MIAMI From his tattoos to his finely chiseled physique and Armani underwear ads, soccer icon David Beckham oozes Miami-style sex appeal.
Blending charisma with a smart business plan, Beckham intends to launch his own professional soccer team in Miami, a multicultural market that has defied major league owners twice before. But Beckham is known for making long shots.
Expectation is high that the former captain of the England team, who retired as a player in May, will exercise a $25 million option in his Major League Soccer (MLS) player contract to start a new team later this year and base it in Miami.
The league has confirmed it is in discussions with Beckham but is awaiting a formal bid, including details of the city, the ownership group, and a stadium plan, which is expected before the end of the year.
A source close to the negotiations described a financial plan that is well advanced if incomplete.
Beckham declined requests for an interview, but he has been touring Miami and recently said the city was ripe for a new soccer team.
Finding the right location for a stadium and financing is not easy in Miami. Taxpayers have soured on publicly financed stadium deals after a $500 million baseball stadium with a retractable roof for the Miami Marlins failed to draw fans.
The state legislature rebuffed the Miami Dolphins' request for public funding of a $350 million renovation of its privately owned American football stadium.
Instead, Beckham is assembling a group to invest $150-200 million in private financing for a new soccer stadium in Miami's urban core by 2018-19, according to the source, who divulged financial details that have been under wraps until now. The same person stressed that the plans are still in the early stages and the cost could vary according to the final site choice.
"He will not be asking for taxpayer money," the source added, noting that Beckham was well aware of local resistance to public financing.
"That is very encouraging, a big boost," said Chip Iglesias, Miami-Dade County Deputy Mayor who met with Beckham this week after a tour of possible stadium sites. He said the commitment to private financing was bound to create local goodwill.
Beckham envisions building the team with veteran players, international stars who, following his own lead when he moved from Real Madrid to Los Angeles, will hang up their cleats in other established markets to finish their careers in America, the frontier of soccer.
"David realizes he needs to create a club in the region that is going to become an international destination for the city that is going to attract the best players. It's going to be a bridge between Latin America and North America and Europe," the source close to Beckham's management said.
Beckham has said he has no interest in coaching but will run the team.
"He will be across all aspects, from the way it's run, to the stadium, to what the uniform looks like, to what players are brought in, to who the CEO is," the source said. "For him, this is a passion project."
This year, Beckham led Sports Illustrated's list of the 20 highest-earning international athletes with an estimated $48 million in earnings, most of it from endorsement deals. His estimated net worth is $250 million, according to Wealth-X, a global research firm.
His management company, 19 Entertainment, is run by British businessman and American Idol creator Simon Fuller. Beckham also has toured stadium sites with billionaire Marcelo Claure, founder of Miami-based Brightstar Corp, the world's largest wireless distributor and the provider of global services to Apple.
Claure, who owns one of the top soccer teams in his native Bolivia, last month sold a 57 percent stake in Brightstar to Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Corp - owners of Sprint - for $1.26 billion. He and Beckham plan to work together on the Miami bid but have not signed an agreement, the person familiar with Beckham's initiative said. Beckham hopes for another couple of investors as well.
On October 30 Claure wrote on his Twitter feed: "We don't have a deal with Beckham now, and we are still discussing and progressing." He declined to comment for this story.
FIGHTING A FLOP SYNDROME
With a population of 5.5 million, the greater Miami Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach region of south Florida has long been seen as an attractive venue for a soccer franchise, but it hasn't worked out that way - twice.
About 70 percent of Miami-Dade's population speak a language other than English at home (mostly Spanish), and Miami area fans are typically wedded to high-profile foreign teams - Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United (two of which Beckham played for) - not the less star-studded domestic league.
When Chelsea played Real Madrid in Miami in August, 67,000 fans turned out, while the Miami Fusion averaged only 11,000 fans in their last MLS season in 2001 before the franchise was shut down.
Finding a stadium location that fits the demographics of a sprawling urban area with poor public transportation and growing traffic congestion is a formidable challenge.
Beckham is focused on downtown Miami, with a potential sharing agreement at the new Miami Marlins baseball park while his stadium is being built, according to the source cited earlier.
Miami Beach has no room, though it might seem a natural location for "Becks" and his wife, pop star turned fashion designer Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham. The Beckhams live in London with their four children.
Drawing a critical mass of soccer fans in Miami is a quest that former major league player and manager Ray Hudson, 58, compares to Greek mythology. "It's like the Golden Fleece, and it wasn't too easy for Jason and the Argonauts to get," he said.
In the 1970s and '80s, Hudson played for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, a lovable squad of aging soccer heroes including partially sighted English goalkeeper Gordon Banks and Peru's greatest player, Teofilo Cubillas.
But major league soccer never took off, and it flopped again almost two decades later with the Miami Fusion.
Miami is different now. While baseball-loving Cubans still make up a little more than 50 percent of the Hispanic population in Miami-Dade, there are now 600,000 residents from soccer-crazy nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to census data.
In the western Miami suburb of Doral, South Americans flock to Revo Soccer, an indoor club with TVs constantly showing live soccer games from around the world.
"Bring a good Argentine, a good Brazilian and a good Colombian player, and the team will have an instant following," said Oscar Sanchez, who helps run Revo.
Weaned on watching world-class players in their home nations, Miami's soccer-savvy fans expect a high level of performance, stressed Hudson. "The first thing and the foremost thing isn't the stadium, it's not the ownership. What counts is the product on the field," he said. "If you don't produce quality football, they won't come."
Soccer advocates say the advancing popularity of the game nationally is changing the perception of Major League Soccer in Miami, attracting a new generation of non-Hispanic fans.
Weston, a prosperous Miami suburb to the northwest, is emblematic. Soccer is booming, said Mayor Daniel Stermer, a bankruptcy attorney and proud soccer dad. The half-Anglo, half-Hispanic city of 65,000 boasts a dozen publicly funded fields, with 3,600 children enrolled in a soccer program.
"Everyone is excited about Beckham's team - which players he's going to pick and where the stadium will be."
(Editing by Peter Henderson and Prudence Crowther)