It began with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding, which, in a way, it was.
David Beckham, the most marketable soccer player in the world, exchanged "I do's" with Major League Soccer and the Galaxy five seasons ago, beginning an audacious and expensive experiment designed to make the sport relevant in this country.
That trial could end Sunday when Beckham plays in the MLS Cup, the league's championship game, in what may be his final appearance in a Galaxy uniform at the Home Depot Center. And while the marriage has failed to live up to its overblown hype, both sides say it has been a worthwhile union, one that has gone a long way toward achieving its goal.
"Without him," MLS Commissioner Dan Garber said, "the league wouldn't be where it is today."
"There's so much interest," Beckham said. "In five years a lot has happened. I'm proud to be a part of that."
Most of the numbers trotted out to measure the Beckham bounce begin with dollar signs.
Since his arrival, the expansion fee for an MLS franchise has quadrupled to $40 million. The league, which once paid to have its games broadcast on television, next season will begin banking $10 million a year from NBC in addition to rights fees from Univision and ESPN. And that's just a fraction of the value of the Galaxy's new contract with Time Warner Cable, which is expected to pay the team $55 million over 10 years to jump from Fox Sports West to a fledgling regional cable network.
The Galaxy, the league's marquee franchise, is estimated to be worth more than $100 million, and attendance around the league is way up — this year the MLS regular-season average climbed 7% to 17,872, better than last season's NBA and NHL figures.
"That's all David," said Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, the entertainment group that owns the Galaxy and hockey's Kings. "From a financial standpoint … he's been undeniably successful. Show me one measuring post that hasn't increased significantly."
On the field Beckham's impact has been less impressive. In his five seasons he has yet to win a title, starting less than half the Galaxy's MLS games. And in 2009 and 2010, he made more appearances on loan for AC Milan than for the Galaxy. Yet, if he has had second thoughts, he is keeping them to himself.
"I'd do it all over again," Beckham said. "There's not one thing I regret about being at the Galaxy, playing in this league. I wanted a new experience. That's what I've gotten here."
And this season the play-making midfielder has been brilliant, finishing second in the league with 15 assists — he has three more in the playoffs — and being selected the league's comeback player of the year.
Just as important, the 36-year-old has been a model citizen, playing hard (he led the league with 10 yellow cards) and playing injured (he has a slight stress fracture in his spine).
That commitment has helped heal a long-standing rift with Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, who has taken to wearing Beckham's No. 23 warm-up jacket.
"I'm hoping some of it rubs off on me," Donovan said of his teammate's obvious talents.
But if Donovan is the unquestioned face of the U.S. national team, Beckham has just as clearly become the face of pro soccer in this country.
"David coming to MLS, arguably one of the most popular cultural figures in the world today, in or outside the sports business, was a statement to a really broad global audience that MLS was serious, that we were a legitimate business," Garber said. "It also says to a global market of soccer players that 'Hey, if it's good enough for David Beckham it's probably good enough for you.' "
That ripple effect helped lure other international stars such as France's Thierry Henry, Ireland's Robbie Keane and Mexico's Rafael Marquez to the league. And it has put MLS on the world soccer map in other ways, too.
Beckham said he had never seen an MLS game before joining the Galaxy; yet, now the league's games are regularly televised in Europe. And TV in this country features far more international games than it did before the "Beckham Experiment" was launched.
"It's a pretty good experiment," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. "He's helped make this team better, he's helped make the league better and there's a great awareness of MLS around the world because of David. It's a much more popular sport now, and at a time when the competition for the sports dollar is greater than ever."
From the outset, though, the Galaxy and AEG were guilty of overstating Beckham's worth. In fact, before Leiweke rolled Beckham out at a circus-like media event in 2007, the value of his five-year contract was put at $250 million. That figure, AEG later said, was a guess based on what Beckham might earn by combining his Galaxy salary with off-field sponsorship deals.
Even that proved exaggerated. Forbes put Beckham's total earnings over the last year at $40 million, making him the highest-paid soccer player, but leaving him $10 million short of what AEG had estimated he'd make per year.