Hampered by an injury and learning to play with new teammates, David Beckham didn't come close this season to lifting the Los Angeles Galaxy (9-14-7) to new heights on the field. Off the field, though, he gave a jolt to soccer in America. The question is: Will the excitement last?
As MLS approaches it championship game Sunday, the league has much to be pleased about since Beckham's arrival. With the Englishman's signing a five-year pact this summer — and at no extra charge, bringing his celebrity wife, Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham, with him to Los Angeles — MLS received priceless publicity in all sorts of unfamiliar outlets to try to recruit new fans. Entertainment channels rushed to cover the news, and Victoria signed up for a reality show on NBC about moving to L.A.
Attendance leapt about 9 percent this year to 16,767 per MLS game because of Beckham (the Galaxy led the league in home attendance with over 24,000 fans per game, and more than 66,000 packed Giants Stadium to watch him play). On television, ESPN2 enjoyed four of its top ten most-viewed MLS regular-season games ever, according to SportsBusiness Daily. Beckham's $10 million-a-year cost to franchise owner Anschutz Entertainment Group has more than paid off (the rest of his annual eight-figure pay comes from a cut of jersey sales, endorsements and the like).
And yet ... hype and flash only go so far. Beckham will be 33 next season; it's unclear how well he can recover from the sprained right knee he suffered this summer. Despite his awesome skills, he's one of 22 athletes on the field, so he can't transform a game the way one player in basketball can (such as LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers). His is the only recognizable name in a league fighting to make soccer relevant to Americans, so if he falters, there’s no else at the moment to turn to.
David Carter, who runs the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, says Beckham will need to get off to a fast start next season.
"People want to support him and the Galaxy, but he'll need to prove the first year was an anomaly," Carter said. "The market here has so much going on (including another popular MLS team, Chivas USA). If he can't break out here, it'll be tough for him to break out around the country."
Carter has been impressed by MLS's ability to put franchises in the right markets (it just announced a new team, its 15th, in Seattle in 2009) and to build soccer-specific stadiums. Still, the future of the league goes beyond Beckham.
"They need a variety of David Beckhams on various teams," Carter said. "You saw the incredible vulnerability brought to the league with Beckham's injury."
Because Major League Soccer passed what has become known as the "Beckham Rule" — which, in simple terms according to the league Web site, "allows any team to sign any player to any amount of money it so chooses and said player's salary will only count as $400,000 against the league salary cap" — more international stars may be on the way.
But, aside from Brazil's Ronaldo, they may lack Beckham's cachet. And though the MLS's single-entity structure — where the league has bigger control over player movements than the franchises — may help ensure its survival (since a handful of rich teams won't be able to pull in the best players like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox can in baseball), the format also dulls down the league. Whereas baseball is in the news as the weather freezes because of free-agent signings and potential trades, MLS offers little of that off-season pizzazz to keep fans intrigued.
To MLS's chagrin, Beckham won't be on the field at RFK Stadium during the Adidas MLS Cup, the league's showcase event and one of its few games on free TV. In fact, his only newsworthy move this week has been to sign a $40-million-plus endorsement deal with Giorgio Armani, which will include underwear ads.
MLS needs him to perform at a high level in 2008 if it's going to get maximum value from its biggest-ever player contract. The soccer star needs to prove his worth with highlight-reel passes, jaw-dropping moves and victories on the field, or else the booming ticket sales, television ratings and publicity will drop as quickly as a corner kick.
Msnbc.com contributor David Sweet can be reached at email@example.com.