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David or Goliath?

After Beckham's first year with the Galaxy, his impact on MLS and America's attitude toward soccer is still being debated

July 21, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

So here we are, one year later, and David Beckham is strolling across the grass toward a handful of writers huddled like obedient sheep waiting to hear his every word.

It is a Beckham "availability" moment, in the words of the Galaxy, which, one year into the English midfielder's five-year-tenure in Major League Soccer, still has not quite grasped how to handle its one and only superstar.

The captain of England calls the shots, not the team that pays him $6.5 million a year to lead it to a .500 record.

And so, with the morning's training session done, Beckham approaches. He smiles. He almost always smiles. It is a tactic meant to disarm, and it invariably works. Twelve months into his MLS stay, he has yet to be asked a difficult or discomforting question.

There have been many ludicrous and simpering ones, but none that raise the hackles.

"Good morning," Beckham says, and the questions begin.

What Beckham will say this week will not differ much from anything he has said in each of the 52 previous weeks. He will be polite, he will be friendly, and he will say nothing that is even remotely controversial.

The anger that sometimes explodes on the soccer field is kept tightly under wraps in front of the media. What the video cameras, the digital recorders and the notepads get is Beckham-lite.

After 10 minutes or so of providing polite answers to the group, Beckham goes off to play a little one-on-one soccer with son Romeo, and the pair then leave the field by hitching a ride on the equipment cart -- Beckham stretched out across a bag of balls and cones, 5-year-old Romeo riding shotgun.

It would make a good photograph, but there is no photographer there, only a handful of writers staring bleakly down at some sparse and not especially interesting notes.


Moving the attendance meter

Tim Leiweke is on the telephone, and the man who helped engineer Beckham's 2007 move from Real Madrid to the Galaxy is ready to take on the world.

Suggestions from some media quarters that the Beckham buzz has evaporated and that his impact on the sport in the U.S. has been minimal are met with withering scorn.

"To me, that is an indication that they do not know what they are talking about," says Leiweke, the chief executive of AEG, which counts the Galaxy among its many holdings.

"The fact is that David Beckham, especially this year, has had a tremendous impact on the Galaxy at home, on the Galaxy on the road, on Major League Soccer. You cannot argue when you look at the attendance figures, the revenue figures, the TV ratings, and, most importantly, his play on the pitch.

"The thing that absolutely shocks and amazes me is that there are people who are responsible for telling this story to the community, and they have made a decision that David was overhyped last year, so they have chosen not to cover him or acknowledge him or agree with the fact that he has had a remarkable impact on our sport.

"Shame on them. The guy is going to have 50,000 or 60,000 people in New York . . . and the Red Bulls are averaging what, 10,000 people? [Saturday's game drew 46,754.] Now excuse me, but how can you not pay attention to the impact this guy is creating?"

Leiweke has a vested interest, obviously, so turn instead to a neutral figure, someone with no tickets to sell or axes to grind, someone such as David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute.

The Galaxy is averaging a league-best 25,513 at home and a league-high 27,094 on the road in 2008, but Carter questions whether it is the sport or the celebrity that is bringing out the fans.

"MLS and the Galaxy cannot expect to thrive based on the snapshot that has been David Beckham this past year," he says. "But he has driven a lot of interest.

"The key is, do the people distinguish between the buzz and the hype and the quality of play, or do they, like most Angelenos, just sort of want to be attending a hip thing?"


The long-range plan

Beckham is making his way out of the Home Depot Center, wandering through the tunnels beneath the stadium in search of his polished-to-a-gleam black SUV, the one with the No. 23 emblazoned on the grille.

The temptation is to ask whether he thinks he has made a difference since his first game with the Galaxy exactly one year ago, whether he has "moved the needle" at all in terms of changing America's attitude toward a sport that has made him a millionaire many times over.

And so someone does.

"A year's gone by and I think we've moved it slightly," he says. "But I also said when I first moved here that it's not going to take a year or two. It's going to take five or 10 years to make this league grow to a much higher level.

"The problem is, people want results straight away."

It is more likely that Beckham's influence will be long-term, being recognized only years after he has moved on to other endeavors.

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