David Beckham plays his last game for LA Galaxy today in the final of the MLS Cup (though I do remember writing another article in this vein last year when he was supposed to retire, so who really knows?). Since he arrived in arrived 2007 attendance has grown from 3 million to 6 million, making it the ninth most popular league in the world, just after Argentina but ahead of the Netherlands. Traditionally the US has had four major team sports- American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey: MLS average attendance is now higher than the National Hockey League’s. When it started the title “major league” was a bit of a joke- now it is becoming a reality. Business schools will debate for many years to come the “Beckham effect”- was he the catalyst that changed the game? Here are some pros and cons:
1. Attendance did not rise that much at LA Galaxy itself- compared to the previous six seasons attendance was up only 25%
2. The big boost in attendance has come from the expansion franchises- of the 19 franchises 6 have been added since 2007- and probably would have been even without Becks. The Seattle Sounders average 43,000 per game after only 4 seasons in the league (higher than Chelsea’s average gate this season).
3. Football (soccer) is on the rise in the US generally- The EPL just sold their rights to NBC for $250 million, trebling the value of the previous contract. NBC is promising to make every game available either on TV, internet or mobile.
1. Beckham’s celebrity has enabled MLS to achieve recognition even among non-sports fans. His Burger King commercial over here this year was huge. MLS would have struggled to achieve this kind of exposure without him.
2. Beckham may have helped to persuade other big stars to finish their careers here- Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane spring to mind. Beckham will remain involved in MLS since he has the right to buy a new franchise. Thus he is likely to play an ambassadorial role for years to come.
3. For MLS to be truly major it must have aspire to a quality of play that is respected internationally. Americans of all people do not take easily to supporting the second rate. MLS may have higher gates than the Dutch league but the quality of the football is not yet as good. Hiring Beckham was a statement of intent- to become a league where international stars can play. Even if more needs to be done, bringing him here gave MLS some credibility with American audiences.
Somehow this is not the last we are going to hear about David Beckham and Major League Soccer.