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It was just a few weeks before the start of the 2002 World Cup when David Beckham showcased his new mohawk haircut on the front cover of GQ. Gelled into a central fin and colored with a streak of blonde, the style was something Beckham and his wife Victoria Beckham came up with themselves. Before too long it was a staple of every barber in the country. “Even [bankers] in the city were having it,” said Adee Phelan, Beckham’s former hairdresser.
That Beckham could take something so overtly ridiculous and make it mainstream underlined the influence he held over British culture. This knack for setting trends has defined his career both as a soccer player and a celebrity, and his 2007 move to the LA Galaxy allowed him to combine both as he became the very public face of soccer in the United States.
Beckham’s impact on MLS is well-documented. Everything that has grown and developed the league over the past decade or so can be traced, in one way or another, back to the moment the Englishman landed in California. He is without any question the most significant player in the history of MLS.
Now, he is an owner, exercising an option written into his original MLS contract to buy a franchise for $25 million. Together with Bolivian businessman Marcelo Claure, Korean-Japanese tech billionaire Masayoshi Son and brothers Jorge and Jose Mas, Beckham led an ownership group which oversaw the introduction of Inter Miami to the league this year.
So will Beckham have the same effect on North American soccer as an owner as he did as a player? After all, where he goes, others follow. He is at the center of a business and celebrity world that can be alerted to MLS’s potential. If he can get city bankers to go into work with a mohawk, surely he can attract a higher level of investment — and a higher caliber of investor — to the league.
Of course, MLS already boasts its fair share of high-profile club owners. Arthur Blank, the Home Depot co-founder with a net worth of over $5 billion, is the man behind Atlanta United. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, bankrolls the New England Revolution. Then there’s Red Bull, which counts the New York Red Bulls as part of its international portfolio of clubs. New York City FC is operated by City Football Group, the same group that owns Manchester City.
MLS has even attracted celebrities to its ownership circle. In fact, it has become something of a trend in recent years with Will Ferrell, Magic Johnson and Tony Robbins all co-owners of Los Angeles FC and Drew Carey, Macklemore, Ciara and Russell Wilson all shareholders in the Seattle Sounders. James Harden even has a stake in the Houston Dynamo, and Steve Nash is involved with the Vancouver Whitecaps. The argument could be made that Beckham has already played a role in luring many of these names to MLS.
Either way, MLS surely hopes Beckham will make the league even more attractive to even richer prospective investors. While the structure of American sports is traditionally socialist, favoring trades and drafts over a true free market like the one in European soccer, the success and failure of major leagues is largely determined by more capitalist factors. Nothing accelerates the growth of a sport in the U.S. like franchise owners with deep pockets. Only two current NFL owners, for instance, have a net worth of under $1 billion.
The success of Atlanta United since their introduction to MLS just three years ago shows what can be achieved with genuine investment both on and off the field. Indeed, they have raised the league’s ceiling and set a precedent for the rest of North American soccer to follow. More figures like Blank are needed.
Beckham has already succeeded in luring the sort of investment Inter Miami needs to become major players in MLS. Son alone is pegged at a net worth of $22.9 billion, making him the richest franchise owner in the league. Inter Miami might be restricted from ploughing riches into big-money transfers (due to MLS’s structure), but such backing will certainly help them capture a notoriously difficult South Florida sports market.
The Inter Miami model covers all bases. In Beckham, they have a face recognizable to the American public. Behind the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star, there is a group of billionaires to sign the checks.
Figures like Beckham can only do so much to make MLS attractive to prospective owners and investors, though. The league itself must make changes to its centralized structure if it is to take the next step in its development. Salary caps must be raised, or abolished entirely. Clubs must be allowed to sign more than just three Designated Players. Owners have to be able to spend their money. Otherwise, MLS’s growth will always be limited.
MLS commissioner Don Garber’s recent criticism of big city teams failing to make waves suggests there is an acknowledgement within MLS HQ of the investment and direction the league needs from big business to progress beyond this point. “We have, unfortunately throughout the years, had some of our smaller markets be our most popular teams,” Garber said earlier this year. “And that’s great, but we’ve got to get our bigger markets — who have way more competition, and have a lot of history that they’re working through and working against — I’m looking forward to seeing them be more successful.”
For every Atlanta United and LAFC, there’s a San Jose Earthquakes. It’s as if MLS is stuck between two different eras: the previous era, when the league would embrace almost any ownership group if it moved them into a certain market, and the present era, when the league has sought ownership groups ahead of new markets.
How it transitions between the two will determine MLS’s future. In Beckham they have someone to help. Selling soccer in in the United States should be easy for someone who can make mohawks popular.
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