It was an idea both ambitious and absurd.
So when Tim Leiweke began floating a plan to bring David Beckham — one of global soccer’s most famous and best-paid stars — to Major League Soccer, the sport’s youngest and most frugal league, most laughed it off as a fanciful pipe dream.
Even Landon Donovan, then the league’s best player, quickly dismissed the idea.
“David Beckham’s not coming here,” he said with a laugh the first time he heard the rumor.
But for Leiweke, then CEO and president of AEG and owner of five of the league’s 12 teams, it was no laughing matter. The effort to bring Beckham to the U.S., he insisted, would determine if MLS would continue treading water or finally learn to swim.
“We’re either a dog in the middle of the lake doing the paddle to survive. Or we are going to shake this off, think big and change the league forever,” he said Wednesday.
“There was no one else on the face of the Earth that could have done what David Beckham did for Major League Soccer.”
And the ramifications of his signing with the Galaxy are still being felt more than 13 years later.
When MLS kicked off its silver anniversary season this weekend, it did so as the largest first-division league in the world, its 26 teams double the number it had when Beckham joined in 2007.
Expansion fees have grown from $10 million to more than $320 million, the number of players has tripled to 750, average salaries are up more than 500%, according to the players’ union, and just six leagues in the world had a higher average attendance than MLS last season.
The signing also opened MLS to dozens of big-name stars who followed — from Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard to Bastian Schweinsteiger, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. A league that had been on the verge of bankruptcy just a few seasons before Beckham joined has become one of the world’s healthiest financially, with Soccerex’s Football Finance Index ranking seven MLS teams among the top 50 in the world.
“The signing of David probably kept MLS around forever,” said New England Revolution coach Bruce Arena, who led Beckham to two league titles with the Galaxy. “He gave us global attention. The investment in the league is tremendous. We’re moving forward in every area.”
There have been few truly transformative figures in any league or sport — and most are remembered from fading black-and-white photos or grainy newsreels. Babe Ruth and his mincing home run trot saved baseball after the Black Sox scandal. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in a drafty hockey arena in Hershey, Pa., pushed the NBA into public consciousness. Joe Namath, delivering on his promise to win Super Bowl III, ushered in the AFL-NFL merger.
Beckham belongs on that list but not so much for what he did in the games, spraying pinpoint passes and exquisite set pieces during his 5½ seasons with the Galaxy. It was his presence that changed MLS, his name alone helping lift the league — and the team — onto the global stage.
Now he is among those reaping the benefits of the changes he brought. A clause in his original contract gave him the right to buy an expansion team at a deeply discounted price, one he exercised two years ago when MLS granted his ownership group a franchise in Miami. On Sunday Inter Miami CF makes its debut against LAFC at Banc of California Stadium, a dozen miles up the 110 Freeway from where Beckham played his first MLS game for the Galaxy.
“It means a lot to be able to come to a place we felt was our home. And still feel is our home,” Beckham said. “We had six amazing years there. “Very excited to bring my team back to L.A.”
Others are excited too. According to ticket broker SeatGeek, the demand for tickets to the game is the most intense for any regular-season game LAFC history, with the average resale price of $146 on Friday morning more than 20% higher than the asking price for Banc of California’s first El Trafico with the Galaxy in 2018. It’s also nearly double the average resale price for any other MLS opener this weekend.
Beckham’s return to MLS as an owner comes 12 years after his first game as player in 2007, 12 years after the league’s inaugural season. The process to land the star started much earlier.
Rumors that Beckham, then the world’s second-best-paid player, would leave Real Madrid for the Galaxy began circulating in the summer of 2006 but seemed implausible.
Beckham made an estimated $29.1 million in his final season in Spain, about $6 million more than the payrolls of all 12 MLS teams combined. The league’s salary cap of $1.9 million left no room for a player of his stature.
Leiweke was undeterred.
The first challenge was convincing the rest of the league to alter its salary structure, with Commissioner Don Garber backing AEG’s idea of a “designated player” rule — quickly coined the Beckham Rule — that would allow each team to sign one player whose salary would not be limited by the leaguewide cap.
“We had to sit down with Don and say we’re going to have to change the way we compensate players,” Leiweke said by phone from the Westwood offices of the Oak View Group, which also is involved in two NHL projects — a new home for the New York Islanders and the expansion team in Seattle that’s set to begin play in 2021.
“When you look at basketball and football and baseball and hockey, the best players in the world are here. [MLS is] the one league and the one sport where the best players in the world aren’t here. If we don’t make that commitment, we’re never going to succeed.”
The Beckham Rule, which quickly expanded to allow three DPs per team and has since been used to sign at least 233 players, so dramatically altered the direction of MLS that many executives divide the league’s history into halves: the 12 seasons before Beckham came and the 12 seasons after.
In the first dozen seasons the league topped 17,000 in average attendance just once. In the 12 seasons since, attendance has averaged 19,600 and topped 21,000 in each of the last five seasons. That’s a 40% jump from the pre-Beckham days.
MLS was little known outside the U.S. before Beckham’s arrival, but this season the league will see its games broadcast in 190 countries and territories.
“You can point back to that moment as the key time,” said Galaxy President Chris Klein, a midfielder who was traded to the team a month before Beckham arrived. “There’s no question him coming here made us a global brand.”
Even though the league was able to create a mechanism to keep its salary cap while guaranteeing Beckham’s $32.5-million contract, it was woefully unprepared for the other changes his arrival brought.
“It was seminal and it was a hurricane. And nothing can prepare you for the hurricane that is David Beckham,” said Alexi Lalas, a player in MLS’ first season and the Galaxy’s president and general manager in 2007, when Beckham arrived. “Every single day there was stuff going on behind the scenes that dealt with the fact we were not just dealing with a popular soccer player, we were dealing with one of the most recognizable and popular people in the world.”
Without Beckham, who traveled with a personal security guard, MLS would never have been able to handle Ibrahimovic, who had both a security escort and his own physical therapist.
“It was pretty spectacular to understand his universe compared to our universe and how the two were so far apart,” Leiweke said. “David was too big at first.
“We had to grow to David. David didn’t grow to us.”
The Beckham experiment would have been a failure, however, if it didn’t produce championships and that didn’t happen until 2011, when the Galaxy added Robbie Keane, one of the English Premier League’s all-time scoring leaders. Yet Keane wouldn’t have come if Beckham hadn’t paved the way.
It took Leiweke more than two years to convince Beckham to come to MLS but “it took literally three days to get Robbie Keane done,” he said. “That’s how good David Beckham was. Having Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and David Beckham on one team?
“That changed everything and showed us what we could be.”
Beckham last wore a Galaxy uniform in 2012, walking off the field for the final time while clutching the MLS Cup. But he never really left Dignity Health Sports Park, where his 5½ seasons with the team are memorialized with a 9-foot-tall bronze statue in front of the stadium. His name appears in the team’s ring of honor inside the building.
“I don’t think there’s many players that have statues outside stadiums when they’re owners of other clubs,” Beckham said with a smile.
Now Beckham is trying to establish himself in the most distant corner of the MLS map he helped redraw, in South Florida, one of the league’s newest -- and oldest -- markets. The Miami Fusion was the first MLS expansion franchise, in 1998. Four years later, with the league $250 million in debt, the Fusion became the first MLS franchise to fold.
MLS is a different league now, Beckham said, so the address is the only real link between the teams.
“The league is growing at a rapid rate,” he said, standing on the sidelines of one of the seven fields at Inter Miami’s $60-million training facility, which officially opened next to the team’s temporary stadium two weeks ago. “It’s getting stronger every year. Players are coming in from Europe, young talent’s coming in.
“I’ve always had faith that this league will get to challenge the European leagues in the future and we’re on the way to doing that. But there’s still a huge amount of work to be done.”
Consider that work the second act of Beckham’s MLS makeover.
Part of a management group that includes two tech entrepreneurs and Cuban American brothers who run an engineering and construction company, Beckham is the soccer guy in the owners’ suite. And he doesn’t intend to be a silent partner.
“I’ve been hands-on since Day 1. So that’s not going to change,” he said.
One of his chores has been reaching out to top players in Europe and Latin America — a list that reportedly includes Barcelona teammates Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, Manchester City’s David Silva and Sergio Agüero and Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavini — to try to find the league’s next transformative player.
In Beckham’s mind, all he did as a player was set a foundation. As an owner, his job is to build on that.
“I’d like to feel that I’ve played a small part in growing this league and establish[ing] this league,” he said. “I always said I was committed to the MLS. And this is my next step and next journey.”