On February 5, 2014, David Beckham, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, and a few fawning members of the media gathered on a sunny, breezy afternoon at the Perez Art Museum off Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. The superficially joyous occasion marked a major announcement: Beckham had exercised the MLS franchise option in his playing contract and was bringing a team to Miami.
Pictures were taken. The league live-streamed the event on YouTube. Beckham smiled. But a respected journalist, Grant Wahl, and magazine, Howler, were total buzzkills on Twitter. Both had the gall to ask basic questions, such as: Where will the team play? When will the team start playing? What will the team be named?
Beckham and company offered champagne and expensive hors d'oeuvres, but no answers.
Over a year later, the questions remain. Instead of using his charisma to charm local officials into accepting a favourable stadium deal, Beckham has become mired in the cynical, cut-throat world of South Florida politics. Both the the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County have shot down his stadium proposals. Why? The same PR machine that polishes Beckham's airbrushed image would rather the rest of us not know. So I tracked down corporate records and sent public information requests to the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County. What emerges is the story of Team Beckham walking into a quid-pro-quo environment it was too naive and unprepared to handle.
For starters, Team Beckham picked a bad time to foray into stadium-building in Miami. The well was already poisoned. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria fleeced Miami-Dade County for $3 billion to finance a stadium in Little Havana that, as of 2014, basically sat empty. In fact, in 2011, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez was ousted in a lopsided special vote in part due to that sweetheart deal he gave Loria.
In 2013, the Miami Heat haggled the city for an even sweeter lease on American Airlines Arena—they already didn't pay rent, but were upset about maintenance costs and wanted upgrades, so the city gave them an additional $1.5 million per year in operating subsidies. For five years, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had been begging for renovations to Sun Life Stadium. Perhaps scarred by the Great Recession, folks saw sports teams as drains on public resources and not worthy community investments.
On the other hand, public coffers were and have been raided by sports teams in South Florida for decades. So when and why did things specifically go wrong for Team Beckham?
The when is simple: on December 13, 2013, the County Commissioners unanimously voted to permit the Mayor to talk about a stadium deal with Beckham. On May 20, 2014, 11 out of those 12 County Commissioners voted to shoot down his first proposal.
The why is not so simple. Team Beckham, or Miami Beckham United, consisted of an ownership group including Beckham himself, Simon Fuller (creator of the Idol singing show franchise), and Marcelo Claure, CEO of Sprint and founder of BrightStar. They hired John Alschuler, an attorney based in New York as their lead negotiator. Alschuler was also retained by NYCFC in their failed bid to get a stadium approved in Queens. Information gleaned from public information act requests tells us that Alschuler then (probably) subcontracted with the Miami office of law firm Akerman LLP. At the firm, Neisen Kasdin and Diana Perez-Gata were in charge of the nuts and bolts of communicating with County Commissioners and the Mayor via email and setting up appointments regarding the stadium proposal.
At the onset, things looked good. Then on February 3, 2014, Deputy Mayor Genaro Iglesias forwarded a media advisory inviting the County Commissioners to attend the MLS-Beckham event on February 5. The next day, the Deputy Mayor's secretary forwarded an invitation to the County Commissioners to come and meet David Beckham at Kendall Soccer Park for an event. Beckham held the presser, toured some stadium sites and, on March 24, 2014, he unveiled a gorgeous waterfront stadium design in PortMiami (which was once just called the Port of Miami). And that's when shit hit the fan.
PortMiami Director Bill Johnson refused to comment on the stadium. More worrisome, Royal Caribbean Cruises, whose headquarters are near the site, expressed reservations. A letter sent to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez from Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain on December 13, 2013, reveals a couple of key facts: First, the Mayor had called Fain to ask what the company thought about a stadium in PortMiami. Second, his group had met with John Alschuler to discuss the idea.
The letter is a classic case of one special interest group attempting to strongarm another. "By coincidence," Fain writes, "as you may be aware, we have expressed an interest and recently floated some ideas about redevelopment of this same site." Oh, crap. Of all the waterfront land out there, Beckham had chosen land that just so happened to be coveted by a billion-dollar company and major local employer. Despite this potential speedbump, Beckham presented the PortMiami plan three months later.
Then things got sleazier and uglier. A new, mysterious organisation appeared, named the "Miami Seaport Alliance", and ran anti-PortMiami stadium ads in the Miami Herald and on TV. They created a website on April 8, 2014 which now has a bunch of bad links. They even created a Twitter account, long since silent. The Seaport Alliance website claims that the "alliance" is "comprised of concerned citizens and PortMiami stakeholders, including stevedores, longshore workers, cruise lines and cargo carriers, that are focused on ensuring the long-term success of the port." However, excellent reporting by the Miami Herald revealed that the Carnival and Norwegian cruise lines were not part of the "alliance." That pretty much just leaves Royal Caribbean. My own reporting reveals that the website was owned by Kreps deMaria, a public relations firm that didn't return my emails.
Even before the May 20 County Commission vote that would see the PortMiami stadium proposal rejected 11-1, Team Beckham knew things were going poorly. On April 23 at a Miami-Beach City town hall meeting, residents raised a fuss about traffic. On April 29, Neisen Kasdin, one of the lawyer's subcontracted by Beckham's negotiator John Alschuler, sent emails to the County Commissioners and the Mayor asking them to click a link and view a story by local newsman Michael Putney of WPLG. Putney was in favour of the stadium and he rebutted the specious Miami Seaport Alliance claims. The emails were identical but for the "Dear [Name]" line.
At the actual County Commission meeting in May, the minutes show that no significant member from the Team Beckham entourage even attended. Mayor Gimenez didn't even try to defend the PortMiami plan, instead talking up a new Plan B site near Museum Park. Eventually, the public was allowed to talk: the Mayor of Cutler Bay voiced his opposition to the stadium. Then John Fox, labeled as the "President of the Miami Seaport Alliance" spoke. What's funny is that it was the same John Fox who was also the VP of Royal Caribbean.
The Latin American Business Association spoke in favour, but then a few other individuals grumbled opposition, and Commissioners voted the deal down. This raises the larger question: why did Team Beckham push for or allow a vote on a plan that was headed towards failure?
As VICE Sports contributor Neil deMause noted at his site Field of Schemes, Las Vegas delayed a vote on a stadium deal for a possible MLS franchise by two months, allowing supporters to drum up support. In Miami, the Commission did hold a meeting on the PortMiami plan, but really just talked about a possible Plan B. They didn't even seriously consider the PortMiami proposal. In politics, no vote is the same as a "no vote." The only difference is that by stalling things, you can tweak a proposal and try to get people on board. Team Beckham did not do this.
Instead, on May 22, 2014, Team Beckham presented a second waterfront stadium proposal on Biscayne Boulevard, near American Airlines Arena. The proposal, however, required a land swap between Miami-Dade County and the CIty of Miami. Negotiations with the City Mayor Tomas Regalado began, and they began with a major misstep. As Neil deMause has noted at VICE, what public figures say to the press about stadium financing is seldom the truth. Instead, they communicate in exaggerations meant to help gain leverage. In large part, this is the skill of negotiating: you say and do whatever to get what you want at a bargain. One common tactic is low-balling.
On June 2, 2014, a few weeks after the Biscayne Boulevard proposal, news circulated that Team Beckham had talked about an annual rent of $500,000 per year. Overnight, City Mayor Tomas Regalado changed his once supportive stance. Team Beckham wanted pristine land at a rent of less than seven-figures. Regaldo was upset. You see, when you low-ball, you don't always get the other side to come back with a counter. Sometimes, the other side is so offended by the original offer that they walk away from the table.
On June 11, 2014, Tomas Regalado did just that: he publicly announced he was against the Biscayne Boulevard site after meeting with Beckham. Officially, he cited concerns from residents, namely that the stadium would block views from nearby luxury condos, worsen traffic, and mess up a not-yet-open park. Emails obtained via public information requests confirm an inbox flooded with said (obnoxious rich people) complaints about traffic and potentially obstructed ocean views. One local, Marina Blue, formed the "Downtown Neighbors Alliance" and circulated a petition with hundreds of signatures.
This time, Team Beckham knew when to back off. No vote needed. Officially, Beckham is still looking for a site. He admitted to the BBC that perhaps he was "a bit cheeky" in expecting to roll into Miami as a non-resident and build a football palace on taxpayer land. On the other hand, similar things happen all the time in cities across the nation (and especially in Miami). One explanation for Beckham's problem is that he was simply out-spun. The media company that did TV ads for the Miami Seaport Alliance, Joe Slade White, won a national award for the anti-PortMiami campaign. The best ad featured a snail asking if downtown traffic could get any worse. In one fell swoop, Beckham and football went from sexy to snail. The opposition's postmodern rhetorical trick of critiquing without a viable alternative worked - everybody had an idea for where Beckham's stadium could be, but nobody wanted it in their own backyard.
Still, forgetting all the spin and strategic missteps, the gist of the problem is this: Beckham committed to Miami before Miami committed to him. Beckham expected to find warm, embracing arms. Instead, he found cruiseliner executives and condo owners with torches and pitchforks. Will he cave in and accept a plan that appeases Miami's vocal special interests? Is he using silence as leverage to pit local counties against one another? Will his team get a name, logo, players, coach, and then play at some stopgap location like Florida International University? Nobody knows. MLS has said a downtown stadium is a requirement, but has also been known to bend its own rules. Beckham's MLS playing career started off disastrously, but ended in glory. Fans of footy in South Beach can only hope his ownership path follows a similar trajectory.