David Beckham flashed his megawatt smile for hundreds of flashbulbs Wednesday morning in Miami, confirming he’d exercise his option to buy an MLS franchise for the below-market value of $25 million with a target of starting play in 2017. This is no surprise and has been rumored for months. It also doesn’t mean MLS will be coming to South Florida — again — any time soon. Beckham and his investors want to build a privately-funded stadium on public land at PortMiami, which the city would have to approve. Details beyond that remain vague.
Beckham made a lot of headlines on Wednesday, but his MLS ambitions aren’t a fait accompli for a city still angry about the deal it cut with Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria to build Marlins Park. It means there are still plenty of questions and reasons to be leery about Beckham and MLS targeting Miami.
Before digging in, let’s throw out the argument that MLS won’t succeed in South Florida based on the contraction of the Miami Fusion in 2001. For one, the Fusion played in Fort Lauderdale as opposed to downtown Miami, which is significant. More importantly, the climate for MLS in 2001 compared to 2014 is completely different. Although MLS fails to rate on television, it’s product and in-game experience have grown by leaps and bounds. Look at it this way: MLS still used it’s silly penalty kick shootout to break ties as late as 2000. Now the league is on sound financial footing, with New York City FC paying a $100 million expansion fee and Toronto FC shelling out untold millions to bring Michael Bradley into the fold.
Knocking Miami as a “sports town” remains fairly easy to do. Unless you’re Dan Le Batard, the city doesn’t have too many defenders with a national platform. It’s not hard to write or tweet something along the lines of “Miami is a terrible sports town full of front runners” and get a laugh, however misinformed that opinion might be in reality.
Whether or not Miami’s reputation is fair or not is one thing. The numbers, however, don’t paint a very lovely picture. The Dolphins finished 21st in NFL attendance this year, playing to only 86 percent capacity. The Marlins — in year two of their new stadium — were 29th, with only 52.2 percent capacity in 2013. The Florida Panthers are currently 27th in NHL attendance. The good news? The NBA champion Heat are fourth in attendance, playing to above 100 percent capacity.
Miami, it would seem like most cities in America, is more inclined to spend money to go watch a winner play.
During his press wooing on Wednesday, Beckham insinuated star players want to come to Miami — obviously the South Beach nightlife is a big draw for soccer players. Given MLS’s roster rules, where a team can only sign three Designated Players who don’t count toward the salary cap, how many stars in their prime will a Beckham-led MLS team be able to attract? It’s hard to envision the South Beach nightclub scene would trump playing in the UEFA Champions League — how much whipped cream-flavored vodka can one person consume in their life?
And beyond that, how much of a draw for ticket-buyers will Beckham have as an owner? Sure he’ll be able to scoop up investors, such as Bolivian billionaire Marcelo Claure and who knows, maybe even LeBron James, but are fans going to buzz through the turnstiles because the famous, occasional underwear model is the club’s owner or might wave from his luxury box every once in a while? It worked — at times — with Beckham as an MLS player, but it seems a little less of a slam dunk as an owner.
Claure, it would seem, is the guy pulling the strings behind this. He’s been nosing around South Florida to invest in MLS the last couple years, but piggybacking off Beckham’s star-power appears to be how he’ll get a foothold into the market.
When I spoke with Ray Hudson in August, he said that for Miami to be a viable soccer town it needs stars. Beckham is a star and a recognized name, but how long will it translate in the market? Or any potential market for that matter? A team owner can lend some money and credibility — to a point — but for a club to have success it needs much more than that wherever it opens up shop.
As we’ve seen, success in MLS tends to come organically. Places like Seattle, Philadelphia and (after a rebranding) Kansas City have been runaway successes. Yet teams like Colorado, Dallas and Chicago have built their own soccer-specific stadiums and failed to create a lot of buzz. Beyond that MLS hasn’t been able to successfully tap into the New York market since 1996 with the MetroStars/Red Bulls — remaining a distant afterthought in the city’s sports’ landscape. Still MLS will bring another franchise to Gotham with Manchester City-backed NYCFC in the coming years.
A downtown stadium sounds nice in theory and Beckham’s plan at the PortMiami could make for some picturesque views, even if it includes a half-mile walk for fans in the middle of the summer. Terrance McCoy in the Miami New-Times described the potential site as “traffic hell.”
Something else to consider: MLS will welcome Orlando City FC into the league in 2016. After ignoring the “southeast” for years, the region — specifically Florida — could potentially be home to a pair of clubs. For all its glitz, Miami is only the 44th largest city in America, sandwiched by Omaha and Oakland. A place like Phoenix, sixth in total population, doesn’t have a team, nor do places like Charlotte, Atlanta, St. Louis or even Indianapolis or Oklahoma City. Granted Miami is a destination for players, but with its size and famously fickle fans is it the right place to expand?
Without Beckham’s name — and the sweetheart deal the league gave him back in 2006 — it seems unlikely. That said, tapping into the Miami market would likely be impossible without Beckham’s brand. Will that brand alone be enough to get the deals done and make MLS soccer work in Miami on its second chance?