The window of opportunity was small. So small that it took some vision to see it – to recognize that, for the substantial risk, the payoff could bend the arc of Major League Soccer’s brief existence. And that one man’s presence could help take the decade-old North American soccer circuit from an often troubled present to a thriving future.
Real Madrid, as often, was in turmoil. And in the first half of the 2006-07 season, soccer’s resident superstar David Beckham wasn’t playing much. Ramon Calderon had just been elected the Spanish club’s new president, and even though he had won on his promise of signing big-name players – and he would later land Cristiano Ronaldo – he somehow simultaneously rejected his predecessor Florentino Perez’s policy of buying “galacticos.” Beckham was one of those Perezian superstars, and the new manager installed by Calderon, Fabio Capello, initially had no use for the Englishman.
Beckham was 31, in his prime, in the final year of his contract at Real and benched mostly for political reasons.
The Los Angeles Galaxy smelled an opportunity.
The club had quietly been laying the groundwork to sign Beckham for a long time, just in case the opportunity ever arose. When it stunned the soccer world by inking him to a five-year contract on Jan. 11, 2007 – a decade ago on Wednesday – the Galaxy had actually been working on bringing Beckham over for over two years.
The Galaxy is owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which, among a host of other things, has put on American Idol events. As such, then-AEG CEO Tim Leiweke had regular dealings with Idol creator Simon Fuller, who also happened to be the agent for Beckham, his Spice Girl wife Victoria and a stable of other famous people.
Leiweke nurtured the relationship and saw Beckham when he could. By the rules, the golden-maned midfielder was free to sign a pre-contract elsewhere six months before his Real Madrid deal expired. Whatever talks he may have had with Real went nowhere and he was going to be a free agent. Now was the Galaxy’s chance and they struck quickly.
“It was always something that we talked about,” recalls Alexi Lalas, the Galaxy president and general manager from early 2006 through the summer of 2008. “It was just a question of when was the timing right. It was the big, bold, audacious type of move that kind of fit in to his brand and his trajectory. This was a stars aligning type of thing. You need a little luck and some good timing.”
“In our league that’s how we have to think outside the box,” Leiweke remembers. “We have to work a little bit harder and be a little bit more clever. We knew that David was not playing in the starting 11 for a moment in time, and we just happened to capture it at the right time.”
The Galaxy had made a bold pitch to Beckham. ” ‘Only you can do it,’ ” Leiweke says he told him. ” ‘Come build not just build a team, build a league and build the sport. Change it in a way that no one else ever will. Only Pele can be compared to what you’re going to do. Nobody will ever forget that. They’ll write books about it.’ ”
Leiweke is an infectiously optimistic salesman, painting grand and vivid pictures. His enthusiasm and the sheer bigness of his ideas can sound bullish to the point of being absurd. Except that he has an uncanny track record of delivering on seemingly improbable promises. Because Beckham took the bait and really did help build the team and the league and sport, and he would alter it in a way nobody had since Pele – and indeed go further.
By then, MLS owners had already agreed, behind closed the doors, to the Designated Player rule, which was initially referred to colloquially as the Beckham Rule. Every team could sign an exceptional player who might move the needle in its market but wouldn’t count against the puny salary cap. In that context, it wasn’t hard to sell the partners in the league’s single-entity structure.
“It really wasn’t,” MLS commissioner Don Garber says. “Everybody knew that David would be a big sell on the road and that he would bring international appeal to the league. That he’d help us with global credibility and so many other things – and that’s what happened.”
“It was basically an outgrowth of some research we had done in 2005,” Garber continues, “that indicated that while there was growing interest in MLS, there were quite a few soccer fans that wanted to see the league sign more big-name international players.”
Once Beckham was signed, a funny thing happened. Real Madrid, about to lose one of its biggest stars to – horror of horrors – a team in America, recoiled. “He’s going to Hollywood to be half a film star,” club president Calderon said in an off-the-record talk to Spanish college students that was leaked. “Our technical staff were right not to extend his contract, and that has been proved by the fact that no other technical staff in the world wanted him except Los Angeles.” [/restrict]