By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007; E01
Major League Soccer has taken modest steps on the U.S. sports landscape since its inception 11 years ago, but with the signing of English superstar David Beckham, the league has attempted to expand its footprint beyond the soccer community and appeal to a mainstream audience that might not know a corner kick from a corner bakery.
Beckham, a former England World Cup captain whose glamorous personal life has often overshadowed his on-field contributions, announced yesterday that he will leave Real Madrid after the Spanish league season and join the Los Angeles Galaxy this summer.
In announcing the blockbuster deal, MLS and the Galaxy said Beckham will sign a five-year contract that could earn him $250 million, but sources around the league said it is a highly complex agreement that is tied to marketing projects and will also compensate him through league initiatives after his playing career is over. He is expected to make his MLS debut in June.
"He may very well serve as the Pied Piper for MLS," said David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports marketing executive and professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. "They're going to get people to the stadiums, but it's going to be up to the league to make sure they come back and to convert them into regular fans. They're going to have to deliver beyond Beckham."
Beckham, 31, is not the best player in the world -- far from it. But he is perhaps the most famous athlete on the planet, and MLS, a league playing in the long shadows of the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, believes his personality and style will attract as much attention to its sport as his bending crosses and precision free kicks.
"David Beckham is a global sports icon who will transcend the sport of soccer in America," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a prepared statement.
Beckham's contract certainly transcends previous MLS standards. Last season, the average MLS player earned about $100,000, and most teams had several players making the league minimum of $11,700.
"The first thing that jumped out at me was the figure he was making. I mean, that's unbelievable," said former D.C. United player Alecko Eskandarian, who was traded to expansion club Toronto FC last month. "As much as I'm all for the exposure, I feel like if [MLS clubs] have all this money they could divvy up some of it, especially for some of the younger players with developmental contracts. It's really not fair what they make. To think that one guy could make more in one day of practice than some guys make for a whole year of effort is pretty shocking."
Beckham's signing was made possible by an MLS rule change in November -- one that allows each of the league's 13 teams to acquire a marquee player beyond the limitations of the salary cap. The rule is officially called the Designated Player Rule, but has been known from its inception in MLS circles as the Beckham Rule.
The salary cap is expected to be approximately $2.2 million per team next year, but under the new rules only $400,000 of Beckham's salary will count against the cap. MLS will pay Beckham $400,000 per year, while the Galaxy's investment group, Anschutz Entertainment Group, will pay the remainder. Exact terms of the contract were not disclosed, but the $250 million figure reportedly includes commercial endorsements, merchandising income and a share of club profits.
Real Madrid currently is paying Beckham $11 million per year strictly for playing soccer.
Beckham will become the biggest name to play professionally in the United States since Brazilian icon Pele joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in the late 1970s. His signing led to a wild escalation of salaries and the eventual collapse of the league after the 1984 season.
At the moment, MLS does not seem to be headed down the same path. The well-financed Galaxy and New York Red Bulls are the only teams expected to use the Designated Player Rule. New York has been linked with Brazil's Ronaldo, Portugal's Luis Figo and U.S. World Cup captain Claudio Reyna, who plays in England.
D.C. United is not planning to use the new rule to obtain a high-profile player, team President Kevin Payne said.
"Does it make it theoretically easier if we identify the right opportunity? Sure," Payne said. "But that's not something we're prioritizing right now. . . . [Signing such a player] is still a challenge because of the imposition on the cap. That player is capped at such a high number."
U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said he does not foresee NASL-style bidding wars, because "lessons learned from that episode preclude that possibility."
On the field, the Galaxy is getting a player whose best days are generally considered to be behind him. After serving as captain for England in last summer's World Cup, he was dropped from the national team by new coach Steve McClaren. Since the Spanish club season began in August, Beckham has started just five games for Real Madrid.
But Beckham is still considered one of the world's top free-kick specialists, and at 31 he should have an impact in a league like MLS.
"I don't think it's a problem unless he doesn't perform," said Nick Rimando, the former D.C. United goalkeeper who was traded along with Freddy Adu to Real Salt Lake last month. "Some guys come from Europe and treat it like a vacation. If he does what he did in Europe over the years, it will be fine."
Beckham is expected to make a greater impact off the field, of course.
Although Beckham will play for the Galaxy, every MLS team hopes to benefit financially through ticket sales when Los Angeles comes to town. When Adu was a celebrated 14-year-old rookie in 2004, United's average road attendance was 23,686, more than 6,000 fans ahead of the second-best figure that season. With Beckham, the Galaxy figures to equal or exceed that surge in attendance.
With the exception of the first two weeks of the season in April, the league is still formulating the 2007 schedule. The Galaxy, which plays in the Western Conference, will make only one visit to each of the seven Eastern Conference cities and, with Beckham unavailable until June at the earliest, MLS is trying to find a way to schedule every Los Angeles eastern trip after his arrival.
Payne said he has had discussions with the league and ESPN, which recently purchased the rights to MLS games, about scheduling a United-Galaxy game at RFK Stadium late in the summer. Last season, Los Angeles played in Washington on Aug. 26.
Beckham's appeal likely will extend beyond MLS stadiums. With his stylish look, a famous wife (former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham) and a team based close to Hollywood, Beckham news may not be restricted to the sports pages.
"He has a face, he has a presence and he can still play," Rimando said. "It's good for the league, it's good for the Galaxy and it's good for the women."
Staff writer Dan Steinberg contributed to this report.