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Beckham's American dream

By Simon Austin

David Beckham
The LA Galaxy jersey was Adidas's worldwide best seller in 2007

When David Beckham was unveiled by LA Galaxy in July 2007, he presented himself as a modern-day missionary who would take "soccer" to the American masses.

"Some people laughed at me, but this move is not about the money," he insisted after signing a five-year deal estimated to be worth $10m per season.

"The main thing is to improve the standard and be part of history really. I think soccer can be a lot bigger in the US."

Less than two years on, the project already appears to be drawing to a close. Beckham will return to Los Angeles in mid-July to play out the remainder of the Major League Soccer season, which finishes in November, and then seems certain to exercise a "break clause" allowing him to leave after three seasons.

The 33-year-old's obvious relish at playing for Milan and his eagerness to move permanently to the San Siro have seemed to damn the MLS by implication.

So it would be easy to dismiss Beckham's American odyssey as a failure and that's what many will do. But if you talk to people involved in MLS and look at the facts and figures, a different story emerges.

The former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol is ideally placed to assess Beckham's influence. The Scot has lived in the States for the past decade and has been head coach of the New England Revolution since 2002.

"Beckham's impact here has been absolutely huge," he told BBC Sport. "Soccer was already becoming more popular before he arrived, but he has greatly accelerated the process.

Beckham's impact on MLS attendances

"People who had no interest in the game a couple of years ago now know about it, which is down to David."

Helping to get football into the national consciousness has been Beckham's greatest achievement, agrees Professor Andrei Markovits of the University of Michigan.

Markovits is the author of the book Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism , which explores why football has never become the phenomenon in America that it has in the rest of the world.

"Beckham turned soccer into a household word and you can't monetise that," Markovits told BBC Sport.

"He created a buzz that no-one else could have matched, not even Lionel Messi or Kaka. When Beckham arrived, there were big ads of him in his underwear on the sides of the street, Posh had her own TV show, they were friends with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated - the immediate impact was immense.

"When you went to the checkout, people were talking about him, when you switched on the TV he was on a talk show and when you opened a tabloid, there he was. It created a big ripple effect."

This had an immediate impact on MLS attendances. When Galaxy travelled to the New York Red Bulls on 18 August 2007, shortly after Beckham had moved over from Real Madrid, a league-record crowd of 66,237 packed into the Giants Stadium to watch a thrilling 5-4 win for the home side.

LA Galaxy's average home attendance in 2008 was 26,009, a dramatic 24.9% increase on 2006, while MLS attendances as a whole went up 6.9% during the same period.

David Beckham on the cover of Sports Illustrated
Beckham's arrival was big news in the US media

Eleven of the 13 teams recorded their biggest 2008 gates when Beckham's Galaxy were in town and the former England skipper's appeal was such that fans demanded refunds if he wasn't playing.

His impact on television ratings was also significant, with average viewing figures on ESPN increasing by 23% when the midfielder featured.

That said, the numbers watching MLS on American television were still extremely modest. An average of 253,000 people watched live matches on ESPN in 2008, which was comparable with the viewing figures for women's basketball.

MLS did start to feature prominently in the daily news agenda while Beckham was in the States though, as Markovits explains. "ESPN's SportsCenter runs a feature with the top 10 plays of the day from US sport. That never used to include soccer," he said, "but since Beckham, soccer goals have become a regular feature."

And whereas Nicol was unable to find any information about the English Premier League when he first moved to America, there are now the 24-hour football channels, Gol TV and Fox Soccer, as well as ESPN, newspapers and the internet to keep him abreast of the latest news.

Beckham has also been a huge success in sponsorship and marketing terms. In 2007, Galaxy became the only the second side in the history of US team sports, following in the footsteps of their MLS rivals Real Salt Lake, to feature a sponsor's name, Herbalife, on their shirts.

It turned into a great deal for both parties, with Galaxy being paid $4.5m to $5m a season, according to the highly reputable SportsBusiness Journal , and the nutrition company gaining exposure around the world thanks to Beckham.

ESPN viewing figures 23% higher for games Beckham plays in
Galaxy's 2007 revenue accounts for more than a fifth of the MLS total
League-record crowd of 66,237 watches Beckham play for LA against New York in August 2007
Galaxy become only the second in the history of US team sports to have a shirt sponsor in 2007
LA Galaxy jersey is Adidas's worldwide best seller in 2007
Beckham played a total of 30 matches for Galaxy, contributing five goals and 12 assists
Galaxy finished 11th in 2007 and 12th in 2008 (out of 13 teams)

The shirt's manufacturer, Adidas, was also delighted, as the Galaxy jersey became its worldwide best seller in 2007.

Galaxy capitalised on the interest in Beckham by immediately increasing ticket prices from $21.50 to $32, which helped their revenue for the 2007 season increase to $7,436,529. That accounted for an impressive 21% of the entire league's revenue.

The ironic thing is that Galaxy's form on the pitch during Beckham's tenure was little short of abysmal. After arriving from Real Madrid halfway through the 2007 season, he played just five times because of a persistent ankle injury and Galaxy finished 11th in the 13-team league.

The midfielder managed 25 appearances in 2008, scoring five goals and supplying 10 assists, but could not prevent Galaxy finishing joint bottom of the league, ahead of San Jose only on goal difference.

The biggest problem was that, aside from Beckham and Landon Donovan, the standard of the rest of the squad was fairly poor.

This was hardly surprising when Beckham's $5.5m basic salary and the $900,000 paid to Donovan accounted for a big chunk of Galaxy's salary cap, meaning that several members of the squad were earning only $12,900 per season.

It does make you wonder what Beckham's impact would have been had the team actually been successful.

The big question now is whether the momentum generated can be sustained once he is gone. After all, attendances and television figures had already dropped off slightly in 2008 following the sharp spike seen in 2007.

MLS will survive without Beckham - Gazidis

And sponsors are unlikely to take a favourable view of the midfielder's departure. Herbalife, for example, have a clause in their contract with Galaxy requiring the team to have an "international star" on its roster, according to the Sports Business Journal.

Yet Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis insists MLS will continue to grow in the absence of Beckham.

"When the story of MLS is written, David will be a chapter, not the whole book," Gazidis, who was pivotal in bringing Beckham to MLS in his previous role as deputy commissioner of the MLS, told BBC Sport.

"The signing was a symptom of the success of the league rather than the cause. If we look at our new team in Seattle, who enter the league this year, they are the first side in the history of MLS to sell more than 20,000 season tickets. That is incredible and it's not down to David.

"MLS still has a terrific business plan built on slow and steady growth and continuing to take steps forward, year after year."

Gazidis cites the recent World Cup qualifier between the US and Mexico, which attracted a record audience on Spanish-language TV in the States, peaking at 10.7m, as further evidence that football is becoming part of mainstream culture.

BBC Sport's Simon Austin

"By 2050, one in four Americans will be Hispanic, and they have soccer in their blood," the 44-year-old, who was with MLS for 14 years, said. "The young kids playing the game today are able to watch on television, read about it on the internet.

"That wasn't the case even five years ago, when their only interaction with the game was to play with their 10 or 11-year-old friends at the weekend in a very regulated environment.

"Do I believe soccer can go up to another level? Absolutely."

Despite all this, there is still a palpable sense of regret when you talk to some football followers in the US about Beckham's decision to turn his back on them.

Markovits admits that when he looks back on the episode now, he sees a missed opportunity.

"If Beckham had stayed for the full five years, playing for the Galaxy and England, he could have gone down as a major pioneer of the game in the US. This is what he promised in that first press conference.

"I absolutely thought he would have attracted other top players, but he didn't give it a chance, he threw in the towel.

"I hope another team can bring a world superstar to the States, but whoever they get, they won't be able to match Beckham."

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see also
Beckham to extend AC Milan stay
06 Mar 09 |  Europe
How Beckham conquered Milan
14 Feb 09 |  Europe
Beckham backlash
16 Aug 07 |  Football
Beckham's US test
12 Jul 07 |  Football
Beckham makes Major League debut
10 Aug 07 |  Football
LA pitfalls awaiting Beckham
23 Jul 07 |  Football
US football kicks on with Beckham
12 Oct 08 |  Business
Will Brand Beckham break America?
12 Jul 07 |  Entertainment
Beckham's LA debut in pictures
22 Jul 07 |  Football
Galaxy to take Beckham to England
16 Jul 07 |  Football
Beckham agrees to LA Galaxy move
12 Jan 07 |  Football
LA Galaxy admit Beckham interest
06 Nov 06 |  Football

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