Matt Higgins: You might not know the name, but you know his game.
The 66,000 soccer fanatics who packed Hard Rock Stadium — and the millions more who tuned in around the planet — for El Clasico last July certainly do.
Higgins, who walked the halls of power in New York City just years after dropping out of high school, runs RSE Ventures, an investment and business incubation company he started with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross in 2012.
But more specifically, Higgins was one of the driving forces behind bringing Real Madrid and FC Barcelona to Miami, the realization of U.S. soccer dream some three decades in the making.
And good news, soccer fans: Miami’s footprint on the global scene is only going to deepen.
The Brazilian men’s national team, which has made Hard Rock its second home, will almost certainly be back this summer. No need for the qualifier with RSE’s International Champions Cup, the global preseason club soccer tournament. Higgins promised five matches at Hard Rock, including one involving “one of the top teams in the world.”
But soccer is just the beginning of Higgins’ vision to meld the worlds of sports, entertainment, technology and food.
Here’s what else he, Ross and Dolphins brass have in the works:
▪ Miami’s signature tennis tournament will remain in South Florida, moving to the Dolphins’ Miami Gardens stadium from Key Biscayne in 2019.
▪ Drones race through Hard Rock Stadium with what organizers call “the fastest course ever designed,” putting Miami on the ground floor of a nascent, but growing sport.
▪ New York’s popular chicken shop Fuku has a location in the stadium and &pizza, a D.C.-based pizza chain that embraces inclusive, progressive causes, will have a stand at Hard Rock in 2018.
▪ Along with investor/author/Internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk, RSE is hosting semi-regular conferences at Hard Rock, the first being a one-day marketing seminar back in November that brought together stars of the real estate, insurance and automotive industries.
But that’s just the start. Formula One racing could very soon be invading the streets of Miami. RSE Ventures is rumored to be involved in efforts to bring the world’s top auto racing circuit to South Florida.
League representatives were in town in November scouting locations. It would make sense that RSE and Ross have interest, since they tried to buy the league just three years ago.
Higgins, over a recent breakfast at the Fort Lauderdale W Hotel (of which Ross is an investor), would not comment on where things stand with Formula One, but the sense of people involved is the odds are good that the race will indeed come to Miami — and perhaps sooner rather than later.
Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, said “we are looking at potential Grand Prix markets around the world,” but had no update on Miami specifically.
“My role and the priority of the company is to connect the dots and drive value to the region by new business opportunities, massive events that wouldn’t otherwise be taking place,” Higgins said. “Everything kind of flows organically from the step that came before and there’s a lot of value you can unlock by putting together an infrastructure to take advantage of serendipity and opportunity.”
The best example: the ICC soccer tournament, which began as a one-off friendly in Miami between Barcelona and Chivas. It has since blossomed into a 14-team field with matches in the United States, Europe, China and Singapore. RSE not only puts on the matches, but produces the broadcast and sells the TV rights around the globe; the matches air domestically on ESPN.
And in 2017, the tournament finally caught its white whale: El Clasico, the mega-match between Spain’s top two clubs. While the game was little more than a glorified scrimmage, it was still probably the most anticipated soccer match held on American soil since the 1994 World Cup final — and certainly the biggest ever held in Miami.
Fitting, because neither Ross, 77, nor Higgins, 43, think small.
“When we created RSE Ventures, one of our main goals was to drive economic value and improve the economy in South Florida through bringing international events to Miami,” Ross said. “We’ve used Hard Rock Stadium to be a hotbed and incubator for innovation that drives value for companies, ideas and entrepreneurs. Matt and I want to continue to position Miami as a global entertainment destination in the most aspirational city in the world with each new event.”
At an age most are well into retirement, Ross began work on Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in U.S. history.
Opulent Hudson Yards, with its 16 skyscrapers, is a long way — figuratively, if not literally — from the Queens neighborhood of Bayside, where Higgins grew up broke with his ill mother, Linda.
He dropped out of high school at 16 to make extra money for the family, got his equivalency diploma, took the SAT and began taking night classes at Queens College. Seven years later, Higgins graduated with a political science degree. By that point, he was already an award-winning investigative reporter at the Queens Tribune.
One of the Higgins’ stories caught the eye of people working for then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, leading to a job. (He also somehow found time to graduate from Fordham Law.)
Higgins quickly worked his way up the political food chain, and in April of 2001, Giuliani named Higgins the youngest press secretary in city history.
Five months later, terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, and his life changed again. He helped rebuild New York, running the communications shop for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.
The work was rewarding, sure. But it was not very fun. So when the New York Jets came calling, he picked up the phone. Eight years later, the Jets had a new stadium and practice facility, and Higgins — who served as executive vice president of business operations — deservedly got a lion’s share of the credit.
But the entrepreneurial spirit is in Higgins’ DNA — his grandfather Charles was an inventor — and knew he wanted to help create something new.
So he teamed with Ross, a titan in New York real estate and billionaire owner of the Dolphins, to create RSE Ventures, which identifies promising companies and either invests in them or buys them outright.
But he’s no empty suit. Higgins, a founding member of Ross’ anti-racism RISE initiative and board member of Austism Speaks, wants the companies that join RSE Ventures to have a heart as well as make a buck.
“Investment capital and track record aside, Matt’s persistent support of our company’s long-term vision, balanced perspective on near term growth and an unwavering commitment to the company’s values have been immediately impactful,” said Michael Lastoria, the co-founder of &pizza, which prides itself as “an anti-establishment establishment” that pays its staff a “living wage.”
Higgins is also a survivor of testicular cancer, but famously only took one day off work after surgery.
Higgins, a distance runner, has since slowed down — some — and instead has a business plan built for the long haul.
“Matt and Steve, they’re really good dudes,” Vaynerchuk said. “You’d be blown away. ... We’re doing business like it’s the 1950s, not the 2020s. No Excel spreadsheets. All three of us are running a marathon.”