Welcome to Miami? The bruising story of David Beckham's battle to become football's first superstar owner
Since this story first appeared on the cover of FourFourTwo in August 2018, Beckham’s Miami franchise has been christened as Club Internacional de Futbol Miami – or simply ‘Inter Miami’ to you and FFT. Now, read on...
During the week of David Beckham’s final appearance for LA Galaxy in the 2012 MLS Cup, the 37-year-old player made a scheduled appearance in the media room at the StubHub Center. Displaying that well-honed projection of shy steeliness that has become his public-speaking trait over the years, Beckham held court about his time on the pitch in Los Angeles as he contemplated heading into his last ever match with the team.
The desk in front of Becks was littered with journalists’ dictaphones and smartphones set to voice memo mode. At one point, one of the phones rang with an incoming call. Beckham smiled along with the press pack at the interruption and joked, “Do you want me to answer it?” Then, spurning the chance to join what’s since become one of the recurring comic memes of the modern game, he quickly put the phone down and giggled, “It’s not Samsung – sorry, I can’t.”
It’s a moment that still resonates when you wrestle with Beckham’s legacy so far in the United States. For any other footballer, that kind of comfortable attendance to brand ethics could have seen him dragged in the media as everything-that-is-wrong-with-the-modern-game™. For Beckham, though, it’s a mode that’s long been accepted as coming with the territory – over the years he’s somehow managed to turn his incredible personal portfolio of business interests and profile-building into a virtuous sign of his work ethic.
Beckham and long-time business manager Simon Fuller have seen to it that the many hours he’s spent posing for photographers have fed the popular reverence for his hard work as much as those spent pinging free-kicks after training. In many ways, that’s a studied part of David Beckham’s legacy – his insistence on the bigger picture in all things frames the conversation for his critics, too.
You could have a perfectly valid technical criticism of late-period Beckham’s perception of himself as a Tom Brady-esque quarterback, for example, by pointing out the excessive running and tackling his team-mates had to do to make up for Beckham languidly occupying the pocket he sprayed his passes from. But you’d always be aware, or soon be made aware, that without Beckham there would be no Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa nor Kaka in MLS. Perhaps no modern MLS as we know it.
So assessed with one lens, he did fine (two MLS Cups in five seasons without ever personally making himself a MLS legend for his exploits as a player). Assessed with another, he fundamentally transformed the game in America. That suits him fine.
And now, never mind what he did on the pitch, David Beckham is trying to build a club of his own…
A world before Beckham
First, a hint of historical context. The single-entity structure of Major League Soccer means players sign a central contract with the league, rather than negotiating strictly with an individual team. When Beckham was unveiled as an LA Galaxy player early in 2007, the fact that this contract included a future option to exercise an MLS franchise at a fixed cost of $25 million was remarked upon as a kind of vanity concession, and not seen as the bargain it looks today.
MLS, at that stage of its history, was in a far more precarious place than it is now. The fledgling league had already made a few gauche mistakes in its initial incarnation after the 1994 World Cup. The legacy of penalty shootouts, countdown clocks and other novelties inserted in pursuit of a suburban market had blighted the league’s credibility with more serious fans in and beyond the USA, without building the kind of anticipated fan loyalty to appear sustainable. And when the post-9/11 economy took a nosedive going into the 2002 season, the league even faced the possibility of folding.
Prior to that campaign, the league’s owners and recently-installed league commissioner Don Garber met at a hastily convened summit and agreed on drastic emergency measures. The two sides struggling in Florida’s fickle market, Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny, were to close immediately, essentially losing an arm to save the body. The 10 remaining teams would be consolidated under the ownership of Phil Anschutz’s AEG group, the Hunt family, and Robert Kraft.
Elsewhere, a marketing arm for MLS and US Soccer, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), was set up to help bring in additional television and marketing revenue.
Under the new arrangement, Anschutz now owned the majority of teams in the struggling league. He also agreed to invest in a stadium for one of them – LA Galaxy. This being before the days of the league insisting on downtown locations as a prerequisite of expansion deals, he erected the then-Home Depot Center (later StubHub Center) in the bland LA suburb of Carson, and he and his fellow sports industrialists dug in for an expected long journey back to solvency.
A few years later, at the moment when an ambitious AEG executive, Tim Leiweke, pursued and then landed Beckham, progress had been slow. The two teams lost during the 2002 contraction had eventually been replaced in 2005 by Real Salt Lake and an awkwardly conceived spin-off of Mexican giants CD Chivas Guadalajara, called Chivas USA. The former are a vibrant but decidedly small-market team, while the latter existed as awkward room-mates at LA Galaxy’s new home and, following an ill-starred and frequently ill-defined decade, would also fold towards the end of 2014.
The turning point
So how did we reach the current mode of rapid expansion? If you ask league insiders today about that period, they’ll talk about 2007 as the inflection point – an account that sits well with the announcement on January 11 of that year that David Beckham would be swapping Real Madrid for the Galaxy. But the bigger structural moves, and the ones that Beckham and Fuller’s 21 Management have evidently monitored all along, were already happening.