Soccer debate: It’s not ‘What site?’ but ‘Why get involved?’
Written by Michael Lewis on May 14, 2014
Debate over which prime waterfront land to yield to an outside business for a soccer stadium should be recast as a far more logical question: why is government involved at all?
We’d ridicule any other startup that rode into town with no payroll, no revenue and no track record and selected prime public land. So why aren’t we laughing at the brazen syndicate fronted by former soccer player David Beckham?
Granted, their corps of lobbyists and PR firms has put on a good show. And they’ve acquired a franchise to play in a soccer league here.
But a franchise in a league that – please remember – has already failed with a Miami-branded team shouldn’t be a license to call the shots on what the public hands over.
Don’t misunderstand: it would be nice to have a Major League Soccer team again. Residents enjoy the game, it could bring visitors and it would be one more local amenity.
But it would also be nice to have any number of business additions, many of which would also serve residents, bring visitors and add amenities. A major specialty retailer, a hotel, a shopping mall, a big employer, a tech incubator, a film studio and many other businesses fit that description.
So why has the debate come down to whether the soccer syndicate gets a vital slice of our hemmed-in seaport or a vital piece of downtown open waterfront parkland?
It’s because that’s the way we’ve allowed the PR gurus and the lobbyists to frame it, rather than stepping back and asking why in heaven’s name public land should be involved in the first place – or, for that matter, public money or any public role at all?
No business but a sports enterprise – potentially very lucrative – would assume that it will call the shots at county hall.
And, if it gets public land, be sure the team will also seek county backing for its bonds, county-funded roads and parking, a state subsidy, and more that lawyers will dream up and lobbyists push through. That’s the way sports teams do it, and we won’t get a new paradigm.
Mr. Beckham continues to make clear that his team will not play in a suburb. He wants the best site we have.
That’s the pitch the Marlins tossed us when they told us to build them a stadium. They threatened a move to Las Vegas – but later admitted it was a bluff. Eventually, through tough county bargaining, the Marlins had to accept absolutely free a $3 billion gift of a stadium and all the revenue as their consolation prize.
So, where is David Beckham going if we don’t give him downtown waterfront? Not Las Vegas – although he has business ties there, he just bought a franchise for Miami, not the globe. Not only would he gladly settle for a public site in the suburbs, but if we don’t give him public land, the soccer syndicate will – horrors! – cut a private deal.
Why, in fact, isn’t he dealing for private land right now? Only because he’ll get a far, far better deal from government than any private landowner. No matter what the Beckham syndicate says, a county soccer deal will involve some public subsidy, land included.
Nothing bars the syndicate from a private deal. So how did supporting this enterprise financially become a public responsibility?
It was an improvement last week when Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez suggested that instead of taking the last chunk of seaport, the Beckham group accept a site on Biscayne Boulevard in the heart of Miami.
But only a relative improvement. It’s the difference between a thug smashing both your kneecaps or just one. The port site is a two-kneecap job, the downtown site just one. It’s far better – but we prefer both kneecaps intact.
The county likes the downtown option better. Miami-Dade would keep its vital port land, hopefully for expansion rather than offices. Plus, the land it’s offering that now has a deepwater boat slip doesn’t belong to the county at all – it’s city land. It’s less painful to offer someone else’s property.
Moreover, the mayor wants the Beckham group to beautify county land behind American Airlines Arena. So the county would win – but the public and city would lose.
If we ever yield public waterfront – that’s a big IF – it must be for public purpose and be used for something iconic to Miami. It must also be for something that uses the water views. Sports venues miss all those goals – they block views of the bay but those attending never see the water.
Mr. Beckham has an edge: he’s famous and popular. Plus, he promises to be at most games, spend time here and be active in local charities. That sets him apart from Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and Dolphins owner Steve Ross, both out-of-towners with business interests elsewhere.
But Mr. Beckham, based in Britain, also has interests elsewhere, and he’s hardly a Miamian. In Asia, where he represents gambling interests and is paid by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., he’s active in charities in Macau, the world’s largest gambling hub, and Singapore, where – as in Miami – his Sands operators compete with the Genting Group. Both groups want to open a massive downtown Miami casino.
If government continues ill-chosen dealings with the Beckham group, it must provide that neither county site could be part of a future casino base.
The matter, however, shouldn’t get that far. Wise waterfront land use and traffic congestion issues alone rule out both Beckham targets. Sensible policy means government should tell the Beckham group to find its own land and build its own stadium.
The Beckham team has the same right to apply for government benefits as any enterprise. That includes state and county tax incentives for job creation and capital investment. That’s fair game. But that’s all we should be offering.
Kick the Beckham negotiations out of the mayor’s office and into the business marketplace.