CARSON, Calif. – Major League Soccer went from being a growing sport to a very big business in 2007 – the year David Beckham signed for the LA Galaxy – and it’s been that way in Los Angeles ever since.
But on Sunday night, Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, who own the Galaxy, straddled the line of business man and soccer fan as best he could. He drifted from a champagne-soaked locker room to a hallway filled with well-wishers and finally off into the night, likely to spend hours growing hoarse and shaking hands with glee.
The Galaxy’s 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo and third MLS Cup in franchise history was a study in how to succeed in the big business of sports, there’s no doubt about that. The game-winning goal came through a buildup of three of the league’s highest-paid players, and the three lightning rods that have put the Galaxy’s big-spending ways under fire for years.
But Leiweke, for his part, wasn’t about to take any grief on Sunday. He declared that the Galaxy’s win, played out in front of more than 30,000 fans at The Home Depot Center and on television sets in more than 115 countries worldwide, was the best moment in the 16-year history of the league.
“I think it was," he told MLSsoccer.com. "As a league, we need to have the best players in the world. Tonight, we had some of best players in the world, and three of them participated in the goal. That’s a good moment for the league.”
Good? Try perfect. The goal went to Landon Donovan, the assist to Robbie Keane and the night’s lasting images to Beckham. It was a night brought to you by a business model that’s taken hold in LA – and New York – and possibly shaped the future of the league.
If you’ve got the money, spend it. The players come, the television contracts get signed. The Galaxy might win games at the expense of their smaller-market counterparts, but the league itself will grow well past what was imaginable 16 years ago.
“It’s not about a competitive advantage," Leiweke said. "It was about proving how great our sport can be when we shine. Tonight, a bright shining moment. We’ll look at all of this, the buzz this game created and all the attention it got, and it’s a great moment. But this cannot be the end; it has to be the beginning.”
As iconic as the moment was for the league, it left an equally deep personal impression on Leiweke. As the main recipient of the criticisms hurled by those who questioned if the league could make good on its booming investments in players like Beckham and Keane or their counterparts in New York, Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez, Leiweke felt a measure of justification for his bigtime moves over the years.
“I’ve been in the league a long time, and I’ve never felt like this,” he said. “I did the Lakers and Celtics in the NBA Championship – we won in the seventh game. For me, this is the best thing that I’ve ever done in my career. I’m the most proud of this, because everyone bet against us, and everyone always has.
“Everyone counted this league out, and whether those that are the stanchions and the old guard within sports want to acknowledge it or not, there’s a new kid on the block. And we’re doing remarkable things. I cannot be more proud of soccer tonight – it’s an incredible night.”