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The circus comes to town

When faced with the criticism that the David Beckham signing had effectively turned his L.A. Galaxy into a three-ring circus, Tim Leiweke, chief executive of AEG, (owners of the Galaxy) replied, “Well, I love the circus.” Anyone who remembers Tim Leiweke from his Major Indoor Soccer League days knows how sincere he was when he said that. And you know what? I love the circus, too. At least, this circus. No matter how you look at it, the signing of David Beckham has been great for MLS.

When Beckham came to L.A., different versions of the same joke appeared all over TV. Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update reported, “International soccer star David Beckham has signed to play with the Los Angeles Galaxy… which apparently exists.” On the Tonight Show, it was “David Beckham is getting $250 million to play for a pro soccer team in Los Angeles. That’s amazing. Who knew there was a pro soccer team in Los Angeles?”

To succeed, MLS must not only attract serious soccer fans, they’ll need to draw more casual fans as well to broaden the league’s appeal, and Beckham has put MLS on the map when it comes to overall pop culture. Not only that, when people tune in, if Beckham (and Donovan) is on the field, they’re rewarded with an entertaining game. This season, L.A. is at the top of the league in goals scored, and the Galaxy’s 5-4 loss in New York last year was the best regular season MLS game I’ve seen.

As for attracting those hardcore soccer fans, here’s some news: Beckham’s good. It’s as simple as that. He’s still world class. Now that he’s healthy, he’s tearing up the league, and getting full mileage out of Landon Donovan’s talent. With Beckham in the lineup (standing next to some rookies and developmental players) LA is tied for first (with a game in hand) in the Western Division. (Take a look at the Galaxy’s 2-0 loss in Toronto if you want to see what the Galaxy looks like without Beckham and Donovan playing.)

For the Galaxy, the signing has already paid for itself in ticket and replica jersey sales. Exhibition games in Australia draw as much as 94,000. That regular season game in New York (not held as the back end of some double header with the national team) drew over 66,000. For the league, the Sports Business Journal reported that by March 4, with the 2008 season opener almost four weeks away, Major League Soccer had already made more money from season ticket sales (not including expansion San Jose) than they had in all of 2007.

Of course, as anyone who’s been to the circus knows, sometimes there’s a bad smell associated with it. The Galaxy (and the league) could have and should have handled certain aspects of last year’s transfer a lot better. Some ticketing schemes, scheduling issues (like the inclusion of the Galaxy in Super Liga) and rushing Beckham back from injury all showed that Alexi Lalas & Co. still make some amateur hour mistakes.

At this year’s Galaxy home opener, after Ruud Gullit and Landon Donovan had their post-game turn in the Galaxy’s media room, there’s David Beckham, looking all shiny and ready for a GQ photo shoot in his suit and tie, being asked what it felt like to score his first MLS goal, and if his sons had bought Suri Cruise anything special for her recent birthday. The soccer reporters in the room all rolled their eyes. The Galaxy marketing guys in the room all smiled.

As readers of this page know, I’m a strong advocate of raising the overall MLS salary cap, and that won’t happen unless MLS investors see money flowing to fund the new salary structure. And David Beckham has moved the needle like few players could.

The Quakes scheduled three home games this year away from Buck Shaw stadium. The home opener was moved to Oakland (in part) to give more time for the renovation work to be finished in Santa Clara. The other two matches deemed Too Big an Event for Buck Shaw Stadium are the two visits the L.A. Galaxy will make to the Bay Area this season.

Yep, David Beckham moved the Earthquakes into the Oakland Coliseum, just like he's moving MLS into a larger public arena overall. Yeah, I love the circus.