During his first scouting mission last May, David Beckham sat courtside for the Miami Heat’s crucial Game 7 NBA play-off battle with the Indiana Pacers. You’ll often see celebrities adorning those privileged seats, but this was different.
Whenever his handsome mug appeared on the big screen, the crowd erupted. He responded politely with a wave, before flashing his trademark blush and ‘aw shucks’ grin. Then came the moment. With victory in the bag, Miami withdrew the world’s best player, LeBron James, from the action. ‘King James’, a giant of world sport, stopped to embrace the Englishman on his way to the bench.
The ovation almost took the roof off a packed American Airlines Arena. In Miami, if you’re good with LeBron, you’re good period. In the coming years, Beckham aims to be the architect of such rapid sporting adulation here in the Sunshine State.
On Wednesday he announced bold plans (albeit somewhat less advanced than many had expected) to bring his own world-class Major League Soccer team to Miami, and build the city a brand new stadium by 2017.
Ask anyone on the streets of Miami if they know who David Beckham is and they’ll smile and say “of course!” However, on Wednesday the widest smiles belonged to the supporters who’ve campaigned for the return of professional football to Miami since former MLS side the ‘Fusion’ folded in 2001.
Every kind of happy
“I’m every kind of happy you can imagine,” says Max Ramos-Paez, of a local supporters group dubbed the Southern Legion. “Here is a guy who has the money, has the passion, who wants to bring world-class players here and who doesn’t know how to lose. With a brand new stadium in downtown Miami, there’s no limit to how far this thing can go. With Beckham on board it could be huge.”
“Soccer is ingrained in the community,” he continues, before a big celebration at an Irish pub where the group gathers to watch live games. “Drive around the city neighbourhoods and all you’ll see is people playing soccer. Those people are all are going to want to be part of this.”
Southern Legion: Not quite the Jackson Jaguars cheerleaders
Part of the big Miami MLS sell is the presence of a large football-obsessed European and Latin population. In a city where English is practically a second language, football gets a much higher billing.
A pre-season Chelsea vs Real Madrid game at the Miami Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium drew 67,000, while more recently, Brazil vs Honduras had a bumper crowd of 71,000. England play two warm-up games there before the World Cup.
So the stage has been set for big-time football - but is MLS really big-time enough?
“They say the Latinos and Europeans here love soccer. They do, but they don’t love MLS. It’s still a big step below the top leagues,” says Gabriel Aquirre, a Miami office worker.
Non guardo la MLS, mi piacciono Premier e Liga. Se porta Ronaldo a Miami, allora la guarderò...
- William Condesso, barista di Fort Lauderdale
“I don’t watch the MLS, man,” confesses William Condesso, a café owner in neighbouring Fort Lauderdale. “I like the Premier League and La Liga so haven’t paid much attention to the Beckham thing. Perhaps if he gets Ronaldo to play for Miami, then I’ll watch...”
The city of Miami is different to most in the United States. A high percentage of people born in the area are first generation native Floridians, meaning traditional handed-down sporting loyalties aren’t as common. To succeed, Beckham’s must make this Miami’s team, not just a team in Miami.
“It’s different down here. If you’re a Pittsburgh [Steelers, NFL] fan, it’s in here,” declares 22-year-old Alvaro Nunez, tapping his chest. “I’m Uruguayan, I live in Miami, but my heart is with my team at home.”
Miami: Mad About Soccer?
Nunez works in the Mad About Soccer store on Miami’s picturesque waterfront. Walking into the store, shoppers are blinded by a kaleidoscope of colourful Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Chelsea shirts. The MLS kits are tucked away at the back. “Occasionally we’ll get a tourist come in and ask for an LA Galaxy shirt,” he adds.
Interestingly, few had visited the store in the excitement of Beckham’s announcement on Wednesday, although that may be down to the announcement being widely pre-empted.
Becks arrives in Miami with typically little fanfare
However, as a result of the ephemeral nature of its population, Miami teams have a reputation nationwide for having ‘fair-weather fans’. If the product isn’t good, the backsides disappear from seats. That’s something Beckham will doubtless encounter with his as-yet nameless and stadium-less franchise.
“Miami is a big event city,” says David Hyde, a respected veteran sports reporter at the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. “If David Beckham can make it an event, that goes a long way to making something a success here.
Tutti si preoccupano di Beckham, ma dovrà portare grandi campioni e dovrà far vincere la squadra. Altrimenti...
- David Hyde, giornalista sportivo del Sun Sentinel
“One of the great mysteries of Miami is working out who shows up to what. The Dolphins are having trouble drawing fans, the Marlins [baseball team] are drawing nobody. Before they got LeBron, Heat attendances were up and down too. People care about Beckham enough to give it their attention, but he’ll need a good team because no one’s coming just to see him more than once.”
"We'll bring great players"
Beckham himself reckons he has the answer, claiming “great players” have already been on the phone asking when they can sign up. “We’ll bring great players who want to live and play in Miami. Who wouldn’t?” he remarked.
Some might say those not wishing to play in a less competitive league.
As a player, the midfielder’s move to LA Galaxy, when he still had plenty of miles on the clock, changed the game in this country. As an owner in Miami he’ll need to convince more real stars to follow suit.
“I heard he wants to sign Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] for 2017,” says Alvaro Nunez. “That’d be interesting. People will come to see great players. If my knees were better I could make the team too!”
Beckham poses with with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos Gimenez
It isn’t just those expensive household names on Beckham’s radar; he also vows to create a world-class academy to nurture local talent. In this regard he’s farming on perhaps the most fertile ground in the US. Miami, with its year-round good weather, is notorious for producing professional athletes. Currently 43 NFL players are University of Miami alumni, according to ESPN.
Vogliamo avere grandi campioni e crearli con il nostro settore giovanile. Diventeremo grandi!
- David Beckham
“We want local talent, children who believe they can reach the top to play in MLS for the US team, the Mexican team or whichever country they’re from,” Beckham said.
While the gamble on South Florida is a risk for Beckham and his investors, the city’s local government is in a relaxed mood as the former England midfielder has pledged to privately fund the new stadium in gorgeous downtown Miami.
“I really think Miami has absolutely nothing to lose in this equation,” declares County Commissioner Lynda Bell, who chairs the county’s sports commission. “We have a global star and a group who are willing to build their own stadium and franchise with their own money. We have a ‘wait and see’ attitude but we’re very, very excited.”
‘Own’ money is key. The public remain wounded by Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria’s vow to build a competing team were he afforded $490m to build a new stadium. Half a season later, he traded away the team’s biggest stars. Fans felt hoodwinked and, as a direct consequence, the Miami Dolphins were refused funding to revamp Sun Life Stadium, meaning no more lucrative Super Bowls in South Florida.
Team Beckham’s desire to foot the bill (although we still don’t know where he’s at with investors) could go a long way to rallying the community.
“This instantly makes his team more popular than the Marlins, who used to mean something before what Loria did,” says Southern Legioner Ramos-Paez.
He and other fans remaining from the doomed Fusion era affirm it was bad ownership and a stadium outside Miami that was the problem, rather than supporter apathy. This time, they say, it’ll be different.
“People talk about bandwagon Miami fans, but we didn’t have a real chance before,” he says. “This will be our team. People will want to be part of it.”
Beckham also believes in Miami, but does enough of Miami believe in him for this to truly work? If history is anything to go by he’ll be given the chance to prove it, but if Becks doesn’t produce a winner quickly, the city will quickly go looking for the next big thing.