Welcome to Miami? The bruising story of David Beckham's battle to become football's first superstar owner
By 2007, Anschutz had begun the process of divesting his ownership of teams – most notably flogging his New York team, the Metrostars, to the Red Bull group in March 2006. And perhaps most significantly of all, the huge Canadian sports group Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Partnerships (MLSE) made the decision to invest in an MLS franchise in Toronto, who debuted three months after Beckham’s announcement.
And while that team would face an arduous journey to their current reputation as perhaps the best MLS side ever assembled – existing as a byword for on-field dysfunction for much of the first decade of their history – the symbolic presence of MLSE immediately loomed large for potential investors.
There was, after all, something of a noblesse oblige spirit about that first generation of Anschutz, Hunts and Kraft circling the wagons as the league haemorrhaged money – sports industrialists protecting their legacy as much as their bottom line.
But MLSE and Red Bull, or new major sponsors such as Adidas, had no sentimental stake. If they saw an upside, ran the investor logic, the future might be bright after all. That, more than even the high wattage star power of Beckham, was the starting pistol for the current period of expansion. That’s not to disrespect or downplay Beckham’s influence or cultural significance of his contribution. It’s simply to note that it’s clear the player and his team fully appreciated themselves – cultural capital doesn’t build stadiums.
But it could buy the discounted right to. And in inserting a clause in his initial MLS contract allowing him to purchase a future franchise for $25m, Beckham, as always, had his eye on the bigger picture.
Welcome to Miami
When Beckham sat on a stage with Mayor Carlos Gimenez of Miami in January 2014, to announce that he had exercised his contractual right to an expansion option by selecting Miami as his chosen city, the ex-player’s star power was in full effect. The mayor was grinning widely at the political coup, and the footballer was full of modest charm and well-aimed platitudes. And if the project sounded long on ambition and short on detail, so what? Details could be ironed out.
However, as the months and eventually years passed by, a deeper unease began to attach itself to the project — an unease that had as much to do with Miami and Miami politics as it did with Becks’ ability to engage with the same.
At times the dynamic seemed reminiscent of the scene in 1999 film Any Given Sunday where Cameron Diaz, heiress to the fictional Miami Sharks NFL team, finds herself being lectured to by the mayor as she agitates for stadium funding: “You are a relative babe in this town. Go slow. First you get along, then you go along.”
Time and again, Team Beckham tried to pin down possible stadium sites sheerly through the power of Beckham’s celebrity, only to rapidly run into unimpressed realpolitik of getting things done in a contested corner of South Florida.
Occasionally Beckham has appeared to be on a learning curve about where and how to leverage his presence as a now ex-player. So he would make a noticeable courtside appearance to watch LeBron James play for Miami Heat, for example, and would prominently seek out LeBron’s counsel. King James, meet King David. However, Becks might have been better served chewing the fat with Micky Arison, who owned both Miami Heat and the Carnival Cruise group operating out of Miami near the Heat’s downtown waterfront arena.
When Beckham and his associates eventually picked a particularly ambitious waterfront stadium site of their own in 2014, they quickly found themselves dashed by myriad groups. They included objections from cruise companies and smaller businesses, plus a gun-shy local government who were reluctant to make any funding concessions on a new stadium deal.
Miami’s history of sports, and especially sports business, has tended towards the toxic – in fact, the city having already lost an MLS team merits barely a footnote in that history. Arison’s deal with the city for his basketball arena had attracted its fair share of criticism, but by far the greatest shadow over Beckham’s ambitions was the Florida Marlins.
The Marlins’ stadium deal has since become a byword for lopsided public-private funding disasters, and all talk around Beckham’s Miami plans have inevitably been coloured by the experience.
In short, the Marlins’ ownership managed to persuade Miami-Dade County to put its residents on the hook for an eye-popping $2.4 billion in compounded repayments, for a new baseball stadium in the city’s economically depressed Little Havana neighbourhood.
The stadium deal offered economic vitality for a neighbourhood around a flagship ground showcasing a winning team, celebrating Miami’s sporting vitality. Instead, upon completion of the venue, the ownership promptly commenced a fire sale of the team’s best talent, never to be replaced. The team remains mired in mediocrity, while the taxpayers remain mired in debt.
It’s no wonder that Miami Beckham United has struggled to get any traction with the city’s politicians – with many mindful of the fate of Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was recalled by voters in the wake of the Marlins scandal.
Where Beckham and his team have not always helped themselves is in appearing to underestimate the nature of that battle. The initial high-profile scouting missions and selfie opportunities, prominently featuring Beckham, seemed to dwindle as the project stalled.
At the moments when they needed a political offensive more than a charm offensive, city officials seemed mildly bewildered at the lack of contact not just from Beckham, but from the telecoms billionaire backing him, Marcelo Claure. Not for the first time in his career, Beckham had found himself being dismissed as more front than substance.
The league appeared to be getting a tad agitated, as well. No press conference for Don Garber could pass without the obligatory Miami question, though the line of questioning morphed from “What’s the timetable on getting this done?” to “How much time are you prepared to give him to get this done?”
Meanwhile, the league’s expansion process continued apace. It was accelerated by a divestment process by AEG and the Hunt family that left each group with only one side apiece, and the league dealing with a culture shift towards a generally younger, entrepreneurial group of owners. They were now paying the type of expansion fees that made Beckham’s $25m look like an absolute bargain.
By the time New York City FC and Orlando City entered the league in 2015, the price of a seat at the table had risen to $100m. And when heavy-hitting Atlanta Falcons NFL team owner Arthur Blank entered the fray with Atlanta United in 2017 – promptly smashing attendance records – and a second LA team was introduced at a gleaming new downtown stadium in 2018, the lingering option retained by Beckham stood out on the landscape.
On the one hand, it now seemed like incredible value for the player and his team, and a loss leader for the league; on the other hand it was a project that could never seem to build momentum to cash in on that value. And while the league never publicly admitted as much, the value of Beckham himself was a less certain quantity now that he wasn’t doing the thing which gave his brand meaning.