MIAMI (AP) — David Beckham hopped onto the stage, his back to sun-splashed Biscayne Bay, and a pack of photographers jostled for position as admirers cheered and chanted.
“Thank you for the warm welcome,” Beckham said on an 80-degree February morning. In this case, it was soccer weather.
The sport moved a step closer to returning to South Florida on Wednesday, when Beckham confirmed he has exercised his option to purchase a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in Miami. The deal will be finalized when the former English national team captain can secure a financing plan and location for a new stadium.
Beckham attended a news conference with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez to discuss their progress.
“This is an exciting time, and something we’re really looking forward to bringing to Miami,” Beckham told a crowd of more than 300 people on a downtown museum plaza. The event was frequently interrupted by cheers for Beckham, who’s popular around the world and especially in celebrity-smitten Miami.
Later Beckham made an appearance at a children’s soccer clinic, where he was mobbed by young players, their parents and the media. Some youngsters climbed on the shoulders of others to photograph Beckham. After half an hour of chaos, police and security personnel intervened to help escort him from the scene.
The retired soccer icon has scouted possible stadium sites and is seeking investors to assist with startup costs such as construction and player acquisitions. Among those who might become involved is Miami Heat star LeBron James, who has had recent conversations with Beckham about bringing a team to Miami.
“LeBron has become a friend over the last few years,” Beckham said. “We spoke about this on the business side and also as friends. He’s very interested in this.”
Beckham, looking the part of a businessman in a suit and tie, said city officials have promised the team’s stadium will be downtown, which is his preference.
“We don’t want public funding,” Beckham said to applause. “We will fund the stadium ourselves. We have worked very hard to get to this stage where we can fund the stadium ourselves. We want to create a football club that is the people’s football club.”
Gimenez — who at one point referred to Beckham as “Beckman” — said there’s political support for a plan.
“We started our negotiations last week,” Gimenez said. “We have to get rolling. There’s a time crunch. We are willing partners. We are very grateful that Mr. Beckham and MLS have chosen Miami as the site for their next franchise. We’re going to do all in our power to make sure we get the stadium built in the right place as quickly as possible.”
New teams have been announced for 2015 in New York City and Orlando, Fla., increasing the league’s total to 21. Beckham declined to offer a timetable regarding when Miami might play its first game, but a likely target is 2017.
The former Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Los Angeles Galaxy and Paris Saint-Germain star has the right to an expansion team at a discount fee of $25 million. MLS’s Miami Fusion played in Fort Lauderdale from 1998-01 before folding because of poor attendance, but this time, Beckham’s star power could make a difference.
“Miami is a vibrant city with a lot of passion,” he said. “I know this city is ready for football — soccer — this time around. I know this is going to be successful.”
The crowd at the news conference included a throng of chanting, singing fans.
“People here love this sport,” Garber said. “We together have no doubt it will be a very successful MLS team.”
Beckham said he also wants to start a children’s soccer academy in Miami. Shareholders in the team will include Beckham’s business partner Simon Fuller, the “American Idol” creator who is the driving force in franchise negotiations, and Marcelo Claure, president and CEO of Brightstar Corp.
Beckham said he’ll finalize his group of investors over the next couple of months. He declined to say what players he would like to bring to the team.
“We have a list,” he said. “We want to bring some of the best players in football to Miami to play on this team. I’ve seen what happens to teams when you bring great players in. I’m talking about the Heat.”
That brought cheers from the crowd. James and the Heat have won the past two NBA titles.
Beckham laughingly ruled out hiring his former manager, Alex Ferguson, to coach the team, but said he has ideas regarding that search, as well.
“I kind of know what makes a great coach and what doesn’t,” he said. “We’ll have a good coach here.”
Beckham praised the growth in recent of years of MLS and said he’s optimistic about the league’s direction. Regular-season attendance increased from an average of 15,504 in 2006 to a record 18,807 in 2012 before dropping slightly this season to 18,594.
“I’ve seen the change in this league,” Beckham said. “I’ve seen the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona come over to America. They want to play against the MLS teams. They’re interested in this league, and that’s what’s changing.”