BY NANCY ARMOUR
Ask someone in Asia or Europe a decade ago what they knew about the Galaxy, and odds are the answer would have been limited to planets or stars. Nowadays, it’s likely to include a reference to “Beckham’s team,” the Major League Soccer franchise in Los Angeles.
By making the growth of football in the United States his pet project, David Beckham put the sport on a fast track, giving it the kind of legitimacy and visibility it would have taken decades to reach on its own. He spiked interest and attendance in MLS among both fans and corporate America, and sales of his jersey gave the league visibility around the globe.
“He brought relevancy and credibility, which is something that U.S. soccer, and maybe even more so Major League Soccer, has and continues to crave,” said Alexi Lalas, an ESPN analyst who was general manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy when Beckham arrived in 2007. “When people think now about Major League Soccer, they think about David Beckham. When people think about Major League Soccer now, the first team they think of is the Los Angeles Galaxy and that is because of David Beckham and the power of that brand.
“I think, many years from now, we’ll look back at the arrival of David Beckham as, not the most important and one of many, but certainly a very important platform from which Major League Soccer and soccer in general in the United States used to evolve.”
And though Beckham said Thursday he will retire when the French season ends May 26, his impact in the United States will continue. Beckham was given the right to purchase an expansion MLS team, the second team in New York excluded, and has said repeatedly he plans to exercise that option when he’s finished playing.
Contrary to the naysayers who dismiss football as a game for kids to grow out of, the sport had already established a solid foothold when Beckham arrived. The United States hosted a successful World Cup in 1994. MLS was more than a decade old, and there was enough interest in the international game to support three English-language TV channels devoted almost exclusively to football as well as another in Spanish. American players were no longer oddities in the top European leagues, and it wasn’t just goalkeepers.
But football was still trying to break out of that niche status, and it needed someone with the skill and celebrity to do it.
It needed Beckham.
His credentials as a player were unquestioned, having won multiple titles with Manchester United and Real Madrid and served as England’s captain for the better part of a decade. Couple that with his ever-changing hairstyles, Spice Girl wife and a Hollywood “Who’s Who” list of friends, and he gave MLS and American football a pizazz that was worth far more than his initial $32.5 million paycheck.
“He certainly revved up the engine,” said Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. “It certainly put what was a well-moving sport in the U.S. into a stronger gear, into a higher gear.”
His impact was felt immediately. The Galaxy drew sold-out crowds almost everywhere they went, with fans all over the country eager to get an up-close look at Beckham. That helped lift attendance throughout the league; the regular-season average in 2006, the last full season before Beckham joined MLS, was 15,504. Last year, it was 18,807.
Investors wanted to get involved in the action, too. When Toronto FC joined MLS shortly before Beckham’s signing was announced, the expansion fee was $10 million. Five years later, the expansion fee for the Montreal Impact had risen to $40 million, and the asking price for a second New York team is $100 million.
His off-the-field escapades — Tom Cruise hosted his “Welcome to L.A.” party — got the attention of non-football fans.
“Right from the start, there was curiosity,” said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who coached Beckham his last four-plus seasons in Los Angeles. “And once people saw him play, they saw there was a lot to this guy both as a player and an icon.”
Beckham’s L.A. Galaxy jersey became a must-have item in the wardrobes of football fans across the globe, and the team capitalized on his popularity with offseason tours to Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and the Philippines.
“The Galaxy became a team known throughout world,” Gulati said. “It’s not in the same breath as Manchester United or Real Madrid, obviously. But it’s actually very well known throughout the world, and David is a big part of it.”
Beckham also elevated the league’s stature with international players.
Major League Soccer operates on a strict salary structure, and it was unwilling to break its bank for any player until Beckham came along. Thanks to the “Beckham Rule,” each MLS team now can have up to three “designated players” whose salaries only partially count against the salary cap. That’s helped attract players like Thierry Henry, who now plays for the New York Red Bulls after starring at Arsenal and Barcelona, and Robbie Keane, who is now with the Galaxy after more than a decade in the EPL.
Mexico captain Rafa Marquez, Henry’s teammate at Barcelona, also played in MLS.
“What Beckham signaled was that MLS was going to start hiring top talent, which they’d never had,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. “It’s still not at the level of a European soccer league. Or even some of the teams in South America. … But MLS at least turned the corner and created some momentum. And also created some excitement.”
Though it took Beckham and the Galaxy a few seasons to get in sync, they eventually found their groove, winning the league title in both 2011 and 2012. Beckham even stuck around for another season after his initial contract expired in 2011, surprising many who expected him to go back to Europe.
But Beckham has made the United States his own little project, and he’s not finished yet.
“Ownership is about perception, and I think you can’t have somebody that will generate more interest and eyeballs than David Beckham,” Lalas said. “But he is also smart enough to know what he doesn’t know and smart enough to surround himself with good people.
“Having him as an owner can only be a positive for the individual team that he’s a part of. But also for the league in general and, ultimately, soccer.”