Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 13:40 UK

Beckham's US move: One year on

By Matthew Price
BBC News

America loves its celebrities, and it loves its winners.

David Beckham is both, and they clearly love him too.

Fans with BECKS spelled out on their midriffs
David Beckham is clearly popular with young female football fans
In the year since he first played for LA Galaxy after a multi-million dollar deal, the one-man marketing machine has helped fuel record attendances and record sales of merchandise across a country where soccer (aka "football") is hardly a sporting passion.

When the New York Red Bulls hosted LA Galaxy this weekend, the obligatory group of young female fans was screaming for Beckham.

They'd painted B-E-C-K-S onto their midriffs.

"It's so surreal to see him. He's right here in front of us! He smiled at us!"

He whips the ball in the mixer
US fan
They were not, though, Galaxy fans - but New York Red Bull supporters.

This match was clearly testing their allegiance.

"David Beckham was one of the reasons we wanted to come to this game," one woman admitted, as children swarmed around in "Beckham, 23" shirts.

"David Beckham brings class to the game in America. He whips the ball in the mixer," another fan added.

Along with whipping in the mixer - whatever that may be - there's no doubt that Beckham has raised the profile of the game in this country.

Most of the fans at the game wouldn't have come if he hadn't been playing.

'More experimenting'

Is it, though, Beckham's football or his celebrity that's attracting them?

David Beckham
David Beckham has raised the profile of football, or "soccer", in the US
"I don't care as long as they're here and as long as they're watching the game," Beckham said at a pre-match press conference.

"Whether it's because of my celebrity or whether they just want to see a soccer game, it's so important that people turn out and enjoy the game."

In fact, if you ask the bosses of Major League Soccer in the US the same question, it's clear that the celebrity aspect was the driving force behind bringing him here in the first place.

"David is to Major League Soccer in many ways what Michael Jordan was to the NBA [basketball] or Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL [hockey]," says Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer.

"When they go on the road the attendances are far higher and that's a good thing because more people are experimenting with soccer in America.

"As long as a percentage of them stay with us and become bigger fans, that's a good thing."

The hype's there, we've got to keep it going
David Beckham
Certainly the last year has made Beckham even more of a star in the States.

He and his wife Victoria now get the kind of attention in the US gossip magazines that they might well rather not have.

Coast to coast, he sprawls across billboards in his underpants, or his sunglasses.

He even - with a wry smile - steals pens off autograph hunters in one television ad.

It is exactly what the money-men who signed the deal wanted.

To what end though? Few here believe that soccer could ever attempt to rival the big three: American football, basketball, and baseball.

'Going well'

"Our goal is not to beat the NFL or beat the NBA - our goal is to be a respected sport," says Mr Garber.

He argues they have the fan base already.

Major League Soccer's Don Garber wants football to be 'respected'

Five million people in America, he says, watched the European Football Championships this year.

"There is no doubt in our mind that we will be a major, major league in the United States at some point," Mr Garber adds.

As for David Beckham, he says football here is growing, "but it's going to take time".

"It's a long term plan.

"It's going well, and that's obviously what this game needs in this country. The hype's there, we've got to keep it going."

Hype, though, may not be enough.

Besides a few exceptions, the quality of play is pretty low.

Standing in a sweltering Giants stadium, watching the Red Bulls and Galaxy scratch a 2-2 draw, felt a little like watching second division football back in England.

Don't just take my word for it.

One of Beckham's reported successes was the role he played in attracting the former Dutch international Ruud Gullit to sign up as manager of LA Galaxy this season.

As Gullit told journalists just after the game, "a lot of players still need to work on their own game, and that means they can't think for the team, so you have to start at the beginning.

"For me it doesn't go quickly enough."

How often do you hear a manager of a supposedly major club say he's basically starting from scratch?

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