What David Beck­ham did next

How ‘Brand Beck­ham’ went from hawk­ing Bryl­creem to cre­at­ing his own foot­ball club

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Gra­ham Parker

David Beck­ham’s quest to be­come foot­ball’s first su­per­star owner has been plagued by prob­lems and set­backs, but that’s never stopped him be­fore. This is the story of his tur­bu­lent jour­ney from bootroom to board­room

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 or 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 David 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 room­mates at LA Galaxy’s new home and, fol­low­ing an ill-starred and fre­quently ill-de­fined decade, would also fold to­wards the end of 2014.

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

“YOU WOULD AL­WAYS BE MADE AWARE THAT WITH­OUT BECK­HAM THERE’D BE no HENRY, ZLA­TAN, GER­RARD, PIRLO OR KAKA In MLS. PER­HAPS no MOD­ERN MLS AS WE KNOW IT”

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.

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 the spirit of no­blesse oblige 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 David 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 real-poli­tik 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.

Even the com­par­a­tively mod­est re­quests MBU have made around their var­i­ous mooted sta­dium sites have faced an uphill bat­tle.

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 that gave his brand mean­ing.

DON’T UN­DER­ES­TI­MATE BECK­HAM

How­ever, you un­der­es­ti­mate David Beck­ham’s re­silience at your peril. It can be easy to for­get the mo­ments through­out his ca­reer when his po­si­tion has looked un­ten­able, such has been Becks’ abil­ity to en­dure. The tour of vit­riol he suf­fered at Pre­mier League sta­di­ums af­ter his 1998 World Cup send­ing-off against Ar­gentina ended with him guid­ing Manch­ester United to an un­prece­dented Treble the fol­low­ing sea­son (see page 40). Cast adrift at Real Madrid fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment of his move to LA, he fought his way back into Fabio Capello’s line-up and en­sured he bid farewell to the Bern­abeu with his first and only La Liga ti­tle-win­ner’s medal. Even in Amer­ica, when he was sub­jected to boos by LA Galaxy sup­port­ers af­ter try­ing to make his 2009 loan move to Mi­lan per­ma­nent (AEG forced him to hon­our his MLS con­tract), Beck­ham dug in and fought back to re­build his rep­u­ta­tion and se­cure two MLS ti­tles with the Cal­i­for­nian club. And now, with a sta­dium site fi­nally se­cured (at least bar­ring fi­nal le­gal chal­lenges) in Mi­ami’s Over­ton, Beck­ham’s Mi­ami team was con­firmed as a re­al­ity this Jan­uary. More back­ers are on board, and the team will kick off in the 2020 cam­paign. In some ways, per­haps, the most dan­ger­ous part of the project for Beck­ham per­son­ally is done and dusted. The anony­mous busi­ness of land scout­ing, fi­nanc­ing, po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions and ap­pease­ment has al­most been com­pleted. Now Beck­ham is thrust back into a fa­mil­iar role as a pub­lic as­set, there to em­body the en­vi­sioned glam­our of the project and to at­tract tal­ent and fur­ther in­vest­ment to it. Now to build with a Mi­ami flavour. The twin en­gines of MLS growth in the last 10 years have been mil­len­ni­als and Lati­nos, and cer­tainly

“THE INI­TIAL HIGH-PRO­FILE SCOUT­ING MIS­SIONS AND SELFIE OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES, PROMI­NENTLY FEA­TUR­ING BECKS, SEEMED TO DWIN­DLE AS THE PROJECT STALLED”

the lat­ter are a prom­i­nent tar­get de­mo­graphic, par­tic­u­larly given the size­able South Amer­i­can in­flu­ence on South Florida. Down­town Mi­ami has also been re­vi­talised with youth-led cre­ative in­dus­tries. Cul­tur­ally, the Mi­ami Basel art fair is now an an­nual fix­ture of the in­ter­na­tional art cal­en­dar, whose trav­el­ling cir­cus has trailed sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment from wealthy col­lec­tors. Real es­tate spec­u­la­tion is al­most a sport in its own right there.

In that light, the more fever­ish trans­fer ru­mours sug­gest­ing Cris­tiano Ron­aldo as the ideal mar­quee sign­ing for the ex­pan­sion team make a cer­tain sense.

In 2020, he will be of an age (35) where a last big move may ap­peal, with enough miles still in the tank to be­come the type of foun­da­tional pres­ence David Villa has be­come for NYCFC in their first years.

The Por­tuguese’s preen­ing pres­ence would un­ques­tion­ably be in its nat­u­ral habi­tat in South Beach, if not Over­ton. As with Becks him­self, Mi­ami would seem on the sur­face like the cul­tural fit. Think­ing along those lines, you could easily ex­trap­o­late an im­age and pro­file of the new team to make the right splash­down, and you sus­pect Beck­ham will put few feet wrong on that front.

The lin­ger­ing ques­tions are the pro­saic but es­sen­tial ones that make clubs bed in and sus­tain, how­ever, so that’s where Beck­ham’s tenac­ity and at­ten­tion to de­tail must come into play as never be­fore.

The le­gal dis­putes over the Over­ton sta­dium site may be re­solv­able, for ex­am­ple, but re­flect some lo­cal dis­quiet about the tight nine-acre lo­ca­tion for the ground. Do Beck­ham and his team have the type of gran­u­lar sen­si­tiv­ity re­quired to keep the com­mu­nity on­side?

There are ques­tions, too, about how loyal Mi­ami sup­port­ers will be when the nov­elty wears off. Even in Lebron James’ hey­day in the city, the Heat didn’t al­ways at­tract the type of sus­tained sup­port they may have ex­pected, and there’s a lot of weight on Beck­ham to de­liver as the cen­tre of grav­ity for a start-up team. Es­pe­cially some­where where life­styles of con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion do not nec­es­sar­ily trans­late to con­spic­u­ous loy­alty.

Then there’s the pass­ing of the Des­ig­nated Player era that Beck­ham him­self ush­ered in. When he ar­rived in the strictly salary-capped MLS, the rules had to be changed to pay his wages, and for a brief pe­riod his Galaxy team were the model for top-heavy sides built around the tal­ents of the three Des­ig­nated Play­ers each MLS side was per­mit­ted.

How­ever, with rule changes to salary cap and dis­cre­tionary spend­ing al­lowances chang­ing the bal­ance of teams, and with the acad­e­mies form­ing an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant part of top team strate­gies, cur­rent best prac­tice in MLS is less about star power than smart in­vest­ment and sus­tain­abil­ity. It’s a sober mode that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily tally with Beck­ham’s unique sell­ing points.

And on an even big­ger-pic­ture sus­tain­abil­ity note, the low-ly­ing city of Mi­ami is on the global warm­ing front­line and rou­tinely tor­mented by high tides over-run­ning the storm drains. The for­ward-think­ing of 2007 might have to be re­assessed in 2027 if it tran­spires even David Beck­ham can’t turn back the tides.

That’s for oth­ers to fig­ure out, though. Right now, David Beck­ham is fo­cus­ing on what he can con­trol. His­tory sug­gests that we’d be fool­ish to bet against him.

Clock­wise from top left Becks is un­veiled to LA in 2007; meet­ing Pres­i­dent Obama af­ter the Galaxy’s 2012 MLS Cup win; which he savoured with his sons

Be­low Ron­aldo’s preen­ing pres­ence could be ideally suited to Mi­ami; Beck­ham re­veals his MLS am­bi­tions with Com­mis­sioner Don Gar­ber (far left) and Mayor Car­los Gimenez (far right)

Be­low Becks meets Magic John­son court­side, where he reg­u­larly rocked up in an at­tempt to woo lo­cals

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