On Thursday, MLS intends to unveil the formal process, timeline, and perhaps the fee structure, that will serve as the framework for its expansion to 28 teams. Those details are expected to be finalized at a board of governors meeting in New York City. While Minnesota United and Atlanta United prepare to play in the league next season and Los Angeles FC continues construction on a stadium expected to open in 2018, the roadmap to 28 should come into focus.
Except there’s a speed bump: Miami.
David Beckham’s team, the rights for which he purchased at a deep discount (approximately $25 million) after retiring as a player, was supposed to come in alongside LAFC as club No. 24. He announced his intentions at a news conference in February 2014. Since then, however, there’s been one false start after another, three failed attempts to secure land for a stadium and now a fourth, in Overtown, that's only partially complete. There’s been friction with residents and politicians and a pursuit for new investors that hasn’t appeared to have produced anyone of consequence beyond Beckham, entertainment producer and manager Simon Fuller and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure. Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez reportedly met last month with lobbyists and new, unnamed potential investors.
Beckham already has received at least one extension from MLS, which added to the original cost of his buy-in. This weekend in Toronto, the site of the 2016 MLS Cup final, commissioner Don Garber said another deadline is approaching. And while he wouldn’t give specifics, the league’s wish to lay out a schedule for the addition of teams 25-28 is an indication that Beckham is starting to run out of time.
Speaking on Friday to the Planet Fútbol Podcast, Garber said, “There is a deadline. I’m not going go share that with you publicly. I can, but I’m not. There is a deadline, and I think everybody knows that we’ve got to get this thing moving or figure out what David’s plan and alternatives are and what the league needs to do. Clearly if we’re going to teams 25-28 and we’ve not resolved team 24, it has a knock-on effect and has a real impact on our expansion strategy.”
He said similar remarks at his “state of the league” address prior to the final.
“[The deadline is] an agreement we have with David and Simon Fuller,” Garber said. “We need to resolve the Miami situation so we can go forward with our expansion plans and [teams] 25 through 28, because they're team 24. And if they're not going to be 24, then there are going to be things that need to move around. It's something we'll discuss at our board meeting. We may or may not come out of that meeting with anything definitive that we'll announce publicly as it relates to Miami.”
The focus on bringing in Miami as 24 has forced Sacramento, which is ready to begin construction on a downtown stadium, into limbo. Meanwhile, expansion fees have gone up, which puts Sacramento Republic in a different negotiating position than it was a year ago. Interest from potential expansion markets continues to grow. St. Louis has finalized an ownership group and stadium site, Cincinnati has surged onto the scene after a successful inaugural season in USL and both Tampa/St. Petersburg and Raleigh-Durham have recently declared their intentions. And while the landscape continues to change, Beckham and Miami have made very little progress.
In April, Beckham showed up in Las Vegas to advocate for a new stadium that could house the Oakland Raiders and, perhaps, pro soccer. Beckham has a relationship with Las Vegas Sands, one of the stadium’s backers. Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman had been speaking with MLS prior to the spring. In early 2015, MLS informed the city that it wouldn’t be considering expanding there until after 2018. That date is fast approaching.
“To bring a great organization like the Raiders is incredible, but it’s bigger than that,” Beckham told reporters in April. “It’s about the MLS coming here. It’s about bringing in the biggest European teams like Manchester United.”
Tim Leiweke, the former head of the organizations that owned the LA Galaxy and Toronto FC and a long-time associate of Beckham’s, said, “You’ve had one issue [in Vegas]: a stadium. This resolves that issue. And there is a qualified, quantified ownership group that’s prepared to step up and help you chase an MLS franchise …. You’re not the only one out there. As Commissioner Garber will tell you, there are a lot of cities now chasing those last four franchises. But with your stadium, with this ownership group and with the might and support of the Raiders, you will never have a greater opportunity to have an MLS team.”
Potential, future soccer stadiums in America
Beckham and his partners were not part of the “ownership group” to which Leiweke referred, but the former midfielder’s association with Sands and the city remained in the background. While his effort to purchase the final three acres in Overtown required to build a privately-financed Miami stadium continues to stall, speculation has increased.
On Friday, a writer from The Boca Raton Tribune reported that Beckham was eyeing Vegas.
Monday, a Las Vegas reporter indicated the same.
That was enough to prompt this response from Beckham’s group, which issued this statement to several local outlets:
“Our partners are 100 percent committed to Miami, and we will continue working with Commissioner Garber and the league as we finalize the launch of our world-class soccer club. We're making progress, and we appreciate the strong support of our fans as our launch draws closer.”
Similar statements have been made over the past year with little to no progress following them.
Garber told the Planet Fútbol Podcast that Beckham and Vegas aren’t currently on the agenda.
“We haven’t talked about that and it’s not something at this point that’s part of the agreement that we have with him," the commissioner said.
Miami is an attractive site for an MLS team, and the league wants to be there. It’s diverse, cosmopolitan, and it’s considered a gateway to Latin America. It’s the 16th-largest media market in the U.S. Conversely, Vegas is ranked 40th. It would be the smallest market in the league, and it’s uncertain how pro sports will play in the entertainment capital. The NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights will begin testing that next year.
Miami also already has a pro soccer team: Miami FC, which recently completed its first season in the NASL. The club is owned by Italian media rights mogul Riccardo Silva, who’s got no problem spending money. He’s currently caught in the chaos consuming the NASL and it’s unclear what he'll do if the struggling second-tier league folds. The U.S. Soccer Federation is expected to make a decision this week regarding the rival USL’s application for second-division sanctioning. The USL, which works with MLS, may be reluctant to add a Miami team while Beckham is still pursuing his. And although Silva and the USL have spoken, some believe he may not want to bring his team to a league that operates with more central oversight than the NASL.
Still, Silva may yet be a player. He has a relationship with Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, and they’ve spoken about possibly bringing pro soccer to Hard Rock Stadium. Ross was involved in the launch of the International Champions Cup, the friendly tournament that attracts big-name European teams to the U.S. each summer. There's no indication at the moment that Silva and Ross are pursuing MLS, but they represent an additional wrinkle in a very complex situation.
With MLS intent on finalizing its expansion plan and the negotiations between the USSF, NASL and USL expected to finish soon, it’s a complex situation that may finally be headed toward some kind of resolution.
MLS has waited a long time, but it can’t wait forever.