These are days of hope for Major League Soccer, the start-up that's celebrating its 10th season on the American sports landscape. In the past two years MLS has built two new stadiums, attracted four new ownership groups (including one that recently paid a league-record $26 million for D.C. United) and signed the top U.S. player (Landon Donovan) as he enters his prime.
So what's the next step for a league that's growing but still not profitable? One possibility: carefully chosen imported superstars. After Real Madrid's recent friendly against the Galaxy in L.A., no fewer than four Galàcticos--David Beckham, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Ra√∫l--told SI they would like to finish their careers in the U.S. "Playing in the MLS definitely interests me," Beckham said after the sold-out match, which had scalpers asking up to $800 a ticket. "If that can carry on with soccer games all over America, that's what I'd like to achieve."
Given MLS's financial realities, it's easy to be skeptical about such sweet nothings. (When English Premier League champion Chelsea met MLS champ D.C. United in an exhibition last week, their estimated team payrolls were $200 million versus $2.2 million, respectively.) But what if the economic ground rules changed? What if the guy who runs the teams in the New York, L.A. and Chicago markets--Tim Leiweke, who's backed by soccer-loving billionaire Phil Anschutz--started talking big about landing the Spice Boy when his contract with Madrid expires in 2007? Actually, Leiweke, the president of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, already has. Beckham has "an open invitation" to play in MLS, says Leiweke, who has told reporters he's convinced it's going to happen.
But can Leiweke, who has a reputation for hype-slinging, back up his big predictions? No one denies that Beckham (and his wife, Victoria, the former Posh Spice) would bring new levels of buzz and glamour to the league--he got a standing ovation in L.A. for merely taking a corner kick. And the investment needed to bring him Stateside is less than one might think. Though Becks, 30, reportedly earned $37.4 million last year, more than any other soccer player, his salary with Madrid was a more manageable $8.26 million. The rest came from endorsers such as Adidas, Pepsi and Gillette, who probably would be happy to see Beckham try to conquer the world's most lucrative market.
Before that can happen, though, Leiweke will have to persuade MLS owners that their slow-growth, single-entity business model (which requires them to pool their resources for player costs) can handle the expensive outlays that doomed the old NASL. Not every owner supports Leiweke's new plan to allow each team a franchise player whose salary wouldn't count toward the team's salary cap of roughly $2 million. "The first key is for us to survive, and I think we're almost at that point," says Lamar Hunt, who owns three MLS teams and opened his new 21,193-seat stadium for FC Dallas last week. "But we need to be careful. I'm not a believer that spending a lot of money on players is necessarily the right way to go."
Like several other owners, Hunt would rather see more money go to academies to develop young Americans, with teams reserving the right to keep the players they produce (rather than sending them into the draft). What's more, he points out, a tight rein on player costs is the very reason the 12-team MLS has gained a measure of stability; this year's player acquisition and salary budget is one third less than the more than $40 million MLS spent in 2000, say league sources.
There are certainly risks, apart from cost, in putting Beckham in a Galaxy jersey or bringing, say, Ronaldo or Figo to the MetroStars. If they play well, it could skew the league's competitive balance. (Superstars seldom mention a desire to play in Kansas City or Columbus.) And there's always the danger that the same lifestyle benefits that draw top players could also turn their stays into extended holidays.
All things considered, though, the chance to sign Beckham (for a reasonable price), and perhaps bring about a soccer revolution in the U.S., would be too tempting to pass up. MLS may still be losing money, but it's on firmer footing than the NASL ever was. That league never invested in American players and never built its own midsized stadiums to provide European-style atmospheres and improve its chances for profits over the long haul. By 2009 MLS plans to have 16 teams, with 10 of them playing in soccer-specific facilities. The next phase of the league is about to begin, and signing the world's biggest soccer stars would be a perfect kickoff.
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I'm honored to be related to him. He's a hero. --DAVID BELL, FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 22
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG