Lure of Beckham, Miami no longer appealing for in-demand MLS

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

As investors line up for expansion franchises, David Beckham's heavily discounted Miami bid looks like bad business for MLS.

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It is not a great week to be David Beckham.

English tabloids have been in a frenzy over a trove of allegedly hacked Beckham emails that leaked out in various European publications over the weekend. Supposedly hacked from the former player’s publicist, Simon Oliveira, prior to a subsequent blackmail attempt, the leaked content principally relates to Beckham’s desire for a knighthood and his apparent assumption that a quid pro quo exists in the British honor system, whereby for a fixed amount of charity work he would soon arise as “Sir David.”

When said honor recently failed to materialize, an unimpressed Beckham allegedly wrote to Oliveira with his verdict of the honors committee: "They’re a bunch of c**** I expected nothing less... Who decides on the honors? It’s a disgrace to be honest and if I was American I would of [sic] got something like this 10 years ago…” 

Leaving aside the sensational aspects of his language, and whether the latter claim is true or not, the 10-year remark has some resonance here.

The MLS which David Beckham arrived into in 2007 was cravenly excited by his transformative potential. The MLS which Beckham hopes to arrive in as an owner is a different animal.

The 10th anniversary of Beckham being announced as a future LA Galaxy playerrecently passed. But as Beckham and his advisors spent the past weekend contending with the potential fallout to "Brand Beckham," caused by the alleged email revelations, they may or may not have been aware of another significant Beckham-related anniversary passing them by.

On Feb. 5, 2014, Beckham stood on a stage in Miami with a “thrilled” MLS Commissioner Don Garber, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, to announce that he had exercised his contract option to purchase an MLS franchise, and that he had chosen Miami as the city to host the team.

Beckham’s speech that day was pretty typical of his public persona — he spoke with that familiar steely version of humility about his ambitious plans:

“We don’t want public funding…we want to create a stadium, we want to create a soccer team — a football club — that is a people’s football club, it’s as simple as that.”

The last few days have offered ample reminders to Beckham that it’s rarely as “simple as that” when other agendas are involved. And as the Miami project has hit delay after delay, one consistent parallel with this weekend’s revelations has emerged — team Beckham overestimating just what his extensive social capital translates into in real-world terms. 

Delay after delay: The political red tape

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Miami is a notoriously fickle sports market, and the publicly-funded fiasco of the Florida Marlins’ stadium (with costs over time expected to rise as high as $2.4 billion) was always going to haunt any of the political calculus around Beckham’s proposals. 

Beckham is now in his fourth stalled attempt to acquire land for a stadium. The recurring pattern from the start from the Beckham United team has been a curious mix of aggression and diffidence from the start. The initial ambitious plans for a downtown waterside venue were always going to require extensive lobbying and appeasing of corporate neighbors to come to fruition, but Beckham’s team was conspicuous by its low profile at the local level. 

Intentionally or not, it suggested that the Beckham name alone was intended to make any stadium plans a fait accompli, which hardly generated the political will to ease local opposition. When a cruise company objected to the first proposed stadium site, based on the impact game-day foot traffic might have on its embarkation point, it could have been a routine battle line being drawn for negotiations on the territory. That’s the nature of stadium deals — anywhere worth locating them comes with competing claims on the terrain. Instead, the opposition stalled the proposal in the Photoshop phase, and it was onto the next venue, then the next, then the next…

Miami politics and Miami real estate can be difficult, but they are not totally intractable. This is demonstrably true even in the sports market, and even after the Marlins added insult to injury with the fire sale of players that followed their stadium build.

In the three years since Beckham’s initial announcement, the Miami Dolphins managed to receive financial backing from the county for their stadium renovation, completed the $400 million project, and have played six games under a new roof in Miami Gardens. Meanwhile, the much more modest, private MLS project is stalled in negotiations around a site in Overtown.

Garber continues to be asked by media at every MLS event to provide an update on Miami, and each time, he has been forced to issue a standard “everybody is working very hard” line, while never being able to offer more than hints at a definite resolution. And as the months turned to years and first New York City FC and Orlando City — and now Atlanta United and Minnesota United —started play, the only real twist to Garber’s remarks was the gradually introduced caveat that the timeline to get this team off the ground could not extend forever.

The changing landscape of MLS…and Beckham’s appeal

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from the long-lost momentum of the announcement, there’s good reason to see why MLS’ patience is running out. Expansion events and demand have overtaken Beckham. The multiple bids lodged before last week’s deadline will determine who makes up a mooted 28-team league, with Miami still penciled in as No. 24. But whereas those teams will be paying $150 million to get to the table, Beckham’s original contract clause still allows him a $25m buy-in. 

You can see why the numbers alone might diminish the league's appetite to indulge Beckham much further, with numerous suitors waiting in the wings to pay full price.

He’s still showbiz royalty in Britain, and a household name elsewhere, but his last free kick was a while ago.

But it is not just the going rate for franchises that is in flux. 

Even before the new scandal hit Beckham, the separation of his fame from what was once its principal force — his active playing career — meant that the Beckham brand was always more likely to cannibalize itself to try to stay relevant. With every year that passes, there will be more and more kids who have no idea what the ubiquitously handsome man is famous for. 

When Beckham stopped kicking a ball, his fame had at best hit a plateau. Perhaps that’s what has driven his apparent urgency for official recognition in his home country. He’s still showbiz royalty in Britain, and a household name elsewhere, but his last free kick was a while ago.

Yet Beckham & Co. are still behaving as if they exist in a permanent state of exception — while failing to notice the climate changing around them. 

The MLS which David Beckham arrived into in 2007 was cravenly excited by his transformative potential. League and club officials accommodated his every whim, and senior executives would speak in glowing terms of the standards of professionalism he’d helped elevate in many areas of the game. And when he eventually did well on the field, it felt as if the whole experiment had been vindicated.

The MLS which Beckham hopes to arrive in as an owner is a different animal, ironically in large part because of a movement he helped drive. In 2007, the league was still unwinding ownership from a handful of sports industrialists to the current ambitious entrepreneur class; the tenor of ownership has changed accordingly. You might still bet on the famously determined Beckham to thrive in the current setting, but you would not expect him to inspire awe. And yet looking at how the Miami project has unfolded – or failed to unfold – you can only keep coming back to the assumption that the name “Beckham” alone was expected to dictate events, even as whatever it is that name signifies began to lose its currency.

What might once have been heresy is now a fairly orthodox question in MLS circles: Does the league need Beckham, at all? He’s still a big deal, though perhaps not as big a deal as he thinks he is. And for MLS, he no longer represents a great deal.

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Graham Parker’s column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Graham on Twitter @KidWeil.