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Charles Cuttone

CHARLES CUTONE

January 16, 2006
BIG BANG
Signing Beckham could propel MLS to new heights

by Charles Cuttone
Executive Editor

First, let’s set the record straight. The North American Soccer League did not fold because it imported high-priced foreign talent.

There are a number of reasons why the league collapsed, among them over-expansion into markets that clearly could not support teams, granting of franchises to owners who could not afford them, and a variety of other factors, including the affect of losses in the billions of dollars by Atari, which was owned by Warner Communications, the same corporate parent that owned the league’s flagship franchise, the Cosmos.

But high salaries for foreign stars was not one of them. In fact, the opposite may be true, that the league started to founder when other problems led the owners to stop signing big names, replacing them with lesser quality foreign and North American players.

What signing big name foreign players did for the NASL was give it credibility, and helped attract large crowds.

That’s the same thing Major League Soccer hopes for with the signing of David Beckham. The credibility factor has already started to come into play. Maybe not in the eyes of world soccer, but certainly in those of the American media.

Beckham has been everywhere -- Leno, Letterman, the morning shows, the entertainment tabloid shows, and even argued about by Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon.

Their expert opinion is that signing Beckham, won’t help soccer “make it” in the United States, and that, in fact soccer will “never make it” in this country. “Make it” as compared to what? The National Football League? There’s no shame in that. Neither the NHL or NBA, or even Major League Baseball, approach pro football’s lofty commercial heights. Yet no one presumes to say that they are not “major” American sports.

Only one major professional soccer league has folded in the United States, the NASL. Since the league’s demise, nearly a half a dozen attempts have been made at starting a pro football league---The World Football League, the United States Football League, the World League of American football (which retreated to Europe despite direct backing from the NFL), the Canadian Football League, which attempted to expand into the U.S. but ultimately retreated north, and oh yes, the NBC- and WWF-backed XFL, which barely made it through one season.

Yet the experts don’t say football failed.

Soccer may never be as relevant in this country as it is in others, where it has been ingrained for more than a century, and where for the most part it is the only major professional sport.

But Beckham’s arrival, hopefully followed by an influx of other stars, will propel MLS into the top tier of pro sports leagues in the country. We are sure to see Beckham jerseys next to those of Peyton Manning and LeBron James. I don’t think I can come up with a hockey player of the same stature—and I like hockey.

MLS appears to be going about the idea of signing big name foreign players the right way, limiting the number any one team can sign. That will eliminate the “keeping up with the Cosmos” factor that did hurt the NASL’s weaker teams. And, while the numbers of Beckham’s contract seem to be staggering, the guaranteed figure is considerably less than the $250 million that has made all the headlines.

MLS has several things in its favor over the NASL. First, soon it is going to control most if not all of its stadiums, and their revenue. Of course, an influx of international superstars might mean that the current crop of 20,000-seat stadiums will be too small for a league already averaging 15,000 per game. Second, there are sponsor and TV dollars involved. Money from adidas and other AEG entities is supporting the Beckham signing, and MLS is just starting the first-ever paid rights deal in American soccer, so giving the networks major stars is not going to hurt. The league just needs to get the networks to give it better TV time slots than Saturday afternoons in July.

Even more importantly for the league, it needs to continue to develop American players, keep signing quality foreign players, and make its games more enjoyable to watch, because unlike the NASL days, when the local team was the only option, fans -- and there are many soccer fans in this country now -- can watch soccer in almost unlimited supply on TV.

The signing of David Beckham alone won’t make MLS prosperous. But the signing of Beckham provides the “big bang” that makes the league relevant.

   
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