Inter Miami CF supporter Max Ramos-Paez chanted and cheered as his years-long dream finally came true on the warm evening of March 10: "We'll conquer MLS/We're never going to stop/Vancouver to Orlando/We're going to win a lot/For Beckham and the Mas/We'll never go away/We are the true supporters/And we come from M-I-A."
Ramos-Paez and his fellow members of The Siege, an Inter Miami CF supporter group, joined 3,000 other season-ticket holders at Inter Miami CF Stadium -- the team's temporary home field and permanent training facility in Fort Lauderdale -- for the squad's first open practice. They watched designated players Rodolfo Pizarro and Matias Pellegrini and the rest of the pink-and-black-clad footballers go through drills, scrimmage and shoot against keeper Luis Robles. The stadium lights glowed against the cloudy sky; Inter Miami flags flew; and fans proudly donned their replica jerseys and "We Bleed Pink" shirts. There was finally fútbol in South Florida, and in four days' time, Miami would host its first-ever home match, taking on the five-time MLS Cup-winning LA Galaxy.
"Together, we can achieve anything," Inter Miami coach Diego Alonso said over the mic, switching between English and Spanish during his short speech.
But everything changed in less than 24 hours -- and Alonso's statement would be challenged. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, and the NBA suspended its season indefinitely. MLS followed suit the next day as the sports world shut down. More than two months later, MLS remains suspended. Ramos-Paez's dream -- and that of so many -- is still a dream. There's no timeline for Inter Miami to host a game with fans in attendance. A cloudy picture in sunny Florida, but one thing is certain: The wait, already so long, continues.
Among supporters, there's a sense of bemusement that they were so, so close to a home opener, only to see it ripped away. Ramos-Paez, who attended the announcement of the franchise way back in 2014, had spent the past six years organizing countless supporter group meetings and thousands of hours preparing for the team's arrival.
"Man, let me tell you," Ramos-Paez said, "the things we have gone through to get this club. The things we have seen, heard, dealt with. An act of God being the last thing in the way was really just perfect. It's almost poetic. It's Shakespearean."
The long road to the now-postponed debut began in 2007 when team owner and figurehead David Beckham joined the Galaxy, signing a contract that gave him the option to purchase a team when he retired. Since then, there have been fits and starts: the addition of deep-pocketed owners, including MasTec heads, brothers Jorge and Jose Mas, SoftBank CEO and founder Masayoshi Son, and Marcelo Claure, COO of SoftBank Group and executive chairman of WeWork; buying out the shares of superstar producer Simon Fuller; and multiple foiled stadium sites. But Inter Miami prevailed.
The team played two games on the road, both losses, before the shutdown of the season. While Inter Miami is inching toward a return to competition -- there's talk of a leaguewide tournament in Orlando beginning in June or July -- it seems unlikely that Inter Miami CF Stadium will host a game with fans this season.
No people in the seats would be a financial apocalypse for a league -- and a team -- that relies on ticket sales to drive revenue. Walter Franco, a senior manager at sports consultancy Victus Advisors LLC, estimates that Inter Miami will miss out on approximately $20 million in ticketing revenue without fans. Those losses will extend into 2021 if money that's already been paid for season tickets this year is applied to next year. Inter Miami chief operating officer and sporting director Paul McDonough said decisions about season-ticket revenue hadn't been made.
Franco also points to a loss of concession and merchandise revenue in the single-digit millions, and a decrease in local television and sponsorship revenue as well as a hit to the league's national television deal. Additionally, Inter Miami's rumored $234 million sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways is on hold, as are virtually all other sponsorship and revenue conversations, according to McDonough. If Inter Miami and MLS return to play in 2020, a good portion of the revenue they expected to generate isn't coming. Miami's owners likely planned to cover some losses in the franchise's first few years; now, they'll have to cover larger ones.
Despite the setback, Miami is in a stronger financial position than other recent MLS expansion franchises. One reason is the lower startup costs. Thanks to Beckham's contract stipulation, he and his partners spent just $25 million to buy into the league, a sixth of what the owners of fellow 2020 MLS debutant Nashville SC paid, and a fraction of the $325 million a franchise in Charlotte reportedly cost Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper.
Owning an MLS team is always a bet on the future. The average value of franchises continues to skyrocket, up 30% to $313 million from 2018 to 2019, and up almost 100% since 2015, according to Forbes. Beckham & Co. understand they have an asset that's building value. Although a $20 million revenue shortfall is massive, it's not franchise-crushing over a long time frame. McDonough said there had been no pay cuts in the front office. However, MLS is reportedly asking for a 10% salary cut for players, in addition to other economic concessions. An agreement has not been reached. The team, along with at least 10 others in MLS, applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan -- a loan that provides an incentive for small businesses to keep workers on payroll -- but the COO said they hadn't decided whether to accept the money. (One source reported that they declined to do so.)
The first years of the Inter Miami project were always going to be lean by design. The stadium situation in Fort Lauderdale is a temporary solution. The permanent solution, Miami Freedom Park, is a $1 billion project that includes a 25,000-seat stadium in addition to a hotel and an office park and is expected to be completed in 2022. "If things pick up from a global economic standpoint by the time they get their new stadium, they won't have missed that honeymoon period," Franco said. "Once things normalize and their new stadium kicks off, they will be able to hit the ground running."
On Saturday, March 14, the day the home opener was scheduled to take place, David Beckham couldn't stay away from the stadium. While Spice Girls music blared from the sound system, he gave his wife, Victoria, and children, Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper, a tour.
"It's times like these when we are reminded of the things that are truly important in life," he wrote in an Instagram post. "Our health, our loved ones, and looking after those that need support in our communities. In these moments, sport takes a back seat. We must all listen to expert advice and do the right thing. Stay safe and look out for yourselves and your families."
Soccer will eventually return to Inter Miami CF Stadium. As of May 6, the players were back doing individual training; the games are next and then the fans. "When that finally happens, it's going to be an amazing day," team captain Luis Robles said to ESPN FC in a phone interview. "A day worth celebrating. A day that goes down in South Florida history."
As for Ramos-Paez and the rest of The Siege, he says waiting longer will just make the home opener that much more special. "Whoever we actually play in that first home game," he said, "God help them, because that crowd is going to be ridiculous."