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David Beckham’s impact on MLS can be measured in dollar signs

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.”

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

His base salary from the Galaxy, $32.5 million over five years, was nearly $12 million less than the Dodgers spent on Juan Pierre, who had signed a five-year deal just months before Beckham arrived.

Pierre, at least, showed up to work every day. Beckham? Not so much.

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Although the Galaxy sold more than 7,000 season tickets within a few days after signing Beckham, he didn’t make his MLS debut until midway through 2007 and wound up starting only two games.

He played a full season in 2008, averaging more than 89 minutes in 25 games and notching 10 assists, but over the next two seasons, hampered by injury and distracted by his desire to make England’s World Cup team, Beckham appeared in more games for AC Milan (29) than he did for the Galaxy (18).

Leiweke had Beckham’s back then but the fans weren’t so forgiving.

Another breach may be coming soon. The Galaxy and Beckham were reportedly close to agreement on a one-year extension to his contract, which expires Dec. 31. It was a deal that would have contained a provision allowing Beckham to make a farewell appearance playing for England at next summer’s Olympics in London.

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But last month Paris Saint-Germain, a French soccer club backed by investors from Qatar, made what has been called an “eye-watering” offer. And PSG isn’t alone in wooing Beckham; more than a dozen other teams, from England to Brazil and the Middle East, also are interested.

Working in the Galaxy’s favor is the Beckhams’ love of Southern California — the couple’s daughter, Harper Seven, was born in Los Angeles in July and the eldest of their three sons, 12-year-old Brooklyn, is playing on the Galaxy’s U-13 academy team.

Working against it is money — the Galaxy’s offer is believed to include a pay cut — and France’s proximity to London.

“When we sit down with David and make this decision, I would not be pessimistic because he loves being in L.A.,” said Leiweke, who has tabled contract talks until after Sunday’s MLS Cup. “If some crazy team with some crazy ownership throws $25 million at him, then I’m going with him [to Paris]. But what I would say is don’t underestimate the bond that has been created between David and the Galaxy, David and our fans.”

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Given the uncertainty, Sunday’s MLS Cup looms as Beckham’s final chance to not only win a title in the U.S. — adding to the ones won in England and Spain —- but to leave an indelible market on the game here as well.

“In the end, I think the best judge of the David thing is going to be long after he is gone,” Galaxy President Tom Payne said. “Did we gain fans during that time and then we kept them?

“Has it been worth it, the David experiment? The answer is yes. Absolutely.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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