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How David Beckham Changed U.S. Soccer

Five years after his much-hyped arrival in the United States, David Beckham is playing his last game for the L.A. Galaxy on Saturday. David Greene speaks with Los Angeles Times sportswriter Kevin Baxter about whether Beckham lived up to America's expectations.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Soccer superstar David Beckham arrived in the United States five years ago to play for the L.A. Galaxy major league soccer team. This was heralded as a signing that would launch the young league if not into the galaxy, at least into greater profitability. And Beckham made a grand entrance in his first game against D.C. United with this goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Can he bend this? Beckham (unintelligible). It's in the net. Do you believe it?

GREENE: That was the excitement five years ago. Well, tomorrow David Beckham, who's 37, puts on his Galaxy jersey for the last time in the MLS cup final against the Houston Dynamo. For more on David Beckham's impact on the United States, we turn to L.A. Times sportswriter Kevin Baxter.

Kevin, welcome to the program.

KEVIN BAXTER: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So take us back to the time that we were just hearing there, 2007. What were the expectations placed on David Beckham?

BAXTER: Well, expectations were huge. The league wanted him to bring the league into relevancy. It was fighting for a foothold in the U.S. sporting landscape and they needed someone to come over and get the public's attention. And also I think their goal, in the back of their mind, was to make the league an attractive option for players in Europe who were thinking about retiring or at the end of their careers maybe would want to come here. And it's worked like a charm.

GREENE: How do you measure that it's worked like a charm?

BAXTER: Well, you know, there's all kinds of measures when look across - the number of teams: When David came here there were 12 teams in the league. Now there are 19. The expansion fee to join the league, in 2006 it was $10 million, now it's $40 million and expected to go up. Television revenue has gone way up. Attendance is up over 300 percent since the time David came here.

GREENE: OK. So big changes in the league since David Beckham arrived on the stage. But what about the expectations that he would really make soccer more popular, you know, among Americans, that Americans would really fall in love with the sport?

BAXTER: Well, we don't know about that. We do know that the demographics of people who are watching soccer now, skew much younger than any sport. You know, the late teens, early adult demographic is one soccer is really drawing in. And average attendance now, in MLS, is higher than the average attendance in the NBA and NHL - and granted, some of the teams play in larger arenas. But when you look at the percentage of capacity, you know, in other words, how many seats are available that aren't sold, it's very high. You know, a lot of these teams are playing to more than 90 percent capacity in their stadiums. So the league does have a foothold. It's not going to go away anytime soon. Now it's up to the league to continue to build beyond David.

GREENE: Beyond David, but presumably, without David Beckham in the league. And I guess the next question is what's next for him?

BAXTER: Well, he's been very coy about that. He's continued to say he is not retiring. He's really tried to avoid anyone using the word retire around him. The commissioner used that word in a teleconference the other day and was immediately corrected by his press handlers. But where he's going to go, we don't know. He has offers on the table from everywhere. A lot of the English Premier League teams would like him to come and play for them. So there are a lot of options. He will be back at MLS as an owner, probably as an equity partner with the LA Galaxy, the team he plays for now, and that will happen sooner rather than later.

GREENE: And so, Kevin Baxter, if David Beckham did remain involved somehow - like with the LA Galaxy, maybe even in an ownership, sort of, capacity - what exactly is he hoping to do?

BAXTER: I think one of the surprises of this whole thing with David is a lot of people thought that he was a mercenary and, you know, he was coming over here to get the big paychecks. And maybe he was, but he's really fallen in love with the league. I mean he goes back to Europe all the time, talks to players over there about how good the league is and how they should come. When he comes back as an owner, I think you'll see him do a lot of public relations kind of things. He'll be at a lot of events, he'll shake a lot of hands, you know, a little bit like maybe Magic Johnson did when he retired as a player and became involved with the LA Lakers for a while.

GREENE: Kevin Baxter, sports writer for the Los Angeles Times. He was talking to us about David Beckham, who is not retiring - we're not going to use that word - but he will be playing his last game tomorrow for the LA Galaxy.

Kevin, thanks so much.

BAXTER: Thanks for the call. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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