The ‘beautiful game' is making inroads throughout Florida, but its professional business affairs are — complicated.
It’s taken four years, but it appears a pro soccer team in Miami is a matter of when rather than if. David Beckham’s team — name, colors and start date still to be determined — has a new ownership group, a stadium location and has been granted, officially, an MLS franchise.
Things came together for Beckham late last year after his ownership group expanded to include Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son and brothers Jorge and Jose Mas, owners of Coral Gables-based Mastec. The group also includes Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure and entertainment mogul Simon Fuller.
The owners identified a nearly nine-acre site in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood for a privately financed, 25,000-seat stadium. “We deserve a soccer franchise,” Jorge Mas told CNBC after the MLS announcement. “The cultural mosaic that is Miami, with the Latin community and the makeup of it — soccer runs in their blood.”
The Orlando City Soccer Club has been a hit from its inception in 2013, making a successful transition to the MLS in 2015. The Lions, playing in the privately financed and operated Orlando City Stadium, now rank fourth in MLS attendance. A sister club, the Orlando Pride, plays in the National Women’s Soccer League in the same facility.
Last year, voters in St. Petersburg cleared the way for Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards to transform city-owned Al Lang Stadium into an MLS venue. Under the terms of the referendum, the city will give the Rowdies a 25-year lease — if the team is granted an MLS franchise. As part of the deal, Edwards promises to spend up to $80 million to renovate the waterfront stadium and increase the capacity to 18,000 seats. Edwards’ bid went on hold, however, after the league passed over the team in its mostrecent expansion round.
Edwards, who has owned the Rowdies since 2013, recently began looking to put together a larger ownership group to bolster the MLS bid. “It takes a lot of money to be in MLS,” Edwards told the Tampa Bay Times in February.
Complicating the bid is Edwards’ health. He was absent from a victory celebration for the referendum’s approval last May because of heart surgery. The Rowdies, meanwhile, will continue to play in the second-tier United Soccer League (USL).
Teams in Limbo
The U.S. Soccer Federation, a non-profit organization, is the official governing body for soccer in the U.S. Until 2017, the federation had approved the North American Soccer League (NASL) as a second-tier league for the MLS.
But in 2016, the NASL lost four of its 12 teams, including the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, which suspended operations, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which left for the USL, a competing second-tier league that’s headquartered in Tampa. The soccer federation decided it would no longer sanction the NASL for tier-two play and instead decided to designate the USL as an approved minor league.
USL teams typically are affiliated with an MLS team in the manner of minor-league baseball, while NASL teams operated independently.
In November, a federal judge in New York rejected a request by the NASL for an injunction to keep its second-tier status. The NASL has since canceled the 2018 season while it explores options for 2019.
The upheaval has left two Florida NASL teams in limbo:
- The Jacksonville Armada, owned by Maitland-based entrepreneur Robert Palmer, announced it had found a temporary home in the semi-pro National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), which has no official designation from U.S. Soccer. Palmer has said he is talking with startup soccer leagues that plan to seek USSF sanctioning and also is considering forming his own unsanctioned professional league.
- Miami FC 2, owned by Italian entrepreneur Riccardo Silva and former Italian soccer star Paulo Maldini, is a temporary offshoot of Miami FC, an NASL team the two owners founded to bring pro soccer to Miami. In January, CEO Sean Flynn created the temporary team to compete in the NPSL this spring. Along with Jacksonville, Miami FC 2 will be part of the NPSL’s sevenmember Sunshine Conference, which also includes Miami United FC (Hialeah), Beaches FC (Stuart), Boca Raton FC, Naples United FC and Storm FC (Fort Lauderdale).
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