The window of opportunity was small. So small that it took some vision to see it – to recognize that, for the substantial risk, the payoff could bend the arc of Major League Soccer’s brief existence. And that one man’s presence could help take the decade-old North American soccer circuit from an often troubled present to a thriving future.
Real Madrid, as often, was in turmoil. And in the first half of the 2006-07 season, soccer’s resident superstar David Beckham wasn’t playing much. Ramon Calderon had just been elected the Spanish club’s new president, and even though he had won on his promise of signing big-name players – and he would later land Cristiano Ronaldo – he somehow simultaneously rejected his predecessor Florentino Perez’s policy of buying “galacticos.” Beckham was one of those Perezian superstars, and the new manager installed by Calderon, Fabio Capello, initially had no use for the Englishman.
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Beckham was 31, in his prime, in the final year of his contract at Real and benched mostly for political reasons.
The Los Angeles Galaxy smelled an opportunity.
The club had quietly been laying the groundwork to sign Beckham for a long time, just in case the opportunity ever arose. When it stunned the soccer world by inking him to a five-year contract on Jan. 11, 2007 – a decade ago on Wednesday – the Galaxy had actually been working on bringing Beckham over for over two years.
The Galaxy is owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which, among a host of other things, has put on American Idol events. As such, then-AEG CEO Tim Leiweke had regular dealings with Idol creator Simon Fuller, who also happened to be the agent for Beckham, his Spice Girl wife Victoria and a stable of other famous people.
Leiweke nurtured the relationship and saw Beckham when he could. By the rules, the golden-maned midfielder was free to sign a pre-contract elsewhere six months before his Real Madrid deal expired. Whatever talks he may have had with Real went nowhere and he was going to be a free agent. Now was the Galaxy’s chance and they struck quickly.
“It was always something that we talked about,” recalls Alexi Lalas, the Galaxy president and general manager from early 2006 through the summer of 2008. “It was just a question of when was the timing right. It was the big, bold, audacious type of move that kind of fit in to his brand and his trajectory. This was a stars aligning type of thing. You need a little luck and some good timing.”
“In our league that’s how we have to think outside the box,” Leiweke remembers. “We have to work a little bit harder and be a little bit more clever. We knew that David was not playing in the starting 11 for a moment in time, and we just happened to capture it at the right time.”
The Galaxy had made a bold pitch to Beckham. ” ‘Only you can do it,’ ” Leiweke says he told him. ” ‘Come build not just build a team, build a league and build the sport. Change it in a way that no one else ever will. Only Pele can be compared to what you’re going to do. Nobody will ever forget that. They’ll write books about it.’ ”
Leiweke is an infectiously optimistic salesman, painting grand and vivid pictures. His enthusiasm and the sheer bigness of his ideas can sound bullish to the point of being absurd. Except that he has an uncanny track record of delivering on seemingly improbable promises. Because Beckham took the bait and really did help build the team and the league and sport, and he would alter it in a way nobody had since Pele – and indeed go further.
By then, MLS owners had already agreed, behind closed the doors, to the Designated Player rule, which was initially referred to colloquially as the Beckham Rule. Every team could sign an exceptional player who might move the needle in its market but wouldn’t count against the puny salary cap. In that context, it wasn’t hard to sell the partners in the league’s single-entity structure.
“It really wasn’t,” MLS commissioner Don Garber says. “Everybody knew that David would be a big sell on the road and that he would bring international appeal to the league. That he’d help us with global credibility and so many other things – and that’s what happened.”
“It was basically an outgrowth of some research we had done in 2005,” Garber continues, “that indicated that while there was growing interest in MLS, there were quite a few soccer fans that wanted to see the league sign more big-name international players.”
Once Beckham was signed, a funny thing happened. Real Madrid, about to lose one of its biggest stars to – horror of horrors – a team in America, recoiled. “He’s going to Hollywood to be half a film star,” club president Calderon said in an off-the-record talk to Spanish college students that was leaked. “Our technical staff were right not to extend his contract, and that has been proved by the fact that no other technical staff in the world wanted him except Los Angeles.”
This was hardly true. Beckham could have played just about anywhere in the world. But he’d chosen to leave mighty Madrid for a soccer backwater. The outspoken Calderon seemed to consider this egg on his face. Capello announced that Beckham would be allowed to keep practicing with the team but wouldn’t be appearing in any games until his contract was up. “A player who has such a [big] contract with another club, we cannot count on him,” he said. This, too, was nonsensical, as Beckham was still under contract with Real and his Galaxy contract wouldn’t activate for another six months.
But then a funny thing happened. Beckham worked his way back into Real’s lineup after teammates lobbied for him. He still managed to play in 23 of 38 league games and was invaluable in an ultimately doomed Champions League campaign. Capello admitted his mistake. Toward the end of the year, he was often one of the best Real players on the field. Rumors swirled that the club was trying to keep him, attempting to bargain with the Galaxy to sell him back.
It was too late.
AEG trumpeted Beckham’s arrival with a media blitz and a lavish welcome bash. The Galaxy and Beckham’s management team had publicized his new contract as being worth $250 million over five years, which made headlines around the world. In truth, Beckham would be making $6.5 million per year, for a $32.5 million total package – plus an option to buy an MLS franchise for $25 million when he retired.
To blow up the number, Beckham’s projected off-field earnings had been calculated into the figure to get to $250 million.
“It was PR,” Lalas says, somewhat proudly. “We knew that this was going to be news well beyond soccer, let alone the sports world. This was going to be news in the world. We had one chance to make a first impression. This was PR 101. This was making the numbers look as incredible and as beneficial as possible to the brands involved. It was calculated. It was designed to garner the most attention possible.
“Yeah, we were spinning – of course we were.”
The Beckham signing, for the massive outlay, was a commercial success. The Galaxy’s revenues soared. Average ticket prices, says Lalas, jumped by some 50 percent. When the Galaxy came to town, opposing teams saw a huge spike in turnout as well.
Yet there were hiccups. Beckham showed up injured. He twice went on loan to AC Milan to stay in the picture for the English national team – now managed by Capello, who wanted him in a more competitive league. He missed half of the 2009 Galaxy season and got injured again in Italy, costing him most of 2010. In both 2011 and 2012, the last two years of his contract, when he was around full-time, the Galaxy won MLS Cup.
“In the beginning there was some frustration and disappointment, and that happens,” Garber says. “It took a while for him to settle in. He had desires to go out on loan, and that was something that was a challenge for the Galaxy and the league. But it ultimately helped prove the point that David was here in his prime and he still had a great career in front of him, as opposed to looking in the rear window. In retrospect, those loans to Milan worked out well for everybody.”
Beckham’s signing proved to be a turning point for a league that had stabilized after some rough early years but still grappled for mainstream traction until 2007. “We believed we needed something dynamic and something big and something bold and something that would shock the world,” says Leiweke.
By the time Beckham came along, the league had overcome the contraction of two teams and serious talks about shutting down altogether. And some momentum was slowly gathering. The Beckham signing accelerated everything.
“The league was coming out of some challenging times in 2001 and 2002,” Garber recalls. “We had expanded after contraction in 2005. And then we had some big things happen. Toronto coming in in 2007. The construction of [Toronto FC’s] BMO Field. David coming into the league. Our new television contracts. All those things really worked together to reposition the league and create what we look on back now as MLS 2.0. Building the momentum for further expansion, for bringing in more designated players, and the construction of more soccer stadiums and the building of a fan culture.
“All of those things kind of came together and David was a really big part of it. I think those things would have happened if David hadn’t joined the league, but I think David really tipped it.”
Since Beckham’s signing, MLS has grown from 13 teams to 22 for the 2017 season. The Designated Player rule has been expanded and there were no fewer than 50 of them last year. Salaries and TV ratings are up. Regular season attendance has jumped from an average of 15,504 in 2006 to 21,629 in 2016, across far more teams. There are now more than twice the number of stadiums built either specifically for soccer or designed to accommodate it. Toronto FC paid an expansion fee of $10 million; the next round of new teams, when the league grows to 26, and then 28, will pay $150 million and perhaps upwards.
One of those envisioned expansion teams should belong to Beckham. He has been working for about three years to get the right stadium deal done in Miami – lately with the help of Leiweke, who left AEG in 2013 and then turned TFC into an MLS power. Beckham’s signing “clearly made an impact you can’t replicate,” Leiweke says.
“But I think he’s going to have as big an impact as an owner as he did as a player,” Leiweke adds. “We have the world’s best recruiter to bring the greatest players in the world to our league. He’s not done yet. I think the biggest impact of David Beckham is yet to come.”
“Clearly, [signing Beckham] was a seminal moment in the history of our league,” says Garber. “And as such it was a big moment for the history of the sport in our country. Everybody remembers Pele coming into the North American Soccer League and what it did for that league and in many ways David was our Pele.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.