Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Beckham: Big Salary and Big Media Mean Big Expectations

Hey, what kind of game is this? For old ladies and fairies? I quit.
- Canadian prisoner Capt. Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) after not being allowed to tackle players during a soccer game in the 1981 film "Victory," screenplay by Evan Jones and Yabo Yablonsky

Americans don't like to be told what to do. The folks at the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer will have to come to terms with this lesson as they market the arrival of one of the few athletes to have his name appear in the title of a feature film, David Beckham.

In case you have been holed up with Cheney in his undisclosed location for the last few weeks, the Galaxy signed the 32-year-old Beckham, a former captain of the English national soccer team who has played for arguably the two most storied football clubs in history, Manchester United and Real Madrid, to a five-year contract. Reports often value the contract at $250 million, but Beckham's actual salary is $5.5 million per year (the balance is projected revenue from merchandising and marketing). MLS has occasionally brought in stars at the end of their careers, but none had the name-recognition of Beckham, nor a wife who is a Spice Girl (she was Posh Spice, but based on her skeletal appearance, I think she should now be forced to swap Spice names with Scary Spice).

The Galaxy's ownership, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), has been at the forefront of a massive media blitz announcing Beckham's arrival, which included a one-hour reality special chronicling Mrs. Beckham's move to Los Angeles that ran last night (and was about as entertaining as watching groundskeepers mowing the Galaxy's practice field). It's been all Beckhams, all the time, as if the couple are filling the celebrity news vacuum created by the lack of any recent outbursts by Paris, Lindsay and/or Britney.

While AEG might be happy with the unprecedented amount of media attention for one of its MLS clubs (the company operates three of them), it may not be happy with the backlash that seems to be forming.

As a soccer fan, I get it. I can attest that Beckham's arrival is a big deal for MLS. He can still play, having recently regained his place on the English national team, and his skills and mental approach to the game will raise the playing level of his teammates (including U.S. international Landon Donovan, who, while undoubtedly talented, is in sore need of some lessons on how to play with grit, determination and desire, all qualities Beckham possesses). Beckham is also charismatic and won't falter under the spotlight of being the "savior" of U.S. soccer. As a soccer player, nothing is more pressure-packed than wearing the captain's armband for England. Beckham's arrival will absolutely help the league.

What Beckham's arrival will not do is suddenly turn soccer into a major American sport. Here is where the idea of Americans not wanting to be told what to do comes into play. It seems to me that U.S. sports fans love the idea that the world's most popular team sport is an afterthought here. There is a pride in resisting the calls of the world to embrace what other countries call "the beautiful game." As I have listened to, read and watched the reactions to the media blitz surrounding Beckham's signing, it seems to me that the average American sports fan is more than just indifferent. Rather, the average Joe (or Josephine) is pushing back, delighting in saying, "Who cares?" as a way of really saying, "Don't tell me I'm supposed to care about something I don't care about."

You also have to factor in that U.S. sports fans tend to be suspicious of soccer as a sport. The line from "Victory" quoted at the top of this article, uttered by the ultimate man's man of the era, Sylvester Stallone, is what a lot of American football fans think of soccer. Rather than starting from even with a lot of men in the U.S., soccer begins with a stigma of not being a physical or tough enterprise (even though that point of view is wrong, especially in tough leagues like the English Premiership).

Let's face it, it's not like Americans are open to new sports in general, or even new leagues in established sports. Essentially, in the U.S., there is the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, NCAA football, NCAA basketball, NASCAR and PGA golf. Everything else lags far behind in viewership. The National Hockey League has tried several times over the last 40 years to break through, but fewer people watched the NHL finals on ABC in June than watched weekly Arena Football games on NBC. Speaking of football, the trash heap is littered with the carcasses of failed leagues, from the WWE-sponsored XFL (who gloriously brought us the player known as "He Hate Me") to the Donald Trump-dominated USFL. There really are no openings in the wallets and hearts of most Americans for another major sport. MLS is destined to remain what it is right now, a fairly successful (15,000 fans a game) niche sport.

MLS has another problem based on its quality of play. Americans are spoiled in that our major leagues, by and large, represent the top level of competition in the world for those sports. The best basketball players from all over aspire to play in the NBA. The elite baseball players from Asia to South America to Central America to the Caribbean flock to MLB. MLS isn't even one of the top five (maybe not even top 10, and possibly not even top 15) soccer leagues in the world. The economics of the league do not allow the teams to pay a competitive wage to players (Beckham was signed under a new rule enacted before this season that allows each team to pay one player a lot of money without it counting against the club's salary cap). As long as MLS is a minor league, it will be treated as such by the American public. Most of the soccer fans I know think like me, in that we would rather watch our favorite European teams (Arsenal for me) than an MLS game. The quality of play in the big European leagues is just better.

The Galaxy is using Beckham's arrival as an opportunity to bludgeon U.S. sports fans into becoming interested in soccer. It seems to me that this is a bad approach. Such a task would be next to impossible on its own, but when you throw in the niche nature of MLS and its minor league status, the job becomes a suicide mission. As a result, the media blitz, instead of luring sports fans, is pushing them away.

A low-key approach would have been more effective. The Beckham signing called for just enough publicity to let America know that an elite player nearly in his prime would be, for the very first time, plying his trade in MLS. Curious sports fans would then be drawn to check out what the guy who can bend the ball so well a writer named a movie after him was really all about. Now, people will be checking out Beckham's debut with an eye towards trashing him. "I'll bet you the pretty boy isn't even that good."

Also, soccer is a sport that generally does not allow for a lot of spectacular individual SportsCenter-friendly efforts. People are going to be tuning in expecting Beckham to take over a game the way Michael Jordan did, scoring at will. That's not how soccer is, and it's not how Beckham plays. He is likely to make some eye-popping kicks off of free kicks (the genesis of the whole "Bend It Like Beckham" thing). He is also likely to deposit some devastatingly accurate passes onto the feet and heads of his teammates. But, for the most part, his influence will be subtle, possibly so subtle that the average U.S. sports fan might think, "What's the big deal?"

From a financial perspective, the Anschutz folks did their homework. Bloomberg.com reported that the increased revenue associated with the Beckham move has already covered the player's salary. But I think AEG miscalculated in its marketing plan. Time will tell how much impact Beckham's arrival will have on the popularity of MLS in the long-term. It seems that in the short-term, many Americans are put off. Most of the polls I have read online agree that sports fans don't care that Beckham is coming to MLS.

When Beckham makes his Galaxy debut in a friendly (that's a soccer term for an exhibition game) against English powerhouse Chelsea, a lot of Americans will be watching (assuming Beckham shakes off an ankle injury in time to play). The question is, will they continue to watch the rest of this season, and in the four seasons to come? A slow build is no longer an option. AEG has treated Beckham's arrival like a major U.S. sports event, so expectations are now through the roof. The pressure is on. Things have to pop for MLS very quickly, or the whole move will be talked about as a failure. It didn't have to be that way, though. And that's a shame, because from a soccer point of view, we are lucky to have David Beckham playing in MLS. Thanks to the relentless marketing blitz, it doesn't always feel that way.