David Beckham's group has bought land, but Miami MLS saga not over
Tim Leiweke exhaled. Now, the rest of Miami's soccer community is a giant step closer to doing the same.
It was just a few hours after the Miami-Dade County Commission voted 9-4 to approve the sale of a three-acre parcel of land to Miami Beckham United, the David Beckham-led group trying to bring an MLS franchise to South Florida. The parcel was the final piece needed to comprise a nine-acre plot of land in Miami's Overtown neighborhood. MBU hopes to build a 25,000-seat soccer stadium at a cost of $175 million that will require no public money. As he discussed the day, it was evident that the stress Leiweke felt - he is an investor in MBU and major driver of the stadium project after all - was still bleeding off.
"[I'm] relieved, pleased, big step forward," said Leiweke via telephone, letting out a big sigh. "We control our own destiny now."
It's the first time MBU have been able to make such a claim. For more than three years -- ever since a much-ballyhooed February 2014 press conference involving MLS commissioner Don Garber, Beckham, and Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos Gimenez -- MBU has attempted to secure an MLS franchise.
Doing so required a journey of twin odysseys. The first was finalizing a stadium site, while the second was firming up the ownership group. Both proved to be much tougher than anyone could have imagined.
Leiweke said this is the 19th such deal he's done.
"This is the toughest one," he said. "That's Miami."
There are myriad reasons why. The environment for stadium building in South Florida was beyond toxic when Beckham arrived on the scene.
The construction of Marlins Park, which houses Major League Baseball's Miami Marlins, saw Miami-Dade County on the hook for $500 million of the total $639 million construction cost for the facility and parking complex. Miami-Dade had to borrow the money in 2009 by selling bonds at a time when credit markets were tied up in knots due to the Great Recession. The total cost to pay back the bonds comes to $2.4 billion over 40 years.
Miami politics are also notoriously difficult to navigate, with the respective governments of Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami often working against each other. To get an idea of just how combative the two entities are, last November, Raquel Regalado -- the daughter of Miami mayor Tomas Regalado -- ran against Gimenez to become mayor of Miami-Dade County. Gimenez was re-elected with 56 percent of the vote.
Some of the wounds were self-inflicted, however. MBU's habit of floating proposals without sufficient community and political buy-in replayed itself multiple times. An attempt to build a stadium in Port of Miami was voted down by Miami-Dade County when local business interests objected.
Beckham's group turned its focus on a site at Museum Park on Biscayne Bay. But when it offered to pay just $500,000 a year in rent, the city walked away, insisting that rent in excess of $12 million was more appropriate.
Beckham's group then set its gaze on a site adjacent to Marlins Park. The site was problematic on two fronts. The Marlins' lease gave them a huge amount of sway over dates as well as what companies could be considered for naming rights. The other problem was that six parcels needed to be acquired from private property owners. Once word got out that MBU was interested in the site, all leverage was lost.
By then, Beckham had turned to his old friend Leiweke to help get the deal done. It was Leiweke, then CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, who engineered Beckham's move from Real Madrid to the LA Galaxy back in 2007.
With Leiweke on board, MBU became much more disciplined. The search for a site finally led MBU to the plot of land in Overtown. But that couldn't be finalized until the ownership group was augmented. That search yielded Todd Boehly, CEO of Eldridge Industries and one of the co-owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I think [the turning point was] the ownership group we're going to introduce, which is phenomenal," Leiweke said. "I think when everyone sees it, they'll understand why it took us a while to get to the right place. But I really, really love this group. And I love our principle. So the partnership between David and one of the other new partners is a very good one."
Some hurdles still remain. The project still requires zoning approval from the city of Miami. MLS must also give its blessing and award MBU an expansion franchise. And Leiweke revealed there are still some other fine details to be worked out. It's notable that Leiweke, when talking of the investors, refused to mention Boehly by name.
When asked about Boehly, Leiweke said, "I'm not getting into that. We're not done yet."
It looks like other names will be added to the investors group as well.
"When we are done, I think this is as good a partnership as we could have found, including some interesting Miami names," he said.
Sources have also told ESPN FC that some MLS owners are chafing at Beckham's discounted expansion fee of $25 million, especially since the current round of expansion will see a minimum expansion fee of $150 million. Yet Leiweke, during his presentation to the County Commission, said he hoped to have MLS approval in several weeks.
"This shouldn't be a debate about the deal we made," he told ESPN FC. "We made a deal. The league needs Miami, and Miami is excited about the league. This should be a debate about whether we have the right ownership group, and the right resources, and I think we do now. And do we have control of our own destiny.
"Miami is a top-10 market. It's the capital of Latin America, and we as a league are never going to be complete without it. We now have an ownership group, and a structure, and a piece of property and we've acquired the land to go get this done. That's what I'm focused on."
Leiweke also said that if MBU gets MLS approval, there will be no playing in a temporary venue.
"We want to play in 2020 in the new stadium," he said.
Leiweke looks at the zoning approval as "a little more predictable." He said he expects the process to take between six and nine months.
That doesn't mean it will be easy. The adjoining neighborhood of Spring Garden is dead-set against the idea of having a stadium so close, citing concerns about noise, parking, and traffic.
The Miami City Commission will need to be convinced as well. Keon Hardemon, the chairman of the commission, and in whose district the stadium would lie, is holding off giving the project his blessing until he sees the fine print from MBU.
"The [zoning] application has not come before us, so I'm not either for or against the project," he said via telephone, one day before the County Commission approved the land sale. "I want to see the details and then I'll be able to make an informed decision. You really have to have some kind of architectural design before we can make a comment about what is going to be there. Right now, we just don't know."
Yet Hardemon struck a skeptical tone as to whether the stadium project would deliver what is proposed.
"Overtown has seen its share of broken promises," he said.
He added: "My concern is for the neighborhood. There are a significant number of concerns that the residents have about having the stadium there. I get emails from Spring Garden every day saying they don't want a stadium as a neighbor. The question for me is: Is this zoning appropriate for a stadium there?"
Overtown has long endured economic difficulties, and the stadium project has been touted as an economic engine that could revitalize the neighborhood. The deal struck with MBU by county commissioner Audrey Edmonson requires MBU to provide 50 full-time jobs, with 26 of them paying a living wage. But Hardemon is skeptical that those jobs will go to actual residents of Overtown.
"I think these are going to be executive-level jobs, higher-level jobs that people in the community aren't going to get," he said. "The jobs that people in the community are going to be able to get are going to be concessions vendors, people to clean up the stadium. Even those are likely going to be contracted out to a private company.
"I don't like to play the job game, especially when so few jobs are up for discussion. Twenty-six jobs at living wage will do nothing I think to help someone in that area who is looking for full-time employment."
Hardemon also rejected the premise that a stadium can be catalyst to grow the local economy.
"I don't believe that, necessarily, a stadium will revitalize an area," he said. "You can't say that the Marlins stadium has. You can't say that about Hard Rock Stadium, and that's been there for decades."
For his part, Leiweke seems well aware of the challenges ahead.
"We have work to do," he said. "We need to get Spring Garden comfortable, but we will. Ninety percent of what they object to, we can handle. And so reasonable people will understand that this is a good thing for all of Miami, and that we can take most of the concerns and ultimately find ways -- whether it's parking, traffic, security, noise, concerts -- all of that are issues we're prepared to deal with.
"As I said, we control our process, and I think the city is hungry to get this done. I think the marketplace is hungry to get this done. It's been a long, winding, interesting journey."
And for Leiweke, the end may be in sight at last.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.