LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Major League Soccer waved goodbye to David Beckham on Saturday but while the praise for his impact on the game in the U.S. is genuine, the lasting progress made in the past six years has little to do with the Englishman’s appeal.
In the build-up to the MLS Cup final, which Galaxy won 3-1 against the Houston Dynamo, club and league officials were keen to talk of the Englishman’s six-year involvement as a “turning point” for the 17-year-old league.
But beneath the mantra there is a quiet pride that key elements in the undeniable growth of the league have really had very little directly to do with ‘Brand Beckham’.
MLS commissioner Don Garber has nothing but praise for Beckham’s off-the-field commitment to growing the sport in the States but says the impact has been mainly in terms of raising awareness at home and abroad.
“We believed that the league would grow and that David would help that growth but it wasn’t dependent on him being in the league. I think that has proven to be true,” he told reporters this week.
“We have had the overall growth of the league, with expansion, broadcast exposure and increased quality, David just took the global credibility and awareness to another level,” he said.
The money spent on Beckham’s annual salary, which for the first five years was around $6 million, garnered plenty of attention but it was just a fraction of other key investments in the league - such as $200 million put into construction of Sporting Kansas City’s new stadium which has seen their average crowds jump from 10,200 to 19,400.
Overall, average attendance in the league has grown to 18,800, up more than 3,000 from the year before Beckham arrived but while there has undoubtedly been impact from the former Manchester United player’s box office appeal, the clubs have benefited from developing genuine community fan bases.
Some of the most successful clubs, in terms of building a real fan base, are those who have joined the league in the wave of expansion that followed Beckham’s arrival, such as the Philadelphia Union whose brand new venue cost over $120 million.
Since 2006, the league has expanded from 12 teams to 19 but plans for those new clubs were already under way before the Galaxy brought the former England captain over from Real Madrid.
“The league is in a good place. Expansion has been very successful, soccer stadium construction has been going on for many years and has helped establish a really solid foundation,” said Garber.
“The quality of play continues to grow, ever game is televised nationally or locally. So while David helped contribute to our increasing popularity, the league is ready to move on and continue to be on the path we have been. We hope to be one of the top leagues in the world in the next 10 years or so,” he said.
That is a very lofty goal, reflective perhaps of Garber’s unique role in American sport of not only being the administrative head of the league, like his counterparts in the NBA and NFL, but a soccer evangelist.
While the growth of a fan base at stadiums is the main positive for the league, MLS still struggles badly to attract a major television audience.
Last year’s MLS Cup final, also between Los Angeles and Houston, drew a poor 0.8 rating on ESPN and in contrast a tape-delayed Premier League game between Chelsea and Liverpool was watched by nearly twice as many households.
Never mind trying to reach the massive audiences for the NFL and college American football, MLS struggles to convince U.S. soccer fans that they are worth watching as much as foreign leagues like England’s and Mexico‘s.
Garber’s optimistic target may reflect the enthusiasm that has come from the performance of the league’s most recent additions.
The Seattle Sounders, who moved up to MLS from the second tier league in 2009, averaged crowds of 43,144 this season.
“I don’t think anyone thought that was going to happen,” former Seattle Sounders keeper Kasey Keller told Reuters.
“We knew Seattle was going to be well received but I don’t think anyone would have imagined that after three or four years it would be 40,000 a game and doing as well as it is. Then along came Portland and Vancouver to create those regional rivalries,” he said.
Like Garber, Keller is thankful for Beckham’s role in giving MLS what he calls a “global kick-start” but says growing the league is a long-term project with no short cuts available.
“You can’t have a team based on one player and you can’t have a league based one team with one player - that doesn’t happen. It’s part of a bigger picture,” he said.
That bigger picture was evident at the Home Depot Center on Saturday with an entertaining game played in front 30,000 fans, decked out in team colours, chanting and singing as soccer fans do all over the world.
While the confetti rockets for goals and pre-game fireworks were a reminder of the national sporting culture in which MLS operates, there was also an organic crowd atmosphere that would be familiar to European fans.
Certainly the widespread fear six years ago that the Beckham adventure would be a demeaning circus, creating a bubble that would burst when he left, looks unfounded.
In Beckham’s homeland, his move was ridiculed in some quarters with MLS described as a “Mickey Mouse league” and nothing more than a final resting place for fading stars.
But the signings of well-known older players with Premier League background, such as Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, have been limited with most MLS clubs now thinking longer term - developing their own talent and tapping in to the adjacent and cheaper Caribbean and Central American market for hungry, young players.
The old jibes still annoy Garber but he says that on his international travels he is finding a growing respect among clubs and players for the North American league.
”I think when David came, some people overseas described it as a ‘retirement league’. At that time we were a smaller league and didn’t have nearly the popularity that we have today or the presence here and abroad.
“I think we have proven over the last five years that this is a competitive league,” he said.
These days the old cliches about U.S. soccer are now more likely to come from the country’s own sports traditionalists than those in the European game.
The decades old question “Will soccer ever take off in the States?” is now surely redundant with one of the real issues now whether MLS can win the hearts of Americans who prefer to watch Premier League or European soccer on television and who are often critical of the still patchy standard of play.
“We continue to surprise people,” Garber said.
”There was a time when nobody thought professional soccer would succeed in America and nobody says that today.
“The question now is will it ever become what we want it to be?”
Editing by Ed Osmond