NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Soccer Federation chief Sunil Gulati says the impending arrival of David Beckham to Major League Soccer has given the sport a huge boost in the United States but the jury is out on any long-term effect.
"The worldwide interest in Beckham is extraordinary, to the extent that that focuses attention on the league ... so far it has been phenomenal," Gulati told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.
Beckham will be introduced as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy on Friday, yet the Briton has already created a massive buzz after signing for an annual base salary of $5.5 million (2.7 million pounds) in a deal that could earn him $250 million over five years.
"The hope is with all the media attention, fan attention, television interest, sponsors, that you can sustain some of that and allow soccer to be on a higher level," Gulati said.
Gulati said it was already clear Beckham would give the game an adrenaline jolt akin to the 1970s U.S. arrival of Brazilian star Pele, who joined the New York Cosmos of the now defunct North American Soccer League.
"Is Beckham going to be Pele or is Beckham going to be (Magic) Johnson and (Larry) Bird," Gulati pondered. "The analogy being that Johnson and Bird took (NBA) basketball to another level.
"Pele took us up but we couldn't sustain it. Sustaining the higher level, that's the big issue. It's not inevitable."
Gulati said he was confident Beckham, who starred for Manchester United before playing the last four seasons with Real Madrid, would deliver the goods between the lines.
"He is not going to be a bust. He's too good of a player, too much of a professional," he said.
"One hopes that David Beckham, by raising the awareness and interest in the game, will have that continuing effect. Clearly if there is one player in the world that can give you that boost, he is it."
Gulati said Beckham's influence can have a greater impact than development of a U.S. star such as Freddy Adu, who after disappointing results despite early hype, has been leading the U.S. team to success in the Under-20 World Cup.
"David Beckham is more than about soccer. He's an icon in a country of soccer icons," the U.S. federation president said.
"Comparing him to a home-grown star that would have to be a Tiger Woods level, that's the level we're talking about, a Michael Jordan level.
"That would be fantastic, if you can find an African-American, good looking guy who marries a Spice Girl, we're all set -- that can also play, by the way.
"He's beyond all of that."