By Ellis Hill
In the neighbourhood of downtown Miami, Florida, a high-pitched man from London may have won the lottery. As he stands in front of the flashing camera bulbs holding a scarf up for the entranced media, you’d imagine he must be quite happy with himself.
That man, David Beckham, was a star footballer in MLS before it was vogue, and that, in part, laid the groundwork for his upcoming spoils. In the $250 million deal which brought the Englishman to American shores in 2007, a clause was struck: once retired, the player could buy-in to an MLS franchise for $25 million, his golden ticket. Expansion teams to the league cost a lot – at least a $100 million, the fee paid by Manchester City to found a New York City franchise back in 2013 – and thus as the dust cleared from his Miami buy-in announcement in January, a shrewd sort of business sense was emerging.
US soccer is growing at an astonishing rate, with the three most-viewed MLS games of all-time being played in the last two years and 2017’s overall attendance now thrusting the league into the top five of global attendance. While the recent failure to qualify for the World Cup will dampen spirits among armchair purists in the US, Beckham’s Miami plans will be unaffected as the franchise won’t be established until long after the competition.
Indeed, the US team are not fatally wounded either – unlike the young pretender Freddy Adu or stalwart Landon Donovan, they finally have a bankable European star in Christian Pulisic, and long may his stock rise. Mooted moves to Manchester United and Bayern Munich may not materialise soon for the 19-year-old, yet time is on his side and US soccer shall continue its rise regardless of one man.
With the lure of big cash usurped by Chinese magnates and younger household names from Europe still heading west to American teams – think Giovani Dos Santos and Carlos Vela – MLS is no longer a ‘retirement league’ where aged players impersonate the game for big bucks.
David Beckham may look no further than the success story of Atlanta United in bordering state Georgia. Average home attendance for the club, which has only competed in one professional season, runs at 48,000, a feat described by MLS commissioner Don Garber as “the story in pro sports. I’m proud to say that.”
As the Miami venture was officially unveiled last month with great media fanfare, you cannot help but think this is one of the greatest pay-offs in sporting history. For America, Beckham brought more attention to US football than any single player since Pelé when he joined the New York Cosmos in 1975. For Beckham, this represents a chance at something even Pelé couldn’t do: make Americans fall in love with the ‘beautiful game’.
David Beckham is no philosopher – every one of his books has been ghostwritten and he does not muse about football ideology like a Cruyff or a Guardiola. Yet perhaps unwittingly he is now a figurehead of a larger movement, one which seeps through every pore of the American soccer landscape.
Unlike his original move, this growth is natural, and that’s what makes it exciting. Beckham is already a rich man many times over – this isn’t all about money, this is about a country finally embracing soccer-mania.
Photograph: Nathan Forget via Flickr