tennis tournament abandoning a county park in Key Biscayne for the Miami Dolphins stadium in Miami Gardens, owns land near the Overtown site and has already sued to try and block the county’s sale of the three-acre site.

A trial judge ruled against Matheson last fall, saying Miami-Dade properly followed the state’s economic-development laws in negotiating a no-bid deal with Beckham and partners in exchange for the stadium pledging local hiring and contracting goals. Matheson is appealing the ruling, and the city zoning process would give him and neighbors a chance to litigate on another front.

At a press conference after the Arsht event, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez stopped short of describing an Overtown stadium as a sure thing. The Beckham group won permission to buy the county property for $9 million last year, but has until later in 2018 to close on the purchase.

“They still have to purchase our land in order to finish the process. I believe that’s where it’s going to be,” Gimenez said. “But I don’t own the team. I believe that’s where it’s going to be in the end. But again being [the Mas brothers are] fairly new, if I were in their shoes, I would do my due diligence on every site.”

The Beckham group began their soccer quest in 2013 with public appearances in Miami as Beckham portrayed himself scouting for sites, though the conventional wisdom was he and partners wanted to build at county-owned PortMiami. That was their official choice after a hyped opening ceremony in downtown Miami almost four years to the day ahead of Monday’s event. That event at the Perez Art Museum Miami also featured MLS scarves distributed by MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

Political troubles followed: The cruise industry blocked the port site, and city and county leaders were unable to deliver a fallback option of the Miami waterfront. The Beckham group settled on land next to Marlins Park in Little Havana, then abandoned it for Overtown over what the partners said was private landowners demanding too much money for their real estate by the baseball stadium.

“It was very, very complicated. It’s a difficult city with the political structure. You had multiple mayors with multiple jurisdictions,” Garber said Monday. “There were many times we were at death’s door.”

That was all before the Mas brothers joined in November, and now the Beckham group has investors with significant political backing. Jorge Mas serves as chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, an advocacy group that promotes a hard-line policy toward communist Cuba and serves as a leading voice of Miami’s Cuban-American policy. He also is a fixture in local political circles. Before he took the stage Monday, Mas planted a kiss on Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s cheek.

The Mas brothers became Beckham’s partners after dinner at an Italian restaurant in New Jersey, close to where they had flown in on private jets for the evening. “We had a lot of pasta, and a lot of wine,” Claure said.

Jorge Mas most recently was pursuing a purchase of the Miami Marlins, losing out to Derek Jeter. He said Monday that failed deal led to his Miami soccer bid. In the Marlins pursuit, Mas said he shared bankers with some MLS owners, and that Garber later reached out to ask about interest in joining Beckham’s MLS franchise. Mas said he got a call last fall from someone close to the process saying MLS wasn’t coming to Miami. Mas said he then reached out to Marcelo on the email with interest in trying to rescue the venture, saying he was only interested if Claure remained as a partner.

Part of Beckham’s contract for joining the fledgling MLS in 2007 as a star recruit for the Los Angeles Galaxy was that he could purchase a franchise in retirement at the then-franchise fee of $25 million.

The rapid rise in franchise value became a sticking point for existing owners as Boehly, a billionaire and co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, would reap an instant reward by acquiring the bulk of Beckham’s team at the discounted price, according to insiders in the Beckham camp.

“We really didn’t have the right structure for the ownership group … and the right capital behind it,” Garber said in a joint interview with Claure, Beckham, and other partners, including entertainment mogul Simon Fuller.

Garber and others declined to reveal how the addition of the Mas brothers resolved the simmering rift with MLS over the team’s ownership structure. But Garber said the Beckham group needed partners that were “all in for MLS,” suggesting fellow owners wanted Beckham’s investors to put up a more equal share of dollars to enter the league.

Whatever the specifics, Jorge Mas took center stage at Monday’s announcement as the closing speaker. “Dreams are realized where freedom reigns,” said Mas, after the unveiling of a banner featuring Miami’s Freedom Tower, an icon of the city’s exile community. “This is a cultural mosaic. We are the melting pot of the world and the Americas. We represent what is the best of America…We deserve to be the best soccer city in the world.”

Related stories from Miami Herald