On December 1st, David Beckham will play his final game with the Los Angeles Galaxy. He could hardly have picked a more dramatic finale: the Galaxy will be playing the Houston Dynamo for the MLS Cup. Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl spoke with Bill Littlefield about Beckham’s impact on Major League Soccer — past, present, and future.
When David Beckham arrived in L.A. in 2007, injuries prevented him from contributing much on the field. But, more than 300,000 Beckham Galaxy jerseys have leaped off the shelves since then. Wahl said no other player in the world could have done that.
“Here’s a guy who is an A-list celebrity inside the United States, has been for a long time outside the United States, and really, I think, could make a claim or an argument for being the most famous athlete in the world, as far as recognizability,” Wahl said. “This is a guy who, any corner of the planet you go to, you’ll find somebody who knows him.
Beckham was billed as the $250 million player when he joined the Galaxy, but according to Wahl, the hype didn’t add up.
“In actuality, the guy was making $6.5 million a year with the Galaxy, which was the highest salary in MLS history at the time, but when you added it up was nowhere near $250 million,” Wahl said. “At the same time, though, the guy has made money, made good money, since he came to Los Angeles. The Galaxy has made good money. It’s been a good business deal for all sides.”
One reason the Galaxy enlisted Beckham was to increase the team’s popularity. Wahl said that goal has been only partially reached.
“As far as bringing more attention and more credibility to Major League Soccer and the Los Angeles Galaxy, this has been a good thing from the moment he signed,” Wahl said. “At the same time, I also think that while so many Americans recognize Beckham as a celebrity now, including non-soccer fans, a lot of those people could not tell you how his team in Los Angeles is doing. It makes for this bizarre kind of parallel universe with Beckham. Awareness of Beckham is quite high here; awareness of how the Galaxy is doing, maybe not that much.”
According to Wahl, Beckham isn’t merely interested in being a celebrity — he also wants to end his MLS career as a champion.
“This is a guy who has a lot of pride for what he has accomplished on the field in his career,” Wahl said. “He’s gotten this reputation over the last decade, probably, for being more of a showman than a player, but this guy actually has achieved a lot on the field. “He’s never been the world’s best player -– he’s been the world’s most-famous player. And yet, he played at Real Madrid, he played at Manchester United, he’s played for England and he’s won the Champions League. So in a sense, he’s almost underrated at this point for his skills on the field.”
Part of the deal that brought David Beckham to the U.S. gives him the opportunity to become an MLS team owner somewhere down the line at a below-market cost. In the statement announcing his retirement, Beckham indicated he’s interested in the option.
“That’s a good thing and a smart thing for MLS,” Wahl said, “to get Beckham interested in being involved in the long-term with MLS, even beyond his playing days, and having a financial stake in the growth of the league,” Wahl said.
What’s next for Beckham? A source close to the player tells Wahl teams in several countries have shown interest in Beckham, including China, France, Australia, Brazil, Italy, England, and Russia.
“At this point, it’s really up in the air,” Wahl said. “Beckham does say he wants to have one more ‘playing adventure.’ I think Paris Saint Germain, PSG – it’s a team owned by extremely rich Qatari owners and they tried to sign him last year. I think it’s a possibility he could go there moving forward.”