July 20, 2009
Beckham: Savior or false Profit$ ?
In more than 30 years involvement in soccer, I’ve never seen anything generate as much controversy as the arrival of David Beckham for his third, albeit partial, season in Major League Soccer.
The controversy began with release of Grant Wahl’s book “The Beckham Experiment.” In the excellenty researched and written expose, Beckham is called out by Landon Donovan for his lack of professionalism, and Galaxy management, particularly Anschutz Entertainment Group CEO Tim Leiweke, are shown to have lost control of their own enterpise, essentially being outflanked by Beckham’s people.
While signing Beckham created a lot of publicity and buzz for the league, the ensuing three years have proven to be pretty much a bust, at least on the soccer side of things.
Sure, the Galaxy, MLS, adidas and Beckham made lots of bucks selling Beckham shirts. The Galaxy and other teams gouged their fans by raising prices or forcing them to buy ticket packages in order to see their home team play Beckham and the otherwise woeful Galaxy, but overall, his signing has done little to help MLS and the sport of soccer, despite what the league and Beckham himself say.
Before his first game with the Galaxy, last Thursday in New York, the local NBC affiliate was abuzz with Beckham, running portions of an interview with him on Tuesday and Wednesday newscasts. That’s more coverage than soccer has gotten on those telecasts in two decades. But, it was a slow week. Baseball’s all-star game was on Tuesday and there were no Major League games on Wednesday.
At one point, anchor Chuck Scarborough asked sportscaster Bruce Beck whether Beckham can “save soccer in the United States.” The answer escapes me. It has been, after all, a very common question over the past couple of years.
The problem is, soccer does not need saving. Neither does MLS. Beckham can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. If it did need saving, he couldn’t do it, however firmly he believes that he can.
The first time Beckham played at Giants Stadium with the Galaxy, 66,237 showed up. The folowing year, it dropped to 46,754 this year, 23,238. That’s a downward trend. I guess the same will happen elsewhere this year. It should be noted, in the 1970’s crowds turning out to see Pele and Cosmos grew every year he was with the team, as did overall league attendance.
At his press conference in New York, Beckham seems to take much of the credit for the growth of MLS.
“I think what I've done for the league so far has been very successful,” he said. “ It seems to have had a successful effect on the game here. Eight new franchises coming into the league. New stadiums going up, attendance is (up) wherever we've played as a team.”
But the fact is, MLS was on a growth spurt before Beckham’s signing. Chivas and RSL had already come in, as had Toronto. I am guessing San Jose would have come back into the league regardless, and Seattle, Philadelphia, Vancouver and Portland also would have joined the league, with or without Beckham.
His arrival has not provided ESPN with an uptick in its viewership numbers, despite two years of steady “appointment viewing” on Thursday night. Now fans have to play a guessing game with the network and the league to figure out when the game is on ESPN.
Beyond MLS, a look around the rest of United States soccer clearly shows it does not need saving. Seattle’s exhibition against Chelsea drew 65,289 fans. Even without marquee opponents, Sounders FC are drawing 30,000+ fans a game. A tour of top foreign teams is expecting big crowds at all six of its venues, and even the CONCACAF Gold Cup, despite the fact that its strongest teams brought B squads to save their big guns for world Cup qualifying, is drawing well. There were 31,087 in Philadelphia for the U.S. quarterfinal Saturday, and Sunday’s Mexico game at the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium drew the largest soccer crowd in Texas history, 82,252.
MLS does not get the big numbers in its other markets because the teams have not created their own buzz, or because much of the soccer is not worth watching -- like in New York and, for the last couple of seasons, LA, but I digress.
Beckham has not done what he says he came here to do, but then again, his priorities have probably changed. He signed with MLS when his career seemed on the wane, but then things turned around. Before setting foot in California, he had played his way back into Real Madrid’s lineup and onto the England National team. Now, after having spent the MLS offseason with A.C. Milan in order to keep himself in the England World Cup Team pool, Beckham says he is still committed to the Galaxy. But the fans are not buying it, or anything else Beckham-related, apparently.
When Beckham first signed with MLS, Beckham apparel was flying off the shelves. Today, MLS sent out an e-mail offering a 25% discount on Beckham merchandise. Maybe it won’t be long before they are having a closeout sale.
Fans at Sunday’s friendly with A.C. Milan, especially those in the Riot Squad section, openly taunted Beckham. He challenged one of them, and is shown in a BBC video trying to climb over the signage in the end zone, before being restrained by security and members of both the Galaxy and Milan.
The Galaxy issued a statement about fan conduct, but said nothing about Beckham’s own conduct. MLS Commissioner Don Garber should fine and or suspend Beckham. Although, a suspension would mean he doesn’t play MLS games. Maybe a more fitting punishment would be to make Beckham play an even heavier MLS schedule.