THE MAN who
brought David Beckham to Los Angeles leaned back in his corner office across
from the Staples Center last Friday and exhaled with satisfaction. On a sunny,
smog-free afternoon, the marquee outside the arena featured the planet's most
famous Englishman kneeling in full goal-celebration mode below the
still-startling news: BECKHAM COMES TO AMERICA. "We sold 5,000 season
tickets in less than 48 hours," said Tim Leiweke, president of the Anschutz
Entertainment Group, which owns Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy.
"And I'm like, I can't believe what just happened here."
A day earlier the
Galaxy had lured the 31-year-old Beckham away from Real Madrid with the most
lucrative contract in the history of American soccer, transforming the formerly
cost-conscious MLS forever. And with it, of course, came more spin than any of
Beckham's signature bending free kicks. What would it mean for the league,
which has added new owners, teams and stadiums in recent years but has yet to
crack the mainstream? "I'm not saying me coming to the States is going to
make soccer the biggest sport in America," said Becks. "But ... if I
didn't believe that I could make a difference and take soccer to a different
level, then I wouldn't be doing this."
contract really worth its widely reported $250 million? Well, no: His
guaranteed salary with the Galaxy is around $50 million over the five-year
deal—hardly chump change but still less than that of many U.S. sports stars.
Nor will it bankrupt the league or the team, since the Galaxy's owner, Phil
Anschutz, has a net worth of $7.8 billion. Becks will also earn 40% to 50% of
Galaxy jersey sales and an undisclosed share of ticket revenue, but as long as
he doesn't suffer a major injury or turn out to be a total bust, he'll likely
be worth the investment.
isn't the same player who finished second in the FIFA World Player of the Year
voting in 1999 and 2001 with Manchester United. Yet while he has been dropped
from England's national team and used sparingly this season by Real Madrid,
he's no stiff—his World Cup performance last summer wasn't nearly as dreary as
the cynical Fleet Street media would have you believe—and his still-dangerous
free kicks, pinpoint passing and blue-collar effort should make him one of the
top MLS players.
Leiweke laid the
groundwork for the Beckham deal in 2003 by helping establish Beckham's soccer
academies in London and Los Angeles. But there was no guarantee Beckham would
sign with the Galaxy once they began negotiations on Jan. 1. Real Madrid had a
two-year contract on the table, and other European clubs were in pursuit.
Leiweke signed the Galaxy's end of the contract late on the night of Jan. 10 at
a hotel courtesy-phone counter near the baggage claim at LAX airport. But when
he woke up at 4 a.m., he still didn't have confirmation from Madrid—and AEG had
a 6 a.m. deadline to pull the full-page Beckham ads it had bought for the next
day's New York Times or face losing $100,000.
extension from the Old Grey Lady was all the serendipity needed. At 6:10 a.m.,
just after Beckham had notified Madrid of his departure in a meeting, the call
came from his agents: "Run the ads."
"We've got a
deal?" Leiweke asked.
"We've got a
now is to leverage Beckham's arrival into something bigger. Nearly lost in the
hype over Beckham's signing has been MLS's new investment in youth-development
teams for all its clubs and the news last week that 23-year-old New England
Revolution midfielder Clint Dempsey, the reigning U.S. player of the year, had
been sold to Fulham of the English Premier League for an MLS-record $4 million.
While Dempsey's move was further proof that MLS can produce American players
for the global stage—something the defunct NASL never did—it was also a
reminder that young Yanks of his caliber can (and should) go abroad until the
overall quality of MLS begins to approach the Premier League.
How does Beckham
fit into that equation? After all, one player can't elevate the skill level of
an entire league. But the dreamer who's bringing him to Hollywood argues that
Beckham—who could make his L.A. debut as soon as April—can have a
paradigm-shifting effect on MLS. "One of the things David can do is change
the economics of the game," Leiweke says. "If we suddenly get to a
point where [MLS] clubs are making twice the revenue, then we can spend more
money on keeping players here. That may be David's greatest gift when all is
said and done." A grand experiment, and a serious attempt to make soccer
matter, is about to commence.