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Galaxy has Becks appeal

Times Staff Writer

Major League Soccer on Thursday signed English star David Beckham to a five-year contract worth a potential $250 million to play in Los Angeles for the Galaxy.

With a flourish of a pen, the league not only made the most significant move in its 11-year existence but also one of the most potentially far-reaching acquisitions in American sports history.

It is also a bit of a gamble.

The league believes that Beckham, even at 31, can do for soccer in the U.S. what Michael Jordan did for basketball, what Wayne Gretzky did for hockey and what Tiger Woods has done for golf -- that is, raise the sport’s profile to an entirely new level.

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Of course, that path has been followed by U.S. soccer before.

In the 1970s, the New York Cosmos signed Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and the Los Angeles Aztecs later acquired George Best and Johann Cruyff. They were as famous in their day as Beckham is today and attracted record crowds for several years, but still the North American Soccer League folded in 1984.

That will not happen this time, predicted Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive officer of AEG, the entertainment and sports giant owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz. The company operates the Galaxy and two other MLS teams, the Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo.

“There is not an expectation that David Beckham single-handedly makes the league relevant, because the fact is the league is relevant,” Leiweke said. “The biggest impact here is that David Beckham makes us more relevant, not just in this country but internationally, and more people will follow our games.”

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The Galaxy, which has led MLS in attendance the past two years, said Thursday that it sold 2,000 season tickets within hours of the Beckham announcement.

Beckham said he would complete his contract with Real Madrid in Spain, playing there until June before joining MLS. His wife, Victoria -- better known as former singer Posh Spice of the Spice Girls -- and their three sons, Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz, will move to Los Angeles in late July or early August.

The MLS season begins in April and runs through November.

“Another challenge has come up and it is the right time for us to do it,” Beckham said in a televised interview in Madrid.

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“I didn’t want to go out there at 34 years old and for people to turn around and say he’s only going there to get the money. It’s not what I’m going out there to do.

“I’m going to hopefully build a club and a team that has a lot of potential. I think that is what excites me.”

Beckham turned down a two-year contract extension offered by Real Madrid to sign with the Galaxy and it is possible that Real Coach Fabio Capello, who has relegated Beckham to the bench, might opt to release him early and acquire another player before the international transfer window closes Jan. 31.

Beckham insisted that the decision to come to Los Angeles, where he already has a youth soccer academy, was not based on the hefty size of the contract put together by AEG, an estimated 80% of which will come from commercial endorsement deals and image rights.

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Leiweke declined to discuss the specific financial terms of Beckham’s contract but said, “David has the opportunity to earn up to a quarter of a billion dollars.... A lot of that is going be from the commercial side, but clearly David is clearly going to continue be one of the highest paid, if not the highest paid, athletes in the world.”

By Thursday evening, the Beckham buzz was already in full swing.

“I think it’s exciting for everybody who enjoys soccer, me being one of them,” Lakers star Kobe Bryant said. “He’s obviously an elite player and it could be good for the game. Soccer has some catching up to do here in the States and I’m sure he’ll boost that popularity.”

Bryant was asked what he thought of Beckham’s deal.

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“What’d you think about it? Wish you could be David Beckham, huh? I’m happy for him,” Bryant said. “That’s a hell of a situation.”

Don Garber, the commissioner of MLS, said soccer has changed dramatically in the U.S. since the days of the Cosmos, when NASL teams signed Pele and other foreign stars but started few American players.

“On the same day that David Beckham was signed, we sold Clint Dempsey to Fulham in the English Premier League for $4 million -- a 23-year-old player that came up through our grass-roots system,” Garber said, adding that the NASL “didn’t have the careful strategic expansion plan that we have. They didn’t have the depth of ownership that we have. They didn’t have the four network and cable television partners that we have paying us rights fees. They didn’t have soccer-specific stadiums.

“And mostly, the country at that time ... did not have the massive fan following that we have. The final of the World Cup had a larger [U.S.] audience than the seventh game of the World Series this past year.”

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Beckham was born in London on May 2, 1975, the same year Pele came to the U.S. Beckham was signed by English power Manchester United at age 16 and played for the club until 2003, when he was sold to Real Madrid for $41 million.

He was one of five “galacticos” acquired by the nine-time European champion, the other global stars in Madrid being Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos of Brazil, Zinedine Zidane of France and Luis Figo of Portugal.

Despite its star power, Real Madrid has struggled in the last four years, winning nothing during Beckham’s time with the club, and this season Beckham has spent far more time on the sideline than on the field.

Joining MLS will make him that much richer, but just what impact he will have on the Galaxy, MLS and the sport as a whole remains to be seen. Some clues were offered Thursday:

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* The club already is making plans for a spring 2008 tour of Asia, where Beckham has a massive following.

* Leiweke said that English Premier League champion Chelsea will play the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in Carson this summer. He said the Galaxy would not move any of its games from the 27,000-seat venue, even though Beckham’s debut could attract a much larger crowd to the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl.

* The Galaxy will sport a new logo and a new look when the season opens in April. “We will, absolutely, market the Galaxy brand as a world brand,” Leiweke said.

* In addition to its league schedule and U.S. Open Cup matches, the Galaxy will also do a tour of potential MLS expansion cities, using Beckham as a vehicle to gauge fan interest.

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Said Galaxy Coach Frank Yallop, in Indianapolis for today’s MLS draft: “It will be interesting to see how our players react to the media attention they’re going to get.”

A word of caution about the Beckham signing came from Fire Coach Dave Sarachan, assistant on the 2002 U.S. World Cup team.

“I think it’s a huge lift for soccer in America and the league,” he said. “The stir he creates, that’s the obvious answer. I think we have to step back for a moment and realize he’s one player.”

*

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Times staff writer Jerry Crowe contributed to this report.

grahame.jones@latimes.com


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