WASHINGTON -- Major League Soccer drew an announced 15,504 fans per game last year. But that was before David and Victoria "Posh" Beckham moved from Europe to the United States and became magnets for folks to whom soccer finishes a distant second to their favorite sport of celebrity-gazing.
Many in the sellout crowd of 46,686 at last night's D.C. United-Los Angeles Galaxy game were there for goals and kicks and saves. But - if the number of Beckham jerseys and swooning fans was any indication - many also came out to forge some connection, even a distant one, with the Galaxy soccer diva known as "Becks," who was making his Washington debut.
They were rewarded with Beckham's first American appearance - as a second-half substitute - in a game that counted in the standings.
Beckham, hobbled by a lingering ankle injury, initially stayed on the bench or jogged behind it, making him an easy target for photographers and the "Beckham Cam" used by ESPN2 as it televised the game. For a time, he was one of the most celebrated reserves in professional sports history.
But Beckham entered in the 72nd minute after a driving rainstorm and played the rest of the game as his team lost, 1-0. The crowd began roaring as soon as he stood up, and camera flashes were visible every time he touched the ball and many times in between. He ran gingerly but without a visible limp.
"It's a big forward step getting 20 minutes," Beckham said. He acknowledged, "there was [ankle] tenderness, there was hesitation. I haven't played in eight weeks." He said he hoped to steadily increase his playing time in future games.
Since their arrival this summer, the hobbled midfielder and his pop-star wife have proved an irresistible import of good looks, wealth, style and fame.
"Both are attractive and fashionable people who have been extremely successful in their own professional venues, David with football and Victoria with the Spice Girls and her fashion line," said blogger Erin Balser, who chronicles the couple's shopping trips, fashion choices and coffee runs for Toronto-based b5media. "There is an intense focus on celebrity love lives. It seems only natural that this fascination would spill over to Britain's power couple," she said.
Beckham, who is from England but before this year had been playing for Spanish team Real Madrid, could make up to $250 million over the duration of his five-year deal. The lion's share is from such things as merchandise sales and endorsements, MLS commissioner Don Garber said.
The Beckhams have only ratcheted up the fame meter by doing a reality show on network television and hanging out with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes in Los Angeles. Victoria threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game.
"He [David Beckham] is gorgeous," said Lizzy Cadle, 13, of Olney, who joined scores of other fidgety Beckham fans 90 minutes before the game in waiting beside an access road leading to the players' parking lot. She was hoping to catch Beckham emerging from the team bus.
Cadle plays soccer, but her real interest is Beckham. When she discovered he was coming to Washington, "I was jumping all over the place," she said.
Her patience was rewarded. A shriek went up from the crowd as the Galaxy's bus pulled up and Cadle and other diehards said they saw Beckham emerge from the bus and walk into the stadium.
"Oh, my God," she said, looking flushed and holding her hand on her heart after glimpsing her hero. Her jubilation was tempered when she realized she hadn't managed to capture the moment on her camera phone.
It was Cadle's first MLS game, and that seemed true for many others at the stadium as well.
"We love that David brings more eyeballs to our product," MLS spokesman Will Kuhns said. "If people come out as curiosity seekers or Beckham lovers, then they're likely to be entertained as well."
In its infancy, MLS wouldn't have had the foundation to use Beckham to full advantage as a marketing tool. The league now has several national television deals, an increasing number of sponsors and seven teams with stadiums built specifically for soccer - up from zero in 1999. "That gave us a platform on which to capitalize on having a player like him," Kuhns said.
MLS considers Washington one of its most successful franchises.
But having Beckham on hand didn't hurt. The crowd initially cheered - there were also a few boos from D.C. United diehards - every time he touched the ball.
"It's a difficult circumstance for him to come in on a rainy night [with] all the buildup," United coach Tom Soehn said. "I'm happy for him. It was a good debut."
Beckham's injury had kept him from even putting on a uniform in his previous game Sunday in Toronto. On that Toronto trip, there were "thousands of fans trying to get a piece of the team," Galaxy coach Frank Yallop said.
Of course, it wasn't really the team they were after. It was "the good-looking one," Yallop said.
The Galaxy's 0-0 tie with Toronto was hardly memorable. But Beckham's trip to a baseball game there made the front page of the newspapers. "It was big news that Dave went to a game," Yallop said.