Thursday, January 11, 2007

Beckham Goes Hollywood

David Beckham's decision to leave Real Madrid at the end of this season in favour of Major League Soccer and the LA Galaxy is hardly a huge surprise. There have been rumours to that effect flying around for months now, particularly after the league amended their rules to allow for one or two marquee players per team, whose wages wouldn't count towards the salary cap.

Now that it's really happening, the soccer blogosphere has been buzzing with the news, and everyone is debating whether it's a good thing for MLS, or for Beckham. The answer: a resounding "maybe."

What's in it for MLS?
In a nutshell: Marketing. Beckham may be past his best-before date, but he's still the most well-known footballer in the world. And he's a hell of a lot better-looking than Ronaldinho, which matters if you're trying to sell your sport. The deal made front-page news in North America today -- although the last time I checked's poll on the subject, 37% had chosen "Beckham who?", which is not exactly confidence inspiring -- and ticket sales at Toronto FC, for example, reportedly jumped by 100 seats after it was announced this morning.

So it's had an impact already. The question is how long that'll last. A lot of the reaction I've seen from hard-core fans has been "so what?" They figure that Beckham is washed up, and bringing in one former Galactico isn't going to do anything to raise the overall standard of play in MLS. I don't think that's really who the league is targeting with this, though -- instead, it's the casual fans they want to appeal to. Use Beckham's name to draw them in, and hope that the game is entertaining enough to keep them coming back.

That's a big gamble, especially when you consider the gargantuan amount of money they're spending: US$248 million over five years. About one-fifth of that is expected to be his actual wages (the BBC has it broken down here), with the rest coming from sponsorship deals, merchandising and a share of club profits. Still, that is a lot of money. They're going to have to sell a lot of T-shirts to make that back.

What's in it for Beckham?
Apart from the money, you mean?

For starters, he'll get to, well, start. Which he hasn't been doing at Real Madrid recently. He might even win a trophy or two, which, again, is more than Real have managed recently. But there's no question that this is a step down for Beckham in footballing terms. It's an admission that he can't hack it at the highest level anymore -- although there were Premiership teams interested in signing him, none of them were from the so-called big four -- and, in case there was any doubt, that his international career is over.

He should be able to shine in the North American game, though, even if he isn't the player he once was. (It used to be that Beckham's talent couldn't match up to his reputation; now it's probably the reverse.) I'd say the standard of play in MLS is roughly equivalent to what you'd see in the Championship in England, and even if he may have lost what little pace he had, Becks can still bend in enough free kicks to make his share of highlight reels on ESPN.

As for what impact it'll have on his marketing potential, again, that's debatable. It could be detrimental, once he's not playing at one of the world's biggest clubs. On the other hand, there could be a positive effect from greater exposure to a U.S. audience. (There's an interesting article here on the value of Brand Beckham.)

On a personal level, it means that he and Victoria can spend more time hanging out with their new BFF, Tom Cruise and Kat(i)e Holmes. Yay. Don't be surprised if they've turned into Scientologist a year from now. Posh and Becks do seem tailor-made for the Hollywood lifestyle -- although it might actually give them something more like a normal life, if that's what they want. In a place like L.A., where celebrities are a dime a dozen, who's going to bother mobbing a soccer player on the street?

And that, right there, is the danger for MLS and Beckham in this: Once the novelty wears off, who's going to care? In both cases, I think the crucial factor is going to be backing up the style with some substance. For MLS, they have to be wary of repeating the mistakes that the North American Soccer League made by investing too much in supposed stars and not enough in developing their teams from the ground up. For Beckham, who's already established a soccer academy in (coincidentally enough) California as the first step in bringing the sport to the masses, it means rebuilding his "brand" as a sort of soccer ambassador.


ginkers said...

We've been here lots of times before with America and "soccer". They hire a big star and hope it will bring the game to life.

It would surely have more impact if they ever progressed to the later stages of the World Cup. The US loves a winner and that would probably do more for the game than Becks ever could. Or maybe finding a real superstar player of their own...

Joel said...

We have been here before, however, I can honestly say that over the course of last summer in Columbus Ohio, I saw a group of 20 people who got together to play pickup at a few local parks here grow to 50-60 over the course of the WC and the summer. Even if it is a small chunk of the American population, I think the WC sparked an interest in football that I have never seen in the past.

Becks in the MLS could only bring attention to it. Press is press, good or bad- it just is. I think the MLS needs the press, its never going to compete with the rest of the world if people dont know anything about it. People at my gym were actually talking about football (and not Ohio State) this week. When I saw the news I went right to the Crew's (our MLS team) website and tried to preorder tickets for the LA game... I cant have been the only one.

Honestly, I just hope it works.

Jen said...

The media attention will help, sure. But I think the big problem for MLS -- aside from the fact that 95% of the country doesn't care about soccer -- is the quality of the league. Anybody who's any good goes off to play in Europe. (Aside from Landon Donovan, that is, but he's just a big wuss.) Bringing in Beckham isn't going to solve that.

Joel said...

Agreed- we are either the stepping stone for european football or the retirement league for international players, but maybe with the money comes players in their prime.