MANATEE COUNTY -- David Beckham could one day make Bradenton a preseason stop if IMG Academy can secure a long-term deal to be the Eastern Conference preseason hub for Major League Soccer.
MLS made it official Wednesday that the retired Los Angeles Galaxy player and part-time H&M underwear model is granted a franchise in Miami, though the league's board still has to approve the franchise.
The intention of IMG's deal with MLS is to have all of its Eastern Conference teams spend part of their preseason in Bradenton. This year features six teams for the first installment of expanded preseason as an audition for a longer deal that would feature more teams plus fan events.
When Miami joins the league, expectations are that Beckham could stop by to check out his newly formed team as well as the world class soccer and training facilities at IMG. Each club still would need to sign off on coming to Bradenton, but as league and IMG executives envision it, all teams in the Eastern Conference would make Bradenton their spring training home.
IMG Academy soccer director Scott Dean recognized what Beckham could do to grow soccer and MLS preseason at Bradenton. During Wednesday's doubleheader, he ran into an assistant athletic director from University of Buffalo thanking him for helping bring MLS to Bradenton as he attended a game.
"Then you throw in someone like Beckham who has such a storied career and such a fan following, he just legitimizes where MLS has developed over the last 10 years," Dean said. "There's a guy where he doesn't have to do anything else in his career. He can go where he wants to in the world. Everyone loves him, recognizes him. And he had chosen to come here in the U.S. and Florida to have a MLS franchise."
To Dean, what Beckham would do for the sport as an owner to attract fans here would be more than him standing on the sidelines watching his team -- it's the team itself.
"He'll also draw other
great players that want to play for him and then those will draw the fans out as well," Dean said. "He's just entering his next chapter of his life where he's now going to be an owner. He's just got such a great reputation."
MLS did not announce when Miami would join the league but with the Orlando City Lions joining in 2015 and Miami soon to come, the league clearly sees Florida as a growth opportunity and that puts IMG Academy at a perfect crossroads of the two franchises to draw fans and tourists already here, in addition to soccer fans coming from all over the East Coast to see their teams.
"It allows them to come into an area where the climate is beautiful, and we've got great facilities now, and they're only going to continue to get better and we're going to expand those," Dean said of Bradenton's place in MLS growth. "It gives them that one central place where we think we're going to create an environment where every team will be satisfied."
Fans attending the Toronto FC and D.C. United match Wednesday night at IMG said that folks would still turn out to see the Miami team scrimmage here even if Beckham isn't on the field. He's a personality that transcends the game, becoming an ambassador of his sport like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Cal Ripken Jr.
Dymphna Browne is a self-described soccer mom who raised two goalies in Ontario, who both played at Queens University. Her son, Brendan Browne, is a Toronto FC season ticket holder, too. Browne was well aware of the Beckham news Wednesday morning and thinks his presence will be a great draw for fans.
"Who wouldn't want to see David Beckham? Maybe bring his wife, too. It would help to see Victoria," Browne said, having a chuckle before turning serious. "A name sells, doesn't it? If Wayne Gretzky was coming, I'd be very happy to shake hands with him or meet him or get his autograph."
If you add someone such as Beckham to the involvement, the doors just open to casual sports fans, Dean said.
"He's the one guy in front of how many platforms? He somehow finds a way to just draw them in," Dean said. "He's just an icon and personality."
Another Toronto FC fan Stuart Leach brought his children, Rowan, Juliette and Charlotte, to see their grandparents from England who are on vacation here. He's seen what Beckham's presence can do when he played against Toronto.
"You saw the shift of fans, like all of a sudden it was half women who are attending the games just to see Beckham," Leach said. "I think for the league, it's an exciting step to get somebody with that kind of collateral. He's well known in America, he's got a couple of soccer academies in L.A. now. Him getting a franchise I think is a huge step. It's just going to attract other people to do the same. I wouldn't be surprised if you see the Ronaldos do the same."
For now, Beckham-less Major League Soccer pre-season games continue this weekend through Wednesday. Tickets are available at imgacademy.com/mls.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.