Among the many things about which I know nothing, or less than nothing, soccer probably tops the list. I do know who David Beckham is, however. Arguably the world’s most famous sports personality, more popular even than Tiger Woods. Married to some pop starlet or other. Hollywood tells me nobody bends it like Beckham. In his prime he was said by some to be the best dead-ball kicker and crosser of the ball in the world which, I am told, is not the same thing as being the best player in the world. Thus to some extent he was an over-hyped creation of the media. While casually watching the World Cup last year, I learned that he was thought to be a disappointment by his English national team and was removed from its roster after the tournament. His much-publicized tenure with Real Madrid in Spain is about to come to an end, with Beckham spending much of his time riding the pine, or whatever expression soccer uses.
But he’s now one of us – or at least a member of the L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer. And $250 million richer, according to published reports (hard to tell where that figure really comes from – no American soccer team or league could afford that much). The move is clearly intended to boost MLS and the latest in a series of moves to try to make American soccer relevant to the American public and credible to the world soccer community. Jen Chang of ESPNSoccerNet writes:
What he gives MLS is an immediate GQ rating and free advertising for the league wherever he goes. Between talk-show appearances, the celeb circuit and hanging with the Hollywood A-listers (it’s been reported that Brad Pitt has requested soccer lessons from Beckham for his son), Beckham will give MLS a buzz and intro to mainstream pop culture it has never had before.
Merchandising? It’s no secret that signing Beckham means an increase in shirt sales and general merchandising revenues; it’s part of the reason Real signed him (cynics would argue the only reason). You’re now likely to see Galaxy shirts worn throughout Asia and even the potential of selling broadcast rights to MLS games featuring Beckham to countries such as China and Japan.
This is no crazy pipe dream, either. In Asia, most soccer fans follow individual players, not teams, and Beckham remains the most revered, deservedly or not. You’re talking about a player who is literally worshipped in countries such as Japan and Thailand. Disbelieving skeptics only have to visit the Beckham statues that exist on the Japanese island of Awajishima and the Wat Pariwas Buddhist temple in Thailand and observe fans praying to their "deity."
What Beckham would give MLS is a boost, a shot in the arm any sports league would welcome no matter how successful it already is. He’s guaranteed to raise short-term interest in the league and put more seats in the stands. Will the interest level be maintained after he’s gone or even after his first season? It’s doubtful unless the product on the field as a whole is improved, but what he does give MLS is the chance to become more relevant to an American public for the first time.
A chance and nothing more, I suspect. The justly famous Pele played for the New York Cosmos in the long-departed North American Soccer League in the mid-1970s. If he couldn’t turn Americans on to soccer, no foreigner could. I remember watching him in an exhibition match in United States the late 1960s. Stunning. You didn’t have to know anything about soccer, and I certainly did not, to appreciate that this man was different. Like watching Gretzky play hockey. But Beckham, I am told, is no Pele. And America is far from embracing the world sport despite the popularity of youth soccer. Whether that says more about the world or about us is an interesting question.
UPDATE: Our friends from Claremont pass along this item as a possible reason for the American hesitancy to embrace soccer.