From the moment when David Beckham first landed stateside back in July 2007, the relationship between the Englishman and his employers was abundantly clear. MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy needed Beckham a lot more than the other way around. For that reason, MLS never quite reaped the full benefits of having the world's most recognizable soccer star ply his trade in the United States.
But after Beckham tore his left Achilles tendon on March 14 while playing for AC Milan, an injury that ended his dream of playing in a fourth consecutive World Cup, a new dynamic may be emerging. Beckham now finds himself with something of a last chance in terms of his MLS tenure by making the league his sole focus. In the process, he can come closer to delivering on the deal's original promise of helping the league significantly increase its foothold in the crowded U.S. sports landscape.
That the Beckham deal has in many ways failed to live up to its potential isn't even a question. League-wide, the average attendance per game has remained stubbornly in the 16,000 range, and while the global recession has certainly had an impact, that didn't stop places like Seattle and Toronto from consistently drawing near-sellout crowds. Meanwhile, the Galaxy's average attendance dropped by almost 6,000 fans per game last season. The effect has been to overshadow some of the league's more positive developments.
"If you think about the progress MLS has made, and the impact Beckham has had over the last couple of years, those two things are rather separate," said David Carter, who serves as executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC's Marshall School of Business. "He has no doubt contributed to interest and notoriety in the league. But MLS in its own right was doing quite a few of the right things with expansion and building soccer-specific stadiums."
Even as the league talks of the financial benefits it has enjoyed from Beckham's presence, he has largely been a star in absentia. Assuming that he meets his doctor's timetable of returning to the Galaxy by mid-September and plays the rest of the regular season, he'll have made a combined 51 regular-season and postseason appearances for the Galaxy since he first joined them. In the meantime, his teammates will have taken the field 112 times, meaning Beckham will have played in just over 45 percent of his team's matches.
Of course, not all of this is Beckham's fault. Injuries can strike at any time and have done so intermittently during his MLS tenure, especially during his inaugural season, when he played in only five league matches. His recall to England's national team, and with it his obsessive pursuit of another World Cup appearance, is less benign. While Beckham's desire for continued international glory was understandable, it set in motion a series of events that eroded the deal's potential benefits, at least as far as the league is concerned.
"[Beckham] getting back into the national team kind of threw a wrench into everything," admitted current ESPN broadcast analyst Alexi Lalas, who was the Galaxy's general manager when Beckham was signed. "Not in a bad way for him, but things just took a turn. Then he had to do the loan situation in order to satisfy [England manager] Fabio Capello. Then you're involving a tremendous amount of travel. I don't think it was something that anybody anticipated at the time, certainly not him. There was a huge deviation from the script that, admittedly, wasn't going quite as planned to begin with."
The net effect was that while Beckham was off playing with AC Milan and England, the league was being drained of goodwill as well as additional revenue.
"[Beckham] certainly has filled stadiums on the road, he has sold quite a few jerseys," Carter said. "But at the same time, he's at a point now where you've got a lot of people who are saying, 'We stood in line for this? We've been paying premium prices for an experience we're not sure we're going to have.' It's not malicious on the part of Beckham, but it is reality."
Even when Beckham has been on the field, his contribution has often been minimal. The one full season he played in MLS, in 2008, Beckham delivered some decidedly half-hearted displays for a horrid Galaxy side. It was only last season, one in which he spent half the campaign with AC Milan, when the soccer began to approach what was originally promised.
Now, with Beckham's international career seeming to be at an end, the opportunity to devote all of his energies to MLS is there. And while it would be a stretch to say that his relationship with his employer is one of equals, the pendulum has begun to swing back in the league's favor.
Of course, the coming months will dictate just how much that trend will continue. As of now, it's unclear whether helping MLS reach its goals is something Beckham is interested in. He certainly doesn't need more money or more adulation. And there may come a time when he decides that the pain and long hours of rehabilitation are not worth it. He certainly wouldn't be the first athlete to make that very difficult decision.
And incredibly, the specter of Beckham's resuming his international career still casts a pall over his continued involvement in MLS. Capello is on record as saying that if Beckham recovers, he'll consider him for selection during the Euro 2012 qualifiers. At first blush, it's difficult to take the England manger's comments seriously, as they sound more like a tribute than a serious consideration.
Yet given the Pavlovian nature of Beckham's relationship with Capello, one in which he has jumped through any number of hoops in order to satisfy the manager's demands, the possibility of a recall shouldn't be ruled out completely, especially if the prospect of exceeding Peter Shilton's record of 125 England caps is dangled in front of him.
But if Beckham chooses the comeback route solely with Los Angeles, one in which he will largely be viewed as a sympathetic figure, then MLS, the Galaxy and Beckham himself all stand to benefit both on and off the field. And rare have been the moments during the player's American adventure when that was true.
|MLS with Beckham
David Beckham joined the L.A. Galaxy for the 2007 season. Here is the average attendance for the Galaxy and the league since 2006:
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.