Miami offers Beckham's new MLS franchise glitz, glamour and growth potential
MIAMI -- Before the confetti fell on David Beckham and his partners and before the throng of Miami fans cheered an announcement that was four years in the making, evidence of the glitz of a Major League Soccer franchise in South Florida rolled on projection screens on the stage.
Celebrity endorsers from across every different entertainment field spoke into the camera to welcome MLS to Miami -- from actress Jennifer Lopez and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to rapper Jay Z, Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt and Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar.
If there was any doubt Miami was bringing a certain cachet to Major League Soccer, it ended when that reel was played for the audience of several hundred fans who had gathered downtown to welcome MLS back to the region.
That prestige is part, but not all, of what makes Miami such a perfect fit for MLS. And it's part of the reason why, for four years, the league and Beckham were so intent on making it work here, even when it seemed the team would never materialize.
The growth of MLS has come in part from the magnetism of major markets. There is a reason MLS has two teams in both Los Angeles and New York. To sell a player on tapping into the ever-profitable American audience, you need to sell the country's biggest cities: the Hollywood life on the West Coast and the "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere" lore of the Big Apple.
Beckham's move to the LA Galaxy was the first major sign of how the right market can lure the biggest stars to MLS in the "modern" era. Those marquee markets have since brought the likes of Thierry Henry, David Villa and Giovani Dos Santos. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is rumored to be the next big name to head to L.A.
Now Beckham will launch a team in a city capable of bringing more big names to the league.
Beckham reminisced Monday about the move he made from Real Madrid to MLS. It was a massive gamble, but he was betting on a young league that had plenty of growth potential -- growth from which he could benefit, too. He recalled the challenge of coming to MLS and then held out his hands and cracked that famous smile.
"And, of course, L.A. wasn't the worst city to live [in]," he said.
Miami isn't so bad, either.
There is something about Miami that pulls in stars at almost the same rate they flock to Tinseltown. It's the beaches, maybe, or the style and glam of the city. There is an air of luxury and class and exclusivity. The Miami sunshine has seduced footballers such as Cristiano Ronaldo -- arguably the game's biggest star. It's partly why so many celebrities were ready to press record on those welcome videos.
"Most players love a city like Miami," said Marcelo Claure, CEO of Sprint and a member of the Miami expansion ownership group. "Miami is a hot place, a lot of people want to be here and a lot of people want to play for David Beckham's team."
It is among the reasons MLS remained so intent on launching a franchise in the market. But the leaders involved say it's not the only one.
As MLS has grown, so too has its outlook on what can grow the league. Yes, Beckham will open doors to top players. So, too, will South Beach. But the success of markets such as Atlanta have changed the perspective on the ingredients that can yield packed stadiums and on-field results.
It's not just about the megastar signing anymore. Miami also represents what MLS commissioner Don Garber called a "gateway" to a global market in which MLS is becoming a bigger player. It's as likely to attract the Miguel Almirons of the world as it is the Beckhams.
"This is such a rich city, with the culture and support for the game," Garber told ESPN. "International games get massive attendance, the World Cup [TV] ratings [are high], the MLS ratings, even without a team, are very high.
"It's [also] a gateway city for our entire country, it's a gateway to South America. So much of our success has been driven by players who have come from Argentina and Brazil and Paraguay and Venezuela and Uruguay, and our media coverage and fan support is really strong in South America. So, if you could make it [work] here, it will open us up to such an important part of the footballing influence in our world."
The culture of Miami was on display as much as anything else Monday. While the celebrity videos elicited some cheers, the Mas brothers -- Jorge and Jose Mas -- might have received the grandest ovation, arguably bigger even than Beckham's.
The Miami businessmen have strong local ties that go back generations. Their involvement in the ownership group not only pushed the franchise over the line in the eyes of MLS, but also in the eyes of fans who are waiting to see just what this team is going to look like. The fans want the megastars, sure, but they also want a team that will represent Miami.
"The city has changed already in the 10 or 15 years since the [Miami] Fusion folded, and it's even more diverse, even more representative of what's happening in the country," said Andrew Bennett, 41, a Miami native and member of the Southern Legion, a Miami MLS supporters' group that has stayed alive while a team has teetered on the brink of existence for several years.
The Mas brothers "bring a level of credibility [to the franchise] it wouldn't have otherwise," said Bennett, whose neck was wrapped in a scarf stating "MLS to Miami."
The team is two years away from stepping on the field, but already its identity is starting to become clear.
Beckham mentioned Monday that he has already fielded calls from "top players" letting him know they're in. But his most verbose answers about the future of the club were about building an academy in Miami that would produce homegrown players.
It's a market that has the potential to do it all: to buy big, to develop its stars, to attract the South American markets and to capture a massive U.S. audience, too. It also has a unique ability to elevate the league from the moment it signs its first player.
And after years of waiting, the ownership group was ready to promises it won't sit on its hands and let the market for which it fought so hard go to waste.
"We have a lot of ambition to have a great, winning team," Claure said. "None of us do this to be second. Look at the roster of owners we have; we are going to do whatever it takes to build academies [and] recruit great players. This is going to be a great team, of that I can assure you."
Paul Tenorio is a Chicago-based freelancer who covers American soccer who's previously written for The Washington Post, Orlando Sentinel and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter: @PaulTenorio.