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Jul 17, 2008

Beckham brand continues to swell Galaxy's coffers

The mania was supposed to be over by now.

Arguably the most popular man on the planet, David Beckham was thought to be a one-hit wonder -- critics were telling us last year that "Bend It Like Beckham" was a downward trajectory. He would be one-and-done, according to the American public, who would quickly turn back to Brangelina and a love affair with low-rise jeans.

Couldn't be further from the truth.

His play on the field can speak for itself and needs no defending -- even the most stalwart of Beckham bashers must give kudos to the player. With five goals and seven assists, the midfielder has played brilliantly at times, earning his way back into England's national team and being the catalyst for his club team's rise near the top of the Western Conference. His play has turned a very average side into one of the most potent offenses in MLS.

"David's on-field performance has been instrumental in our improvement this season. He's healthy and contributing on a consistent basis," said Galaxy president and general manager Alexi Lalas. "David's presence has also contributed to the success of other players, like Edson Buddle."

Case in point. Buddle, an oft-maligned forward, has enjoyed a renaissance year with the club. With Beckham's right foot providing better service than a five-star hotel, the seven-year pro has tallied 11 goals to tie his career high. He has done all this in just 13 games with the club. Coincidence? Yet, as stellar as his play has been, the only thing louder than the cheers for No. 23's play on the field is the ringing of the cash register off of it.

Through 10 home fixtures, the Galaxy are easily the best draw in MLS by any barometer. At the Home Depot Center, L.A. has drawn 25,513 to its home in Carson, outpacing the league's second-best attendance (Toronto FC) by nearly 5,000 a game. Last year, the team drew an average of 24,252 over a 15-match home schedule, half of which was played without Beckham; this also was tops in MLS. And with the superstar player have come super high prices, sort of.

"There is a method to any perceived madness when it comes to the business of David Beckham at the Galaxy. We have and will continue to recoup our costs through ticket sales, sponsorship, tours and other traditional and non-traditional revenue streams," said Lalas on the business of Beckham. "For example, we have gone from a $20 average ticket price in '06 to a $38 average ticket price in '08. While this is a significant increase, it still makes us one of the most affordable forms of entertainment in Los Angeles."

Beckham is proving his worth not just in Los Angeles but in other MLS cities as well, making the Galaxy away match the most anticipated on nearly every team's schedule. Through six games, the team has attracted an average of 27,094 fans to MLS stadiums across the country. But for the fact that many of these matches were sell-outs in more intimate soccer specific stadiums, this number could have been much higher. How impressive is this stat? This number is about a 1,000 fans shy of the combined average of the gate that the Houston Dynamo and D.C. United have drawn on the road this year.

Last year's fixture in New York was the highest attended stand-alone game in MLS history and contributed to the Galaxy's league-high road attendance average of 28,035. With a visit at the Red Bulls this weekend, that number for this year will surely climb higher. Already, Red Bull has sold 42,000 seats for Saturday's game, almost triple the average of their home gate to date.

The pre-sale of tickets in New York is mirroring the turnout last year to the point that the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority is prepared to once again staff the game like a NFL event. StubHub is reporting that nearly 1,000 seats are available for the second British invasion, a record number for the Red Bulls this season. Tickets range in price from $15 for an upper tier seat to prime passes at $275. The average ticket price for the game comes in at $52, well above the sale price. The total dollar volume on Stub Hub is already double that of a typical Red Bull game, with the majority of tickets for the game still up for auction on the site.

It isn't just a New York or even a road phenomenon. At home, Galaxy fans continue to pay top-dollar to see their team and their Beckham play. StubHub also reports a brisk business for seats at the Home Depot Center, with fans reaching into their pockets for an average ticket price of $64 dollars. This number reflects a drop off of only four dollars over last year's average to see Beckham in his debut season in MLS.

On the merchandising front, Beckham is still making his mark. In the first week of jersey sales last year, Beckham sold over 300,000 replicas, far outpacing expectations. While that torrid pace has cooled off, sales remain strong as the total number of jerseys for the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star recently topped 500,000, according to the Galaxy. His jersey remains the top seller in all of MLS.

Eventually, the ultimate litmus of this Beckham experiment will be what culture grows out of this particular petri dish. MLS has seen its share of flop signings and bad transactions, but how the league capitalizes on this surge will determine its fate, perhaps forever. Standing at a crossroad in its development, MLS must decide how Los Angeles and in fact New York and the rest of MLS will flourish when the magic of Beckham is no longer around to inflate the attendance numbers.

"D.C. United boasts some of the most passionate and sophisticated soccer fans in America. That said, there are certain games that draw general sports fans and others to RFK Stadium for special events, as when David Beckham comes to town," said Doug Hicks, vice president of communications for United. A few weeks ago, the club drew just shy of 36,000 for its game against Los Angeles, nearly a 60 percent increase over their average attendance to date. "The sales department then follows up with single-game buyers to encourage return visits to see D.C. United play."

This will be the challenge that follows this Saturday's contest at Giants Stadium, which will undoubtedly be the largest attendance number in the league for the year. Without the Galaxy fixture last year, the Red Bulls average attendance plummets by more than 4000 a game and is near the bottom for all team's league-wide. With the game, the Red Bulls still managed to draw an average of 16,530 fans per game, still below the league average. To underscore this discrepancy, the 66,237 who flocked to Giants Stadium last August to see Becks was more than the five previous MLS games drew at the Meadowlands, combined.

"Ultimately, the true measure of Beckham's impact will be what happens after he is gone. Both the franchise value and the relevancy of the L.A. Galaxy have dramatically increased, but we still have a lot of work to do," said Lalas. "One challenge is turning a large number of David Beckham fans into Galaxy fans. We have exposed the Galaxy to a large group of casual fans who otherwise wouldn't have necessarily thought to attend a soccer game. For a good percentage, we feel that the personal experience of a Galaxy game will resonate and bring them back, even after David is gone."

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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