By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News
When David Beckham left the Iberian peninsula last year for the US, he was feted as a latter-day Christopher Columbus, seeking to discover the lost football tribes of America.
David Beckham is the highest profile player in US Major League Soccer
Such was the hype surrounding his move from Real Madrid to LA Galaxy, one could almost have thought the game, commonly known Stateside as soccer, had never been played to any great standard.
Yet this was a country whose national team has qualified for the past five consecutive Fifa World Cups, and there had been national football leagues - in one form or another - for decades.
Beckham's task - despite his protestations about a new playing challenge - was in fact to be the great consolidator, whose high-profile presence was meant to help assure the league did not crumble, as previous incarnations over the years had done.
And, speaking to the BBC at the Leaders in Football seminar in London, Ivan Gazidis of the Major League Soccer (MLS) organisation was keen to put Beckham's position in building solid foundations for the sport into a broader context.
"The David Beckham signing was a hugely positive thing for us," says Mr Gazidis, who is MLS deputy commissioner.
"But it is not the beginning and end for us in the US. What had been happening before David Beckham was that the market place had really been gaining traction."
The 2002 World Cup run gave the impetus to football expansion
A 2002 World Cup quarter-final place provided the impetus to build stadiums at a steady pace, with Los Angeles opening one just a year later. In the past week, the MLS has opened its seventh new arena, in Salt Lake City.
"Where we have really advanced is in building our own soccer stadiums," says Mr Gazidis, a South African who has been with MLS since 1994.
"It has dramatically improved the experience for players and spectators. It is very different to have 20,000 to 30,000 people in a compact stadium, rather than in a large NFL stadium."
MLS crowds averaging 16,700 have been dwarfed in huge gridiron bowls, providing a dispiriting atmosphere for fans and players.
"You can now go to MLS games - such as in Toronto - where the atmosphere is as intense as anywhere in the world," says Gazidis.
"It also means we can now control our own schedule and we take any ancillary revenue - suites, parking, concessions and so on."
As stadium numbers and domestic television coverage has increased, MLS has seen revenues increase.
Los Angeles Galaxy make a profit in their first season at the new Home Depot Centre, while FC Dallas were commercially boosted by their move to Pizza Hut Park in 2005.
New football-specific stadiums are boosting the US club scene
The MLS operates as a single-entity structure and teams are centrally controlled by the league.
Revenues are shared throughout the league, player contracts are negotiated by the league, and players are contracted, not with individual teams, but with the league itself.
"A good indicator from the league is in terms of what is happening with team values," Mr Gazidis points out.
"In 2005 we sold two teams for $7,500 each. Now we have opened bidding for teams number 17 and 18, the price is $40m, and we have seven or eight bidders for the two teams.
"For teams number 19 and 20, it is going to be higher than $40m."
There are currently 14 MLS teams divided between the Eastern and Western Conferences, with Seattle and Philadelphia set to join in 2009 as the 15th and 16th.
"There is a tremendous confidence and improvement in what is happening in the US," says Gazidis.
"Owners in the US have a different business model. A lot of our owners are part of a new ownership trend in the US.
"For example, AEG, which owns the Los Angeles Galaxy - it is a conglomerate which owns sports teams, and stadiums and arenas such as the O2 in London and Berlin Arena, as well as entertainment businesses."
Mr Gazidis says this model of diversified sports and entertainment ownership is a new trend, and one often augmented by the sports club owners also owning a broadcasting network.
"Look at Stan Kroenke in the Denver market," says 44-year-old Mr Gazidis. "He not only owns sports teams, he owns stadiums and the TV station that distributes the sport on local TV.
"He aggregates content and he distributes it. We don't have any kinds of issues about that in the US, although you might have in the UK.
"Our ownership group is one of the strongest groups of any sports league in the world."
Owners include Stan Kroenke, Phil Anschutz, the Hunt family, the Kraft family, Paul Allen of Microsoft at new team Seattle, and Red Bull of Austria.
Individual club owners come to MLS board meetings three times a year, in a tightly-knit partnership of wealthy and powerful individuals who make collective decisions driven by long-term strategic objectives.
But there are some dissenting voices, with one US soccer insider based in New York saying: "With the current economic downturn, I wonder how many people will pay around $40 to watch what can be games of a fairly average standard."
However, Jeff Agoos, sporting director of club New York Red Bull, says: "We are getting there. We are pulling the fans in to soccer.
"We are getting the soccer message out there in the US and building a strong foundation."
World Cup rights
And Will Wilson of Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of MLS, says that getting football "into the mind of kids" is a key way to ensure growth and a continued future for the game in the US.
Mr Wilson, whose role is to gain football media exposure and credibility, adds: "We have also taken the approach that it is better to sell soccer through the combined MLS league approach rather than through promoting an individual star club or team."
Meanwhile, continued interest can be seen in the World Cup broadcasting rights value, which has soared in the US. A $425m deal has been signed with Fifa for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups combined.
And from 2007, clubs have been carrying individual sponsors on shirt fronts, as well as carrying the regulation MLS-wide sponsors on shirt backs.
So, rather than David Beckham precipitating all these many soccer developments, it was, insists Gazidis, "these developments that allowed us to buy David Beckham".