David Beckham’s MLS story: How an icon became an owner

After four years of legal wrangling and false dawns, the former England captain is finally getting his team in Major League Soccer. How has it come to pass, and why has it taken so long?

David Beckham’s MLS story: How an icon became an owner

One of the more intriguing elements in David Beckham’s landmark move to LA Galaxy in 2007 was the US$25 million option in his contract to purchase a Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion team. Now, 11 years on, what seemed an ambitious clause in a remarkable deal - an unlikely sweetener ostensibly inserted by MLS to secure the signature of its most high-profile signing ever - has finally come to fruition.

The story of a Beckham-owned franchise in Florida dates back more than a decade, but in truth it started in November 2012, when MLS commissioner Don Garber confirmed the league's renewed interest in returning to Miami. Its original team in the city, Miami Fusion, folded following the 2001 season due to poor attendances and a 2009 expansion bid led by locally based Bolivian businessman Marcelo Claure and Spanish club FC Barcelona had also failed.

A few months after Garber’s statement of intent, in April 2013, Beckham ended his glittering playing career, and it wasn’t long before the league began preliminary discussions with the former England captain’s advisers about several expansion targets, including Miami.

In his December 2013 state of the league address, Garber identified Beckham, his long-time business partner and British media mogul Simon Fuller, and Claure, the chief executive of telecoms giant Sprint, as potential owners in Miami. Later that month, on 17th December, Miami-Dade County commissioners voted unanimously to allow Mayor Carlos A. Giménez to negotiate with Beckham’s investment group, now known as Miami Beckham United (MBU), on a new stadium in downtown Miami.

On 5th February 2014, amid mounting speculation and rumours that Beckham had already made up his mind on Miami, MLS then formally announced that the retired star had exercised his option to buy an expansion team, with MBU owning a franchise provided financing for a stadium could be agreed upon. That, of course, was not a given.

In March 2014, the ownership group declared the new stadium would not be ready until 2018 at the earliest, and that the team would need to find a temporary stadium, possibly Marlins Park or FIU Stadium, for its inaugural season. By May of that year, however, Beckham’s group had turned its attentions to a largely privately financed 20,000-seat stadium at Museum Park, on the waterfront in downtown Miami, but the plan fell through due to opposition from local residents.

After another proposal to build next to Marlins Park also ran into similar trouble, Beckham’s group announced in December 2015 that it had tentatively agreed a deal to acquire a nine-acre site in the Overtown neighbourhood west of downtown Miami. Keen to get things moving amid growing frustrations at the league office, MLS ownership announced their approval of the site the next day.

Yet while the privately-owned portion of the proposed site was formally purchased in March 2016, delays in negotiations for the acquisition of the publicly-owned parcel of land dragged on for many months, and were not formally completed until June of last year. Still, that was not the end of the affair.

Dade County’s decision to sell the remaining plot prompted legal action from Bruce Matheson, a wealthy local landowner and activist who accused county leaders of operating a closed bidding process. Matheson’s lawsuit was rejected, although he is appealing and the result, regardless of Monday’s confirmation of Beckham’s franchise, is expected in June.

Alongside the persistent legal wrangling over stadium sites that has ensued in the local market, Beckham’s stalled effort to own an MLS team has been beset by doubts surrounding his investment group. The arrival of Todd Boehly as majority partner last April sparked concerns within the league that the billionaire co-owner of the LA Dodgers baseball team was merely piggybacking Beckham’s discounted invitation into the MLS ownership club, while there were also lingering doubts about a lack of local representation in the group.

Before 2017 was out, however, Beckham was able to secure the backing he needed. In Jorge and Jose Mas, the former Real Madrid and Manchester United midfielder found two Miami-based billionaires with deep ties to the local community, and whose interest in sports team ownership was widely publicised given they had previously tried to acquire the Miami Marlins baseball franchise.

With the Mas brothers stepping in to replace Boehly, the addition of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son, Japan’s richest man and one of the most influential investors in technology worldwide, was the icing on the cake. His involvement would ensure the Miami investment group would boast the kind of financial certainty, international prowess and far-reaching business connections so coveted by MLS.

Indeed, as Garber noted on Monday, Son’s presence was “the final piece of the puzzle”, and while there is still much to be determined regarding Beckham’s team, one of world soccer’s most iconic names can now officially call himself an owner.

“It has been a process. It’s been painful at times,” Beckham told Miami’s Local 10 News station. “I think the fact that it has taken this long, the fact that it’s taken four years actually has worked as a positive. I’ve always believed in the project. That’s why, for me, I never gave up.

“I knew Miami was the city. I knew this was going to be special.”