Beckham & Henry take MLS attendance to next level

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Why did David Beckham leave Real Madrid for LA Galaxy? For many, the former England captain only had money on his mind. The player himself tried to make us believe it was to grow the game of ‘soccer’ in America.

Five years on, and Beckham’s made everyone look foolish – again.

The hype surrounding the former Manchester United star’s move to the United States was unprecedented. Beckham was on the cover of every magazine, whilst simultaneously being sat on the sofa of every television talk show.

Many wondered if it was more an initial intrigue than genuine interest in the beautiful game. Would brand Beckham stand the test of time during his five-year stay in Hollywood?

Major League Soccer thought so, and had invested heavily in Beckham’s long-term contract to entice him across the Atlantic. A new ‘designated player’ rule followed, with each team allowed to pay a player outside of their salary cap – as the Galaxy was Beckham.

The immediate impact was an average attendance growth of 8.2% across the whole division. In 2007, the average gate in the league was 16,770 people – up from 15,504 the previous season.

Impressively, the additional interest was maintained. Beckham sold out pretty much every ground he played in, but the key for Major League Soccer was to put bums on seats when No.23 wasn’t in the stadium.

In 2008, 2009 and 2010, the average attendance fluctuated between 16 and 17,000 – helped by a growth of support in new team the Seattle Sounders, who have had an average attendance of over 30,000 in each season since 2009.

Beckham could never do it all on his own, and the arrival of Thierry Henry in New York was certainly another big boost for the MLS. Henry, like Beckham, had enjoyed successful spells in both the Premier League and La Liga.

Despite being in the later stages of his career, Henry appeared hungry for success on arrival at the Red Bulls, a team desperate for a superstar on the East Coast to challenge their rivals on the opposite side of the country.

It captured the imagination, and after breaking the four million total fans barrier in 2010, the MLS surpassed five million last year with an average attendance of 17,872.

Things were going so well for Beckham, who won an MLS Cup in the 2011 season, that he opted to sign a contract extension at The Home Depot Centre. A sizable pay cut was taken, and he’s no longer the biggest-earner in the MLS.

Attendances rose again in the regular season this term, with an average of over 18,000 watching games live throughout the season. That took the total to over six million people in attendance throughout the campaign – another MLS record.

The profile of football across the pond is set for another major boost too, with NBC announcing a three-year deal to screen the Premier League on their channel.

When Beckham moved to America, it was a joke to many. A legend picking up his final pay packet much like Pele, George Best and plenty of others before him in the 70s and 80s.

But, as he’s shown time and time again, Beckham doesn’t go by the book. He’s helped transform the MLS to a competition with global interest, and set the trend for other top players like Henry to follow.

The key for those in power at the top of the game is to keep the upward curve going, and they know they can’t rely on 37-year-old Beckham forever. When he does hang up the boots, MLS will owe this particular player a huge pat on the back. His impact on ‘soccer’ could last a lifetime.

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