Frank Dunne asks Riccardo Silva, sports media rights entrepreneur and co-founder of new NASL (North American Soccer League) franchise Miami FC, about his fight to take on Brand Beckham.
Head or heart? What makes a successful businessman want to create a soccer club from scratch in a country where it is not the most popular sport, in a second-tier league with small attendances, and in a city where the previous attempt to create a soccer club ended ignominiously after four years?
“It is precisely because of the scale of the challenge that I agreed to get involved,” the co-founder of Miami FC, Riccardo Silva, told SportBusiness International.
“If it had been a proposal to buy a European club which was already established, I would never have accepted it.”
Miami FC will become the twelfth club to join the NASL, the second-tier football league in the United States and Canada, when the new season gets under way in April 2016.
If there was a MLS club in Miami it would be better for the NASL. We're rooting for Beckham and hope he can make it work
Silva and the MP & Silva sports marketing agency he co-founded in 2004 will be the major shareholders. The other shareholders include former AC Milan captain Paolo Maldini, who lifted European club football’s top cup five times during a distinguished career, and a group of private investors brought together by Antonio Barreto, one of the most experienced media executives in the Americas.
Maldini will be in charge of all sporting matters, with Silva leading commercial, and Barreto as CEO. In terms of both commercial and sporting know-how, the team is a formidable one. But Silva is not expecting an overnight return on investment.
“There is huge growth ahead for soccer in the United States,” he said. “But it will be in the medium to long term. You will see it over the course of a generation. It is not a process of three, five or 10 years, but 20 or 30.”
Soccer is unquestionably on the up in the States, but in terms of the domestic game, the NASL very much plays second fiddle to the top-tier league Major League Soccer (MLS). Given the resources and ambitions of the men behind Miami FC it appears a curious choice.
“I have total respect for MLS, but for my characteristics as a businessman the NASL is a better option,” Silva explains.
“In MLS, everything is owned by the league. The players are contracted to the league. The team brands are owned by the league. You have to give five per cent of your ticket revenue to the league. It’s very centralised. I prefer a system that is more flexible, where we own the club, we make the contracts with the players, we control our budget, we decide where to play, we control the branding, and we earn all of the ticketing revenue. I prefer it as a business model because it is more independent.”
The precedents, however, are not good. The last professional soccer team to launch in the city was Miami Fusion, which joined MLS in 1998. The franchise struggled financially and was closed down (or ‘contracted’, to use the preferred MLS euphemism) four years later.
“That was 15 years ago,” Silva says. “Things have completely changed since then. The role of football in the United States is totally different. Miami has also changed. For us, this is definitely the right moment to launch.”
Getting fans into the stadium on a regular basis will be the first challenge. Average NASL attendances last season were just over 5,000, not a promising number to build a successful commercial programme around.
As Florida-based sports lawyer Darren Heitner points out, attendance figures are “often the starting point for discussions” with commercial partners. Low gates “make it rather difficult to establish profitable commission partnerships with any brands, especially brands operating on the global level.”
Silva is optimistic, however, that even beginning from a low supporter base it will be possible to build a commercial programme. To help in this, he has one weapon that other NASL owners don’t possess. He will be able to bundle media content from Miami FC’s home games with the rights to many of the world’s top football leagues, such as Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1, leveraging interest in the elite game to get his team in front of audiences around the globe.
“We are starting from a low base and will not have the levels of sponsorship income of the big European clubs, but even at this level there are good things you can do with sponsors. There are six million people in the Miami area, so it should not be impossible to reach attendances of 14,000 to 15,000,” he says.
Silva’s calculations are based on the fact that attendances for the NASL are growing year-on-year and the club will have a growing population in the Miami metropolitan area to target. NASL club Jacksonville Armada, which also hails from Florida, pulled in over 16,000 spectators for a league game in April against Edmonton.
Miami FC is considering a radical approach to stadium management that would completely redefine the concept of a ‘home’ game. The club is in talks with the owners of the three existing sports stadia in the south Florida area. Florida International University stadium (20,000), Marlins Park (37,000) and the Sun Life Stadium (76,000). Because the stadiums can be rented for specific dates, and don’t require a long-term commitment from sports franchises, Miami could choose to play in all three during the course of a season, matching the stadium to the game on the basis of the importance of the fixture and likely demand for tickets.
So, head or heart? “It’s 100 per cent the heart and 100 per cent the head,” Silva said, showing commitment levels well above football’s standard 110 per cent. “The heart because football is a passion. The head because there is room for enormous growth here,” he explains.
“We have come into this with a medium to long-term vision. It’s a wave, a gradual thing, but we will get there.”
Battling Brand Beckham
Silva and Maldini are not the only people to see the potential of economically thriving, multi-cultural Miami as a soccer hotbed.
David Beckham, the former Manchester United and Real Madrid player, who helped put US soccer on the map during his five years at MLS club LA Galaxy, from 2007 to 2012, may yet launch a MLS franchise in the city next season.
Shrewdly, when negotiating his original LA Galaxy contract, Beckham secured an option to buy a MLS expansion franchise for $25 million. At the time of going to press, finding the right site for a new stadium was stymieing his plans but he was said to be determined to push ahead.
Would the inevitable media frenzy that surrounds the footballer’s every move put Miami FC in the shade? Quite the opposite, according to Silva. “If there was also a MLS club in Miami it would be better for us. It would help drive the interest in soccer. Creating interest is the challenge, not having two clubs. If there is no interest, not even one club can survive. So we are rooting for Beckham and hope he can make it work.”
For Florida-based sports lawyer Darren Heitner, this is an “optimistic view”. He adds: “Miami has many transplanted people who continue to root for teams based abroad. They will likely root for a Miami-based team. But will they cheer on two clubs? If not, will they not choose to support the team in MLS? It seems likely that, at least initially, there may be a battle over fans with two new teams in the south Florida region.”