Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Privately funded stadium great for soccer fans and taxpayers

David Beckham’s quest to bring an MLS team to South Florida reached a milestone Friday, July 17, 2015 with an announced proposal of a 25,000-seat stadium just west of Marlins Park.
David Beckham’s quest to bring an MLS team to South Florida reached a milestone Friday, July 17, 2015 with an announced proposal of a 25,000-seat stadium just west of Marlins Park. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Privately financed. Those are the two words that jumped out Friday as the city of Miami reached a stadium agreement and moved a significant step closer to having a Major League Soccer franchise. To so many taxpaying South Floridians, those are the two essential words that matter most.

What’s left is details, albeit important ones.

Miami commissioners and perhaps voters still must approve the deal that Mayor Tomas Regalado announced as “a milestone” for the city.

The proposed 25,000-seat stadium just west of Marlins Park, on city land near where the old Orange Bowl once stood, still must get built.

The soccer team itself must take shape by degrees, selecting a name, hiring a coach and acquiring players, prior to debuting in 2018.

The University of Miami, once a prospective partner in the stadium to play football games there, is not a part of the new deal. That door was left ajar, but the university’s insistence on a minimum of 40,000 seats and its long-term lease with Dolphins stadium make a partnership extremely unlikely (and always has).

For now, nothing was more important as a starting point Friday than those words “privately financed” to describe the stadium funding. The construction cost, projected at around $250 million, would be borne by the investment group fronted by soccer icon David Beckham and deep-pocketed by Marcelo Claure, a Miami Beach resident who is CEO of Sprint, the telecommunications giant. Forbes in 2014 estimated Claure’s net worth at $925 million. (Heck, he might be a billionaire by now on interest alone).

“The time is now,” said Claure, dramatically, of Friday’s announcement. “This is the moment of truth.”

The proposed stadium’s neighbor, Marlins Park, completed in 2012, infamously was not privately financed, with many critics believing that taxpayers bore much too much of the $650 million cost. The controversy is a big part of why Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria remains the most disliked, mistrusted team owner in Miami sports history.

The soccer team’s ownership has avoided what would have been a certain backlash, furor and political morass by agreeing to pay for their team’s home.

Friday’s step forward was nearly a year and half in the making. It was 17 months ago when Beckham, the English heartthrob, announced he’d been granted rights to an MLS franchise and aimed to place it in Miami.

The Marlins Park/former OB site represents a compromise by him and his group. Much preferred (understandably) was a downtown waterfront site along Biscayne Bay, perhaps by the port.

The investment group once criticized the Marlins Park/former OB site as “spiritually tainted,” in fact, alluding to both the controversy over Marlins Park funding and the razing of the once-hallowed OB.

Sometimes you take what you can get, though. Even if you’re David Beckham.

So “spiritually tainted” becomes “realistically feasible.”

What all involved are getting is significant.

A soccer-only stadium (with no UM involvement) is preferable.

The location, though it won’t enjoy the surrounding aesthetics a waterfront site would have, is good.

Most important, Miami would be joining a growing league, and South Florida’s diverse demographics would give the team a big chance of support and success.

MLS is Level 1pro soccer, the best brand of the sport in North America, and has grown to a 20-team league scheduled to grow to 24 by 2018. The league is established now, profitable and increasingly respected. Average attendance at MLS matches last season was bigger than in the NBA.

Things were much different in our previous dalliance with MLS, with the Miami Fusion in 1998-2001. The league was much less stable then, the Fusion played at undersized, decrepit Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, and ownership was shaky.

Now MLS is much stronger, so is this ownership group, and South Florida’s interest in soccer is quantifiable. Marquee international exhibitions regularly have drawn 50,000-plus to Dolphins stadium. Our World Cup TV ratings led all U.S. cities.

The Dolphins and Heat won’t be displaced atop our pro sports landscape, but there is reason to imagine a successful Miami MLS team might surpass the hockey Panthers in popularity or even eventually challenge its neighbors, the Marlins.

Friday’s step forward is encouraging partly because it starts with those two words to describe the soccer team’s new home.

Privately financed.

No need for taxpayer revolt or rancor this time.

No need for picketing or lawsuits.

If this thing works out, you needn’t spend a dime on this team until you buy your first ticket.

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