For Foreign Investors in a Soccer Stadium, U.S. Visas Are the Goal


The team’s solution “ended up being a win-win-win for everybody,” Dyer said in his office near the 10.55-acre building site, where the skeleton of the stadium is taking shape. “What I tell other mayors is that I’m the happiest mayor in America, and I go through the whole litany, including soccer.”

Da Silva knew about the EB-5 program because he obtained his own green card in 2009 by investing in a now-troubled project in Vermont. While the strongest demand for EB-5 visas is from China, da Silva, who made a fortune building a chain of English-language schools in his native Brazil, decided to single out his countrymen.

Brazilians are soccer-mad and some even follow Orlando City, whose games are broadcast in Brazil and who are led by Kaká, a World Cup winner for Brazil and a former world player of the year.

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Phil Rawlins, founder and president of the Orlando City team, said about $5 million in new commitments was being secured each month.

Credit
Loren Elliott for The New York Times

Da Silva’s sales pitch has benefited from several years of political and economic turmoil in Brazil, where some of the country’s elite are rushing to move money offshore.

The club said it had already attracted 30 investors, bringing in $15 million, or 10 percent of the project’s cost. Rawlins, the founder of the team and its president, said about $5 million in new commitments is secured each month.

“I don’t know why people haven’t taken more advantage of it, because it’s a perfect thing when you’re building a stadium,” Rawlins said of the visa program. “The program is really about economic development.”

Mark Abbott, the deputy commissioner of M.L.S., said the league had reviewed the financing proposal and found it “innovative.”

“The league doesn’t permit this type of financing for clubs,” Abbott said, “but for stadium projects, we thought it was appropriate.”

In addition to their stakes in the company that runs the stadium, investors in the project receive two club seats for 10 seasons. (The investors have no control over the team itself, which is part of a separate company.) But da Silva and others did not dispute that the visas were the real draw.

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Kevin Molino celebrated a goal for Orlando City in M.L.S. action in April at the Citrus Bowl. The team’s new stadium is scheduled to open for the 2017 seasons of both Orlando City of M.L.S. and the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Credit
John Raoux/Associated Press

Using the EB-5 program, though, can be complicated because the construction site must be in an area with high unemployment. To qualify, boundaries are sometimes gerrymandered to create an economically challenged (but essentially manufactured) neighborhood.

Developers also must spend millions of their own money to start the construction because it can take months and even years for the government to approve each EB-5 visa. Visa applicants must pass a background check and prove that the project is viable and will create at least 10 jobs for each visa issued. The visas can be made permanent after a two-year probationary period.

Some financial advisers recommend that foreigners who are considering putting $500,000 into a real estate project choose a hotel, mall or other more certain venture — anything but a sports stadium, whose main tenant could have unpredictable results.

“When these guys win games and championships, great, but if they’re not, that cash flow could change,” said Michael Gibson, who helps foreigners invest in EB-5 projects. “Why invest in that when you can invest in something steadier?”

It is unclear how long other sports franchise owners will have the EB-5 program as a financing option. It is facing new questions on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are trying to close loopholes that allowed money to be steered from projects in needy areas toward wealthier districts. Some EB-5-funded projects have turned into boondoggles, producing little or no economic benefit. In other cases, foreign investors have accused developers of misspending their money and not paying promised returns.

For now, opponents of the program have been unable to get the votes to overhaul or eliminate it, so other teams may be able to follow the path Orlando City has blazed.

In M.L.S. alone, a group led by David Beckham, the former soccer star from England, has been trying for years to assemble a plan for a stadium in Miami, and the owners of teams in New York, Los Angeles and Washington are in various stages of the same process.

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