The Miami area has been without an MLS team since the Miami Fusion, featuring Ray Hudson as coach and MLS MVP midfielder Alex Pineda Chacon, was contracted from the league after the 2001 season. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
Major League Soccer already has failed in South Florida, a region hardly renowned for passionate and consistent support of professional athletics. Yet with the league set to add at least five clubs in the next six years, Miami now has become an expansion battleground.
David Beckham wants in. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross apparently wants in. And now Alessandro Butini, an Italian investor living in London, has gone public with his desire to bring an MLS team to the Magic City.
With Beckham’s plans are still unknown -- the retired midfielder reportedly remains in negotiations with potential partner Marcelo Claure -- Butini believes that the city’s MLS fate is far from decided. His ambition was reported on Wednesday morning by the The Miami Herald. Several hours later, the 40-year-old Lazio fan spoke to SI.com.
“I’ve been hearing lots of names -- like Claure and Beckham and Ross -- but nobody has put any interesting plans together. Not that I’m aware of. Or if they have, they’re not making it public,” said Butini, who worked for the likes of Morgan Stanley and Salomon Smith Barney before heading out on his own last year.
“If they’re interested, why are they not coming out? We decided to come out so we can sort out the real estate plan. When we manage to do that, the rest will follow.”
Butini said he had two partners back in London: New Yorker Suzie MacCagnan, who works in private equity and has helped match English Premier League clubs with potential foreign investors, and Marco Novelli, who deals in real estate.
His goal is to build an 18,000-20,000 stadium in or near downtown Miami (not directly in South Beach, which he called “congested”) for $70-$90 million. If all goes well, his team will be ready to take the field in 2016 or 2017.
His approach is novel. Butini has joined with the University of Miami School of Architecture, which will set its faculty and students to work on narrowing down a design and location for a stadium. He intends to present a plan to local leaders and, he hopes, MLS commissioner Don Garber in early December. Butini said he met with Garber in New York City in February but hasn’t spoken with him since.
“It will come from the local people -- local people who are passionate for the city. They know exactly what to do and how to do it. They’re extremely well-connected at the city level and they have a very good reputation,” Butini said when asked why he was working with the University rather than an architecture firm.
“We’re trying to do a project that makes sense economically. My background is finance and I always see the money angle on everything that we do. It’s something in the end that will be very good for the community,” he said. “I don’t think there is any race. We are under no pressure whatsoever. We’re extremely at ease with our own pace.”
Miami is at the heart of the eighth largest metropolitan area in the country and Butini believes that its growth and evolving demographics make it an ideal spot for soccer. Beckham, and perhaps Ross, agree. None have admitted to a Plan B. If the choice does come down to either Beckham or Butini, the former obviously can offer considerable star power. But Butini, who said he visits Miami at least twice a year, said star power doesn’t ensure long-term success.
“Miami is a very event-driven location,” he said. “You might end up with some supporters who are perfectly willing to travel like an hour to see a soccer team. But for people who just go there just for events, they might like it for the first couple of games, then their interest might fade away if the facility isn’t located in the best possible place.”
Beckham has visited both the Dolphins’ Sun Life Stadium and FIU Stadium. Neither of those fit Butini’s criteria, and further, he told SI.com that he saw no point in a soft opening at a less-than-ideal temporary arena.
The Herald reported that Beckham’s option to purchase an MLS expansion franchise for $25 million expires in December. SI.com was unable to confirm that term of his agreement, which might seem a bit harsh considering he just retired in May. The Englishman is talking to potential partners other than Claure, a Bolivian telecommunications executive. If Beckham doesn’t pull the trigger by the end of the year, odds are he’ll be able to renegotiate with the league. Either way, Butini intends to have made public progress on a stadium by then.
Despite the interest in Miami, it remains far behind Orlando and a bit behind Atlanta in the MLS expansion sweepstakes. Orlando is close to a shoo-in -- it needs only a couple of affirmative votes this month on some final stadium funding. Orlando City, the recently crowned USL Pro champions, hopes to announce its move to MLS in November.
Atlanta is further off, but has an owner (Arthur Blank) and a stadium plan (the new Falcons facility) in place.
New York City FC will kick off in 2015. The site of its first game is unknown, but the club is working toward building its own arena within the five boroughs. A location in The Bronx adjacent to Yankee Stadium is the most likely site.
Meanwhile, Butini has a dream and a website (www.MIA4MLS.com).
"This is a unique opportunity from our standpoint," he said. "MLS represents a very interesting point in the curve of the development of sports in major countries. This happens once in a blue moon."