There was a lot of talent on the field in Kansas City last night for Major League Soccer’s All-Star Game, but the league’s most valuable asset remains a player who wasn’t there.
Four months after his retirement, David Beckham, arguably the most renowned football ambassador since Pele, continues to loom large over the U.S. soccer league. With the season half over, the Los Angeles Galaxy, Beckham’s former club, is selling 1,400 fewer tickets per game on average, a decline of almost 6 percent. Crosstown rival Chivas USA has seen attendance plummet by one-third. Leaguewide, attendance at the average MLS match has slumped to about 18,100, down almost 4 percent from a year earlier.
Despite those declines, the Beckham buy still looks like a winning investment for American soccer. Attendance is 11 percent higher than it was in 2008, the first full year Beckham, who spent most of his career in Europe, laced up his boots for Los Angeles. Soccer-mad towns like Seattle and Portland, Ore., now draw far more home fans than a lot of Major League Baseball teams. And the average MLS attendance this year would be an improvement for more than half of the National Hockey League’s 30 teams.
Granted, there’s quite a lot more to all that than a slick-haired Englishman with a wicked right foot and rakish grin. MLS has five more teams and more than a dozen new stadiums built specifically for soccer and its fans. But by opening a pipeline of international talent for MLS, Beckham’s arrival in the U.S. was a spur for many of those investments. As Galaxy coach Bruce Arena told the New York Times: “I don’t think it’s unfair to say he put MLS on the map.”
Now, plans are afoot for a second MLS team in New York backed by the owners of Manchester City, one of the world’s top clubs, and the New York Yankees. It might be a while before the league lures a global star like Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. But if it does, Beckham will be the man who made it happen.