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Beckham put MLS on fast track to respectability

By Frank Pingue

(Reuters) - David Beckham sent shockwaves around the world when he signed with Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, giving Major League Soccer a level of legitimacy and visibility that otherwise may have taken decades to reach before the ink on his contract was barely dry.

Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of Beckham's coming to America, a deal that made the former England captain the poster boy for a new era of MLS and transformed the Galaxy into one of the planet's most recognizable soccer brands.

With Beckham aboard, Galaxy merchandise flew off store shelves, MLS enjoyed a spike in interest and attendance and even landed international TV deals but perhaps his greatest mark is the creation of the designated player rule.

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Also known as "The Beckham Rule," it allowed clubs to sign certain players outside of the league's strict salary cap rules and paved the way for dozens of other high-profile players like Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and David Villa.

"Beckham accelerated the respectability of the league by years in terms of viewership, attendance and in getting more (big-name) players willing to join MLS as opposed to playing overseaes," Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, told Reuters.

"His celebrity status, not just as a soccer player but as a celebrity with Posh Spice as his wife and playing in L.A., made the Galaxy an attraction and Hollywood stars would come watch them play. He made the league fashionable."

But while Beckham, the biggest thing to hit American soccer since Pele joined the New York Cosmos in 1975, helped popularize soccer in a country where it has long struggled for mainstream attention, he was unable to bring it into the top tier of North American sport.

Blessed with good looks, a celebrity wife and a talent for self-promotion, Beckham appeared on popular late-night talk shows, in the pages of glossy magazines and broke into sports media empires normally the preserve of NFL and NBA stars.

When he joined the Galaxy his deal was reported to be $250 million over five years, which essentially was a made-up number since it was the potential earnings for Beckham from all sources on and off the field.

Beckham's MLS career got off to a slow start as injuries limited him to five games in his debut season even as a media circus surrounded him. He also faced plenty of criticism from Galaxy fans for loan moves to AC Milan in 2009 and 2010 that meant he missed some of the MLS season.

But by the time Beckham left MLS in December 2012 after winning a second consecutive championship with the Galaxy, he did more for MLS than perhaps any other player could have during that stretch.

The 2017 MLS season will feature 22 clubs compared to the 13 that competed in 2007. A second Los Angeles franchise will join next year and Beckham is behind a bid to add an MLS team in Miami that would bring the league to 24.

Fees for expansion teams have jumped to $150 million compared to $10 million in Beckham's first year.

"His arrival was certainly met with great fanfare. Did it accomplish what its most wild dreamers thought about? Probably not," Robert Boland, director of the sports administration program at Ohio University, told Reuters.

"But even if it didn't return on investment it probably returned on the objective and brought more attention to soccer, brought more attention to the league and to the values of it."

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Steve Keating)

 
 
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