The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - KEN BEL­SON MI­AMI —

The midday sun was beat­ing down on a for­lorn 9-acre sec­tion of the Over­town neigh­bour­hood last month, and there was not a soul in the streets. Boarded-up shops faced the lots on one side, and pub­lic hous­ing on two oth­ers. High­rise apart­ments and of­fice tow­ers in down­town Mi­ami, mark­ers of the city’s rapid resur­gence, glis­tened not far off. The nearly empty land will get a makeover of its own in the com­ing months if Ma­jor League Soc­cer awards an ex­pan­sion team to an in­vest­ment group led by David Beck­ham, per­haps the world’s most glam­orous for­mer soc­cer player. The is­sue will be on the agenda again when the league’s own­ers meet Wed­nes­day in Chicago, where MLS will host its an­nual All-Star Game, but a vote on ap­proval could be closer than ever. Beck­ham’s bid for a fran­chise, once thought to be founder­ing, now faces lit­tle op­po­si­tion. If it is ap­proved this year, Mi­ami Beck­ham United — the team’s work­ing ti­tle — will be­come the league’s 24th club as MLS rushes to ex­pand to 28 teams by 2020, and shov­els and ex­ca­va­tors will soon be­gin dig­ging on the site in Over­town, a for­mer county truck de­pot. It has been a long time in com­ing. As part of the ini­tial MLS con­tract that lured him from Europe to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, Beck­ham was promised the op­por­tu­nity to buy a team in Mi­ami in re­turn for a $25-mil­lion ex­pan­sion fee if he played at least five years in the league. (He wound up stay­ing six.) The fee, once viewed as a po­ten­tial wind­fall for MLS, now looks to be a savvy bar­gain for Beck­ham; the other cities vy­ing for ex­pan­sion ap­proval this year will pay $150 mil­lion. That nine-fig­ure dis­count has led some own­ers to grum­ble that the league should find a way to get out of the com­mit­ment, but oth­ers be­lieve that just as Beck­ham’s ar­rival helped bol­ster the cred­i­bil­ity of MLS with U.S. fans and for­eign play­ers, his re­turn as an owner would raise its global pro­file again. The ques­tion none of them can an­swer is whether even Beck­ham — who has at last as­sem­bled a cred­i­ble group of in­vestors and ac­quired the land for a pri­vately fi­nanced sta­dium near down­town — can make a dent in the South Florida mar­ket. MLS com­mis­sioner Don Gar­ber folded the league’s pre­vi­ous team in South Florida, an ex­per­i­ment un­done by bru­tal sum­mer weather and fans who seemed to pre­fer base­ball, foot­ball and frol­ick­ing by the ocean to pro­fes­sional soc­cer. “Mi­ami is no longer just a beach town,” Gar­ber said. “We would not have got­ten into Mi­ami if we could not be in the ur­ban core. We want to be part of some­thing big­ger than we are, ur­ban devel­op­ment.” Af­ter failed at­tempts to ac­quire land for a sta­dium at three other lo­ca­tions, Beck­ham’s cur­rent plan has cleared nearly ev­ery fi­nan­cial, po­lit­i­cal and le­gal hurdle. Still, there is no guar­an­tee that the group — which now in­cludes Todd Boehly, a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers; Marcelo Claure, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Sprint; and Tim Lei­weke, a vet­eran MLS ex­ec­u­tive well versed in sta­dium projects — can suc­ceed where oth­ers have not. Sup­port at the gate is one con­cern, but there are also ques­tions about the 25,000seat sta­dium that Beck­ham’s group has planned for a run­down cor­ner of a his­tor­i­cally black neigh­bour­hood. Beck­ham, who was not made avail­able for an in­ter­view, set­tled on the tight spot af­ter fail­ing to ac­quire land at two lo­ca­tions near Bis­cayne Bay and on a third plot next to the Mi­ami Mar­lins’ sta­dium in Lit­tle Ha­vana, a few kilo­me­tres away. To crow­bar a sta­dium into the land in Over­town, a few blocks from I-95 and the Mi­ami River, the Beck­ham group would not build any park­ing. In­stead, fans would have to walk from lots as much as 15 min­utes away, or from one of the three nearby com­muter rail sta­tions. That may be an ur­ban plan­ner’s dream, and it fits Gar­ber’s vi­sion of soc­cer teams in down­town lo­ca­tions, but it ap­pears to be a naive as­sump­tion to res­i­dents of Mi­ami, where the heat can be op­pres­sive, rain­storms can strike at any time and driv­ing is a way of life. “I want Beck­ham to be in the league, and he’s the guy who can make Mi­ami work,” said one MLS owner who asked not to be named be­cause the vote on the team had not taken place. “But when we sit in the room, that’s what we talk about.” Lo­cal of­fi­cials pro­nounced them­selves pleased with the plan’s eco­nomic po­ten­tial. But in Mi­ami, where a bloated deal for the Mar­lins sta­dium has turned pub­lic fi­nanc­ing for sports sta­di­ums into a toxic is­sue, the fi­nanc­ing plan is what ul­ti­mately per­suaded law­mak­ers to get be­hind the deal. The Beck­ham group “asked for pub­lic as­sis­tance ini­tially, but I said we weren’t go­ing to give them any tax deals,” said Car­los Giménez, mayor of Mi­ami-Dade County. “The sta­dium by it­self will not bring devel­op­ment. But more peo­ple will be walk­ing through the area, so you’re see­ing devel­op­ment in Over­town be­cause of growth in down­town. It’s just ge­og­ra­phy.” Ge­og­ra­phy is crit­i­cal for Luis Gar­cia, whose fam­ily has owned a fish res­tau­rant on the Mi­ami River just a few min­utes by foot from the sta­dium site. In re­cent years, up­scale restau­rants have opened nearby, part of the spillover from down­town. Gar­cia, whose father first bought prop­erty in the area decades ago, said young soc­cer fans would help re­vi­tal­ize an area with a less than de­sir­able rep­u­ta­tion. “David Beck­ham has val­i­dated my father’s vi­sion,” Gar­cia said over a lunch of fish sand­wiches. The sta­dium “will be an eco­nomic en­gine.”


Pic­tured is the pro­posed site in Mi­ami’s Over­town neigh­bour­hood where a group led by David Beck­ham hope to build a soc­cer sta­dium.


David Beck­ham is clos­ing in on a deal to bring pro soc­cer to Mi­ami should MLS award him an ex­pan­sion team.

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