- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

Soccer has been here before, a sport perpetually on the cusp of exploding in America.

Pele and Franz Beckenbauer in the 1970s. Brandi Chastain and World Cup champion women. Bruce Arena and the Cinderella men’s team of 2002. Freddy Adu.

All were supposed to push soccer over the top to success, and all failed.

Now it’s Beckham’s turn.

The decision of English soccer star David Beckham to sign with the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS is being hailed by American soccer officials as the most important moment in the history of the sport in the United States.

And this time, they really believe it.

“David Beckham coming to MLS might be viewed by some as one of the most important moments for soccer in this country and perhaps the history of professional sport,” commissioner Don Garber said.

The president and chief executive of AEG, which owns the Galaxy, upped the rhetorical ante even further.

“David Beckham will have a greater impact on soccer in America than any athlete has ever had on a sport globally,” Tim Leiweke said. “David is truly the only individual that can build the bridge between soccer in America and the rest of the world.”

Those are strong words to speak of a man who hardly has set foot on an American pitch. But Beckham arguably is the most high-profile soccer player on the planet since Pele, and his arrival in the United States gives a true superstar to MLS, a league that has never turned a profit in a sport that has never gained a prominent place in the American sports landscape.

“Never before, or ever again, will [MLS] have an opportunity like this,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “The pillars are aligned for this to not only be an important deal, but a different deal. I don’t think the stars have ever literally and figuratively aligned like this.”

Beckham’s signing has unique potential because MLS is closer than ever to profitability, industry analysts said. MLS is now touting increased revenues from sponsorships, television rights and ticket sales. Moreover, the construction of at least six new soccer-only stadiums is expected to help more teams financially by allowing them to keep most stadium revenue and earn money from real estate development in the area.

“He’s going to be driving business interest beyond the pitch,” Carter said. “The challenge is to convert all these people from onlookers and gawkers to soccer fans and MLS fans.”

And Beckham’s arrival is different from that of Pele or Beckenbauer.

“Some people bring up the Pele example, but he was at the tail end of his career and couldn’t bring the type of charisma and excitement Beckham could,” said Ray Artigue, executive director of the WP Carey Sports Business MBA Program at Arizona State University. “If Beckham can’t put MLS on the map, I don’t know what would. Time will tell, but it has every opportunity of being very successful.”

Indeed, Beckham already is the second-most popular soccer player in the United States, trailing only Mia Hamm, according to Davie Brown Talent, a company that books celebrities for corporate advertisers.

His visibility should increase still more in the media-saturated Los Angeles market, where opportunities for endorsements — for himself and his pop star wife, ex-Spice Girl Victoria Adams — will be plentiful.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he was on Leno within a week of arriving in L.A.,” said Ken Crawford, senior client director for Davie Brown. “He’s going to get a lot of exposure, and people are going to look at him and maybe look at the league differently. David will bring the exposure. Now the onus is on MLS and U.S. Soccer to produce quality athletes.”

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