On Oct. 14, a few weeks before the Los Angeles Galaxy marched to the MLS Cup title, I sat down for a chat with Tim Leiweke, the president of AEG, which owns the Galaxy. Leiweke is the man who brought David Beckham to L.A., and the topic soon turned to whether Beckham would extend his expiring Galaxy contract or move on to a team in Europe. Leiweke is known for being a big talker on occasion -- this is a guy who predicted MLS would be a top-four "and hopefully top-two or -three" U.S. league by 2015 -- but even I was surprised by how confident he sounded that day.
"I think David is loyal to us," Leiweke said. "Despite all the rumors and bulls--- out there about David going to France or the Premier League, David only leaves the Galaxy if David and we decide that. In fact, I believe David will be here again next year. People can make any offer they want. The loyalty he has to this club because of the way we have treated him and stood by him is going to be rewarded if we so choose to continue with David."
But it turns out that Leiweke wasn't blowing smoke. Even as so many respected French media outlets were reporting that Beckham's move to Paris Saint-Germain was a fait accompli, Beckham apparently had other ideas. PSG finally announced this week that Beckham would not be coming to Paris because his family preferred to stay in Southern California. And while Leiweke has cautioned that a new Galaxy contract has yet to be finalized, Beckham appears set to return to L.A. in 2012.
The news, of course, leads to several questions. Let's break it down:
Why would Beckham want to stay in Los Angeles? The thinking in Europe was that Beckham would jump at the chance to make more money in Paris (around $12 million a year for an 18-month deal), play in Champions League again and be closer to England to compete in the London Olympics. Plus Beckham could leave Los Angeles on a high note, having won the championship in 2011.
But give credit to Beckham for putting family first. He has said time and again that his family enjoys living in L.A., where his wife, Victoria, is comfortable and where their kids fit in well in their schools. The Beckhams' oldest son, Brooklyn, is now a part of the Galaxy's U-13 academy team, and it wasn't lost on anyone that Beckham interrupted the Galaxy's post-title celebration to say he was taking the kids to school the next morning at 8. "Family-man" Beckham is not an act, and this decision only reinforces that notion.
For its part, the Galaxy has also gone to great lengths to turn the league's most dysfunctional team (in 2008) into one of the greatest teams in MLS history (in '11). Much of that is due to coach Bruce Arena, who replaced Ruud Gullit in '08. Beckham can feel confident that the Galaxy will challenge for another MLS Cup trophy this year with teammates like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane and an impressive supporting cast (even if Juninho and Omar González may not be around). What's more, the Galaxy will allow Beckham to leave the team temporarily to take part in the Olympics -- and presumably be in better fitness than if he were with a European club that's off for the summer.
Why would the Galaxy want to extend Beckham's contract? I've read some arguments that L.A. should have let Beckham go and said bon voyage. But think about it: Beckham was one of the league's best players last year and, even at 36, appears capable of doing it again. What are the chances that his replacement would have a bigger impact? Not high. The Galaxy could also use the continuity early in the '12 season if it wants to make a serious run at winning the CONCACAF Champions League. No MLS team has competed in the FIFA Club World Cup, and a Galaxy team with Beckham has a much better chance of making it than one without him.
Then there's the marketing factor. While Beckham doesn't draw the buzz that he got in '07 and '08, he still moves the needle on attendance and can be a drawing card for TV broadcasts. While it's still true that many of the Americans who know Beckham the Celebrity don't know how his soccer team is doing, those are the pitfalls of a celebrity-obsessed culture. Beckham's emphasis is on the soccer these days, and that's a good thing.
How did the French media get the story so wrong? Some really good French media outlets got caught with their culottes down after reporting that Beckham's PSG move was essentially a done deal. One big reason is that it was in Beckham's interest to encourage the speculation and receive as big an offer as possible from PSG so that he would get the best offer possible from the Galaxy. At the same time, Leiweke gave no access to the French media, which underestimated Leiweke's ability to get things done.
Big mistake. Leiweke does billions of dollars in deals a year for AEG and works all the time with entertainers in the music industry who are just as big as Beckham. Leiweke surprised the world by landing Beckham in the first place in '07 and surprised the global media again in '09 by retaining Beckham for the Galaxy when most European observers thought he'd be sold to Milan.
Maybe, after being surprised so many times, they shouldn't be surprised again that Beckham appears to be staying in Los Angeles.