REPEAT-FEATURE-Beckham lines up long shot: founding a Miami soccer team

Reuters

(Repeats for wider distribution)

By David Adams and Kevin Gray

MIAMI, Nov 15 (Reuters) - From his tattoos to his finelychiseled physique and Armani underwear ads, soccer icon DavidBeckham oozes Miami-style sex appeal.

Blending charisma with a smart business plan, Beckhamintends to launch his own professional soccer team in Miami, amulticultural market that has defied major league owners twicebefore. But Beckham is known for making long shots.

Expectation is high that the former captain of the Englandteam, who retired as a player in May, will exercise a $25million option in his Major League Soccer (MLS) player contractto start a new team later this year and base it in Miami.

The league has confirmed it is in discussions with Beckhambut is awaiting a formal bid, including details of the city, theownership group, and a stadium plan, which is expected beforethe end of the year.

A source close to the negotiations described a financialplan that is well advanced if incomplete.

Beckham declined requests for an interview, but he has beentouring Miami and recently said the city was ripe for a newsoccer team.

Finding the right location for a stadium and financing isnot easy in Miami. Taxpayers have soured on publicly financedstadium deals after a $500 million baseball stadium with aretractable roof for the Miami Marlins failed to draw fans.

The state legislature rebuffed the Miami Dolphins' requestfor public funding of a $350 million renovation of its privatelyowned American football stadium.

Instead, Beckham is assembling a group to invest $150-200million in private financing for a new soccer stadium in Miami'surban core by 2018-19, according to the source, who divulgedfinancial details that have been under wraps until now. The sameperson stressed that the plans are still in the early stages andthe cost could vary according to the final site choice.

"He will not be asking for taxpayer money," the sourceadded, noting that Beckham was well aware of local resistance topublic financing.

"That is very encouraging, a big boost," said Chip Iglesias,Miami-Dade County Deputy Mayor who met with Beckham this weekafter a tour of possible stadium sites. He said the commitmentto private financing was bound to create local goodwill.

Beckham envisions building the team with veteran players,international stars who, following his own lead when he movedfrom Real Madrid to Los Angeles, will hang up their cleats inother established markets to finish their careers in America,the frontier of soccer.

"David realizes he needs to create a club in the region thatis going to become an international destination for the citythat is going to attract the best players. It's going to be abridge between Latin America and North America and Europe," thesource close to Beckham's management said.

Beckham has said he has no interest in coaching but will runthe team.

"He will be across all aspects, from the way it's run, tothe stadium, to what the uniform looks like, to what players arebrought in, to who the CEO is," the source said. "For him, thisis a passion project."

This year, Beckham led Sports Illustrated's list of the 20highest-earning international athletes with an estimated $48million in earnings, most of it from endorsement deals. Hisestimated net worth is $250 million, according to Wealth-X, aglobal research firm.

His management company, 19 Entertainment, is run by Britishbusinessman and American Idol creator Simon Fuller. Beckham alsohas toured stadium sites with billionaire Marcelo Claure,founder of Miami-based Brightstar Corp, the world's largestwireless distributor and the provider of global services toApple.

Claure, who owns one of the top soccer teams in his nativeBolivia, last month sold a 57 percent stake in Brightstar toJapanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Corp - owners ofSprint - for $1.26 billion. He and Beckham plan to work togetheron the Miami bid but have not signed an agreement, the personfamiliar with Beckham's initiative said. Beckham hopes foranother couple of investors as well.

On Oct. 30 Claure wrote on his Twitter feed: "We don't havea deal with Beckham now, and we are still discussing andprogressing." He declined to comment for this story.

FIGHTING A FLOP SYNDROME

With a population of 5.5 million, the greater Miami FortLauderdale and Palm Beach region of south Florida has long beenseen as an attractive venue for a soccer franchise, but ithasn't worked out that way - twice.

About 70 percent of Miami-Dade's population speak a languageother than English at home (mostly Spanish), and Miami area fansare typically wedded to high-profile foreign teams - RealMadrid, Barcelona and Manchester United (two of which Beckhamplayed for) - not the less star-studded domestic league.

When Chelsea played Real Madrid in Miami in August, 67,000fans turned out, while the Miami Fusion averaged only 11,000fans in their last MLS season in 2001 before the franchise wasshut down.

Finding a stadium location that fits the demographics of asprawling urban area with poor public transportation and growingtraffic congestion is a formidable challenge.

Beckham is focused on downtown Miami, with a potentialsharing agreement at the new Miami Marlins baseball park whilehis stadium is being built, according to the source citedearlier.

Miami Beach has no room, though it might seem a naturallocation for "Becks" and his wife, pop star turned fashiondesigner Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham. The Beckhams live inLondon with their four children.

Drawing a critical mass of soccer fans in Miami is a questthat former major league player and manager Ray Hudson, 58,compares to Greek mythology. "It's like the Golden Fleece, andit wasn't too easy for Jason and them Argonauts to get," hesaid.

In the 1970s and '80s, Hudson played for the Fort LauderdaleStrikers, a lovable squad of aging soccer heroes including partially sighted English goalkeeper Gordon Banks and Peru'sgreatest player, Teofilo Cubillas.

But major league soccer never took off, and it flopped againalmost two decades later with the Miami Fusion.

Miami is different now. While baseball-loving Cubans stillmake up a little more than 50 percent of the Hispanic populationin Miami-Dade, there are now 600,000 residents from soccer-crazynations in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to censusdata.

In the western Miami suburb of Doral, South Americans flockto Revo Soccer, an indoor club with TVs constantly showing livesoccer games from around the world.

"Bring a good Argentine, a good Brazilian and a goodColombian player, and the team will have an instant following,"said Oscar Sanchez, who helps run Revo.

Weaned on watching world-class players in their homenations, Miami's soccer-savvy fans expect a high level ofperformance, stressed Hudson. "The first thing and the foremostthing isn't the stadium, it's not the ownership. What counts isthe product on the field," he said. "If you don't producequality football, they won't come."

Soccer advocates say the advancing popularity of the gamenationally is changing the perception of Major League Soccer inMiami, attracting a new generation of non-Hispanic fans.

Weston, a prosperous Miami suburb to the northwest, isemblematic. Soccer is booming, said Mayor Daniel Stermer, abankruptcy attorney and proud soccer dad. The half-Anglo,half-Hispanic city of 65,000 boasts a dozen publicly fundedfields, with 3,600 children enrolled in a soccer program.

"Everyone is excited about Beckham's team - which playershe's going to pick and where the stadium will be." (Editing by Peter Henderson and Prudence Crowther)

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