David Beckham, the English midfielder known as much for the swerving, bending free kicks he delivered with astonishing precision as for being a global superstar who transcended the sport of soccer, has announced his retirement.
Beckham, 38, has played the past half-season with Paris Saint-Germain in France's Ligue 1. He spent most of his 20-year career in Europe, but also turned in six seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer.
And in doing so, he left a unique and lasting legacy on the sport's growth in the United States.
Much like his dual roles as a footballer and international celebrity, Beckham's influence on the American game was mixed but impossible to ignore. From the Beckham Rule to crowded stadiums to back-to-back league titles, Beckham wielded an influence on the American version of the sport that few, if any, soccer players have ever matched.
And yet, for all he accomplished, soccer largely remains in its niche in America, a specialty sport with a growing, yet still comparatively small national fanbase.
Beckham signed with the Galaxy in January 2007 to much fanfare. The club claimed Beckham's five-year deal would be worth $250 million in salary and endorsements, and Beckham claimed he had joined for the challenge, not the money.
Said Beckham at the time (per CNN):
I didn't want to go out there at 34 years old and for people to turn around and say he's only going there to get the money. It's not what I'm going out there to do. I'm going to hopefully build a club and a team that has a lot of potential. I think that is what excites me.
The team-building would have to wait. Beckham started just two games his first season in Los Angeles (per LAGalaxy.com) as the Galaxy finished fifth in the Western Conference, missing the MLS Cup playoffs (per MLSSoccer.com).
But one only has to look at that 2007 MLS table to see how much the league has changed since then. The league had 13 teams at that point. Now, it has 19.
In 2011, meanwhile, MLS surpassed the National Basketball Association (NBA) as America's third-best-attended sport (via Sporting News). The league's attendance has dropped in 2013 after reaching a record high in 2012 (via Soccer America), but the overall growth is still impressive.
Beckham's exact contribution to the league's surge in popularity is difficult to quantify, but he was certainly influential.
Before his arrival in 2007, MLS adopted the Designated Player Rule, which allowed clubs to attract higher-priced talent without violating the league's strict salary-cap rules. Quickly nicknamed the "Beckham Rule," it designated only the first $400,000 of the designated player's salary toward the team's salary cap. Every MLS team had the option to exercise the rule (via Forbes).
International stars soon followed in Beckham's footsteps. Most notably, Thierry Henry, formerly of Arsenal and Barcelona, joined the New York Red Bulls in 2010. In recent years, the league has tweaked the rule (via MLSSoccer.com here and here), changing salary requirements and other considerations, but the goal remains to attract talent to America.
Beckham was the first and most famous designated player, and his arrival in America while still a top-class player signaled a possible shift in players' attitudes toward MLS. Many others besides Beckham and Henry have come stateside and thereby improved the league's quality.
But, as Henry recently told Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl (via NBC Pro Soccer Talk), much work remains:
(At Arsenal) I didn’t have to tell Robert Pires or Patrick Viera what to do, so I was concentrating on what I had to do. I’m not having a go at anyone; I’m just saying that it’s easier to have guys who know exactly what it takes.
While attendance has soared and teams have entered the league, television ratings for MLS remain low (via The Goalkeeper). Even the 2012 MLS Cup final, which saw Beckham and the Galaxy win a second straight title in Beckham's final match with the club, attracted fewer viewers than the season before (via Soccer America).
But according to several prominent figures in the American game, Beckham's influence has been immense.
"Twenty years from now, we are going to look at this league and still talk about David Beckham as the one that helped turn us," Galaxy coach and former U.S. manager Bruce Arena said after the 2012 MLS Cup final (via Washington Post).
Added MLS commissioner Don Garber last November (via CNN): "There is no doubt that MLS is far more popular and important here and abroad than it was when he arrived."
That popularity extends beyond the pitch and into the realm of pop culture. Rubbing elbows with celebrities like Tom Cruise, Beckham has raised soccer's media profile in America. To borrow a line from USA Today, "he came, he sold and he conquered."
Much of that conquering happened on the pitch, and most of that came with back-to-back league titles in 2011 and 2012. But as always is the case with Beckham, the full story involved his international celebrity and his unmatched ability to attract attention in multiple ways.
Such a combination is unique to the modern era of soccer, and that is an appropriate coda to Beckham's influence on the sport in America. Beckham has not turned the world's sport into America's new pastime, but he has helped it reach new heights by playing a role he was uniquely qualified for.
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