Ten years ago, Major League Soccer was a fledgeling soccer league in America who still had outside doubts they could remain in business after 11 seasons. Needing to make a splash in the American sports and world soccer landscape, MLS risked it all and got the one player everyone knew.
In 2007, David Beckham was 31-years-old. He wasn’t the best player in the world but he was one of the best players in the world and with his Spice Girl wife Victoria, was the most well known soccer player in the world.
If MLS wanted to attract new fans, Beckham was the one and only choice to attract that. Even someone at the top of their game, like Thierry Henry who would come to New York three years later, wouldn’t have had the same appeal as Becks.
At that time, Beckham was one of the few “mainstream” soccer stars who was also a household name in the United States. I know this by personal experience. My mother doesn’t watch sports and she definitely doesn’t watch soccer. If she knows and recognizes who an athlete is, they have passed that test of being a household name. Even though I write about and have worked in soccer and MLS, my mother only knows the names of two soccer players, Pele and David Beckham. So, signing Beckham was huge for MLS in a marketing sense.
To attract Beckham to the United States, one way was for MLS and the Los Angles Galaxy to do the same to Beckham as Pele was told by the New York Cosmos and the NASL. Beckham can go to any team in the world and win trophies. But the United States was the final frontier where the sport can flourish and David Beckham could be the man to finally make soccer a mainstream sport in the United States.
The move may have been huge but MLS sure paid for it. In a five year deal, including sponsorship deals and clauses that included MLS ownership (which we’ll get into later), Beckham’s contract was worth a total of $250 million. Because of MLS’ tight salary cap rules, the Designated Player rule came into effect where a team could sign one player for a salary that didn’t contribute to the cap in hopes other big names would follow Beckham.
The move may not have worked in all facets but it wound up helping MLS become a more sustainable soccer league in the long run. Attendance and ratings may not have magically gone up everyone simply because Beckham was in MLS but they did when the Galaxy was playing. More importantly, it got players from Europe to start to look at what MLS was offering. Soon, guys like Henry, Robbie Keane, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard have all come over at various points in the last ten years.
David Beckham left the Galaxy in 2012 and eventually finished his career at PSG in 2013. Now, Beckham is still involved with MLS, even though that is a double edged sword. One of the clauses in Beckham’s contract was he could purchase an MLS expansion team for $25 million. A figure that was a bit of a discount in 2007, is literally a bargain now considering expansion spots are going for well over $100 million. And except for NYC or LA, Beckham could put the team just about anywhere else in the United States. Beckham chose Miami and while both MLS and Beckham were hopeful they could start playing, the team has experienced heavy delays in just getting approved for a stadium site, much less forming other parts of the team. We are coming up on three years since the announcement with no timetable in sight.
Despite that momentary PR hiccup, MLS has thrived in the 10 years since David Beckham was signed. Not every piece of success came down to Beckham but it was a crucial moment in MLS history that got them on the right track. In 2007, there were just 13 MLS teams. Ten years later, Atlanta and Minnesota will make teams 21 and 22 with LAFC and Beckham’s Miami team, along with four unknown locations to eventually expand to 28 teams.
The league is making more money, especially with expansion fees and an $800 million TV deal. Teams now have three DP slots and have evolved in spending that money on talented players like Sebastian Giovinco and Nicolas Lodeiro, who are in their prime instead of getting a big name past his prime. MLS has grown from a league desperate for that kind of marketing to a league where that’s not the most important thing anymore.
But what is the most important is that the sport has grown to its most popular. A sport that had a glimpse of mainstream success in the 70’s, that faded into obscurity and then slowly came back from the fringes of sports, is now a mainstream sport. MLS may still have some work to do to get to that point but things like the Premier League, Liga MX and men’s and women’s U.S. national team soccer, in addition to the World Cup and Euro tournaments, have experienced more and more popularity. Even MLS enjoyed their highest MLS Cup Final viewership in years this season so things are still looking up.
And that all started ten years ago, when the biggest soccer star in the world came over to begin the revolution.