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David Beckham is Coming to Canada, eh!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

  • "Did you hear? Soccer in North America isn't as dead as we think."

    "Did you hear? Soccer in North America isn't as dead as we think."

Written by Gonzalo Moreno

In case you have no idea who he is, I’ll write two sentences about David Beckham. He is a soccer (football for the rest of the world) player, formerly of Manchester United and currently of Real Madrid, two of the biggest soccer teams in the world. He is also married to Victoria Adams (a.k.a. Posh Spice of Spice Girls fame) and is an iconic figure for advertisement in his own right, making him the eighth best paid athlete in the world. Better than, for example, Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant and anyone in the NHL.

Beckham is therefore one of the biggest figures in sports worldwide… yet last week, in a surprising turn of events, he announced that he is quitting the more competitive and lucrative European leagues to go play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, of North American Major League Soccer (MLS). Beckham’s will join LA when the Spanish season is over in the late spring.

In the short term, the move has translated into a giant boost for the Galaxy, whose season ticket sales have already gone through the roof in the 10 days since the move was announced. Beckham’s transfer has not been cheap either. He will receive a salary of $10 million (US figures), 100% of his advertising revenues (they were previously evenly split with his club), $10 million from shirt and other merchandising sales, and yet another $10 million from the club’s profits as a major stakeholder. If profits do come, and sales in recent days suggest that they will, Beckham will receive $275 million over his five-year contract. If profits are even greater than expected, that quantity would increase accordingly.

The truth is that, despite his extraordinary earning figures, David Beckham, has, ironically, never been an extraordinary player. In a career spanning well over a decade, he has never received any of the individual awards (Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year) that have been won in slews by his more gifted contemporaries, such as Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo or Ronaldinho. He did break the top 5 shortlist for both trophies in 1999, but even then, riding the unprecedented success of Manchester United’s treble season (they won the English League, the English Cup and the European Champions League, the best season by any soccer club ever), he did not receive recognition by press and peers as the best player in the world.

Although one might argue that individual accolades are inherently unfair, an analysis of Beckham’s game supports his lack thereof. He lacks the skill on the ball and the creative genius of all-time greats like Diego Maradona, Zidane or Ronaldinho, and he is neither particularly fast nor strong. Despite being a midfielder, Beckham lacks the vision and understanding of the game, and the speed of execution, that makes for truly great midfielders, needing a turn and two or three touches of the ball where Zidane or recent World Cup winner Andrea Pirlo only need one touch and no turn. Beckham will join the Galaxy at age 32 (soccer players peak between 27 and 30), which, while not being a desperate attempt at a golden retirement, does make him past his peak.

Beckham nevertheless has his strong points. He has a privileged physique for long-distance running, which allows him to keep going while other people are literally dropping. He is also, like most Englishmen, a tough, gritty player that never gives up. And then there is his right foot, the inspiration behind Bend it Like Beckham and Prime Minister David’s (played by Hugh Grant in Love Actually) assertion that “England is the country of David Beckham’s right foot.”

Under the right conditions, Beckham’s right foot can ensure that the ball ends up within a square foot of its intended destination, and with a curve to it that is hell for goalkeepers and defenders, yet quite aesthetic to watch for casual game viewers. Unfortunately for Beckham, his comparative lack of skill, speed and/or size makes it impossible for him to create these right conditions for himself, which means that he can never be more than a complementary player. A good complimentary player, to be sure, head and shoulders above MLS average, but he will not be a game-winning machine like his salary might suggest.

It is unthinkable that a league with 13 franchises, most of which are in the red, and marginal television audiences, would be able to support the aforementioned salary. This would be true if LA had signed a soccer player. The Galaxy, however, have signed more than that. Beckham is not only expected to play soccer at an acceptable level; he is expected to raise the profile of the league and of the sport in North America, therefore making all those millions of dollars an investment with good returns. The fact is that even the best player in the world would be hard-pressed to do what Beckham is trying to do – Pelé, probably the best player in soccer’s history, failed miserably in the New York Cosmos of the late 1970s. Beckham, however, is an extraordinary money-making, attention-grabbing machine, practically a franchise of his own. And therein lays MLS’s gamble.

Beckham, while being a very successful player, has also cultivated himself into a media phenomenon: he is good-looking, has a famous wife, and is constantly reinventing his image, in a way that comes naturally for Hollywood celebs but is really rather foreign to athletes. Consider this: three of the seven people that precede Beckham in Forbes’s 2006 best-paid athlete list are arguably the best to ever play their respective sports (Tiger Woods in first place, Michael Schumacher in second, and Michael Jordan in fourth).

David Beckham is not the best soccer player of all times, or of his generation, not even of the last year. Beckham is a magnet for money, and this has comparatively little to do with how well he plays soccer. This is why MLS was so willing to sign him, even throwing its salary cap rules out of the window in the process, and why the move is likely to be a success at that which all other attempts have failed: bringing soccer into the North American sports mainstream.

Soccer in the States has been trying to break into the mainstream for decades. Over the years, American cash has attracted some of the game’s best players to enjoy a couple of carefree seasons before retirement, but that failed to put people in stadium seats and in front of TVs. The United States National teams have enjoyed measures of success: relative for the men’s team (with a competitive team and a strong showing in World Cup 2002), and absolute for the women, who have one of the best national teams in the world, yet the normal appeal of national teams to national pride have failed miserably to attract the attention of Americans. It is therefore safe to say that no matter how much, or how well, you play soccer, it does not seem to work.

Beckham overrides the soccer factor almost completely. To put it bluntly, given the Beckhams’ friendship with Tom Cruise and wife, MLS hopes that it will be Entertainment Tonight viewers (which are far greater in numbers than MLS viewers) that will tune in to watch Beckham play. While this is a simplistic way to put it, it points to a greater truth: to make soccer grow, you cannot simply maximize your appeal to soccer fans; you have to create soccer fans from scratch.

Beckham is highly unlikely to create the amount of fan buzz that, say, Ronaldinho’s transfer to LA would have created, but he will create a far louder, more general buzz. Whether this buzz can be sustained after Beckham has actually been playing for a while (as opposed to shopping for mansions in Beverly Hills) is doubtful, but the beauty of the move is that if it initially works, more high profile players are likely to follow in Beckham’s footsteps, making it a self-sustaining phenomenon.

And in the middle of this, Canada is finally entering MLS, with Toronto FC as an expansion franchise in the forthcoming 2007 season. With the season schedule as yet unreleased, it is unclear whether LA will visit Toronto before or after Beckham is allowed to join the Galaxy. That does not seem to faze Toronto soccer aficionados, as FC sold over one quarter of its season tickets in the four days after Beckham’s transfer was announced. And you have to give this to MLS and to David Beckham: if the signing of one player for Los Angeles, to be completed no earlier than May, can put butts in Toronto seats in April, then they might be on to something big.

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