It was hailed the move that would revolutionize soccer in America... again.
David Beckham would be a rejuvenating force, a new Pelé, the kind of big-money foreign player that would make corporate sponsors salivate and fans turn up in droves.
In 2007, David Beckham transferred to the Los Angeles Galaxy from Real Madrid, where he had also been a mega-money signing, for a reported $250 million in total potential earnings over a five-year deal, including endorsements.
The hype was nearly out of control.
The "next Pelé" angle was great in theory, except that David Beckham isn't Pelé, and soccer in America has grown exponentially since that much-lauded Pelé arrival.
The teams have endorsements of their own, well-maintained soccer-specific grounds and legitimate, ever-growing fan-bases complete with wildly passionate ultras groups.
The Galaxy, to give a great example of this, play in the $150 million soccer-specific Home Depot Center and had an average 2011 fan attendance of 23,335, a number which is increasing. They have three organized groups for the hardest-core of supporters: the Galaxians, the L.A. Riot Squad and the Angel City Brigade.
Furthermore, not only have American soccer clubs been importing players from Europe and South America for a while now (Thierry Henry at the New York Red Bulls; Robbie Keane and Juninho at the Galaxy), but there's also a host of homegrown stars whose profiles are rising. Landon Donovan has nearly 600,000 fans on Facebook; FC Dallas upstart Brek Shea has more than 12,000 followers on Twitter.
But even with all these changes, can the increase in interest and attendance and rising profile of the L.A. Galaxy and the MLS at large be attributed, at least in part, to the arrival of Becks? Did he play a role in speeding up this transformation and helping American soccer gain legitimacy?
Has the English superstar given the Galaxy a return on their multimillion-dollar investment?
If we're just talking money, absolutely. If we're talking overall attendance, yes.
It's easy to write him off as a disappointment (we'll get to why he was to an extent in a minute), but the arrival of Becks was the equivalent of Jed Clampett hitting that oil well on The Beverly Hillbillies.
As critics were still writing off the MLS as generally being unprofitable following the arrival of Becks, the L.A. Galaxy was one of three clubs that turned out a profit that season and generated nearly double the revenue of any other MLS team.
Shortly after his arrival, weight-loss supplement company Herbalife signed a $4 million annual jersey sponsorship deal, breaking league records. Big-money sponsors like Delta Airlines, American Express and Valero Energy soon followed. Even before ticket sales, Becks helped generate mass revenue for the Galaxy.
Beckham did account for an increase in attendance and ticket sales in his first two seasons with the club. A 2008 study from the International Journal of Sport Finance suggests that the presence of Beckham nearly doubled ticket sales when he was on the roster, even more so when he actually played.
During the 2008 season, when average MLS attendances were on the decline, they not only shot up more than seven percent for the Galaxy, but team attendance hit record highs. An increase in fans to away matches where Beckham was present was also evident, indicating his appeal not just with the Galaxy and the possibility of bringing in fans of other teams.
When Beckham and captain Landon Donovan went to Europe, on loan spells at AC Milan and Bayern Munich and Everton respectively, attendance sharply dropped. Correlation is not causation, but it's certainly something to consider.
Attendance has since been on the upswing and is now at the highest it's been since that 2008 season, which could have something to do with the return of Beckham, or at the very least the retention of some fans whose interest in the club may have piqued with his arrival.
If we're talking his performance on the pitch, it's a toss-up. The first two seasons he was with the Galaxy didn't fare too well for the team, despite the increase in attendance, and Becks struggled initially in his debut season thanks to ankle and knee injury.
The Galaxy failed to make the playoffs, and the special treatment given to the megastar—particularly his immediate appointment as captain, edging out longtime skipper Landon Donovan—caused a lot of discord between him and the rest of the team.
He did have a share of high-impact moments in spite of this, most notably helping the Galaxy win the North American SuperLiga semi-final against DC United and advance to the final with a goal and a solid assist to Donovan.
Even though he was mostly nonexistent through the 2009 season due to his AC Milan loan deal, drawing ire from fans, he did come back at the end and played a role in bringing the Galaxy a Western Conference championship—scoring one of the goals in the final penalty shootout.
He helped clinch the regular-season Western Conference championships for them in 2010 with a goal against FC Dallas, and contributed to their earning the MLS Supporters' Shield.
In the 2011 season, the same old song and dance. He trained with Tottenham Hotspur, sparking rumors about another loan move which is still the subject of speculation today. More recently, Beckham has made headlines through rumors of a move to Paris Saint-Germain more than for his prowess on the pitch.
That being said, he did reasonably well as a player, making a very respectable 15 assists and raising eyebrows with an impressive free-kick goal against Sporting Kansas City (a contender for Goal of the Season) and another against the Chicago Fire taken directly from a corner. The Galaxy also saw a second consecutive Supporters' Shield come home.
So his tenure with the Galaxy wasn't all bad in terms of on-pitch performance, and the Galaxy certainly saw some success. But while he had some standout moments, was it enough over the course of five seasons to really merit all that money, purely from a playing perspective? Probably not.
If we're talking his status as an icon within the club, his relationship with the game itself and spurring that impassioned fan base that makes international football so engaging—no.
His loan spells with Milan, and his handling of the situation, caused a rift with the fans, who booed him upon his return to the Home Depot Center and greeted him with signs that read "Part-Time Player" and other such slogans. A scuffle almost started between him and a fan, and Beckham's attempts to extend his loan spell at Milan don't really help his case in terms of commitment to the Galaxy.
So Beckham may not be Pelé and he may not have been the spiritual savior of American soccer in the way the MLS might have hoped, and he wasn't exactly a hit with the league's most passionate fans. But he did generate a whole lot of revenue, bring attendance to record highs, likely converted a few casual fans and score a few really great goals in the process.
The full extent of his impact remains to be seen as the MLS continues to grow and will do so regardless of whether or not he goes to PSG, but he wasn't a total bust.