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A Sporting Chance: Promote It Like Beckham

Within a matter of days, the galaxy of stars in Los Angeles are all going to get just a little bit dimmer, making way for an international mega monster of a celebrity – a one man promotional wrecking crew who will take America by storm, elevate soccer to a major sport, and earn the everlasting gratitude of supermarket tabloid publishers.

That is, if you believe the hype. And believe me, when talking about the tow headed 32-year-old Midfielder David Beckham – late of Real Madrid and Manchester United legend – hype is a large part of the total package.

David Robert Joseph Beckham will be introduced on July 13th as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer club before a game at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California. The venue is indicative of the challenges facing Beckham. The 27,000-seat stadium is a far cry from Old Trafford, “The Theater of Dreams” in Manchester where 76,000 screaming fanatics would chant his name during the 11 years he spent building not only his career, but also the Beckham “brand.” Nor do many stadiums in the MLS approach the 80,000 seat Estadio Santiago Bernab√©u where Beckham spent 4 sometimes difficult years with La Liga powerhouse Real Madrid.

Despite participation in soccer at the youth level surpassing any other sport including Little League baseball, no professional soccer league in the United States has ever been successful in breaking through the marketing jumble to emerge as a major sport. Part of the reason has to be the quality of the competition. Those who are used to watching European or South American club football played at the highest level find the American game wanting. The marking is not up to international standards and despite the presence of some genuine international talent, and the flow of the game suffers from lack of skill players.

The reason? Most of the best American players try to get international experience playing for teams in one of the better European leagues. This may be bad for the MLS, but could potentially be a boon to the American national team, whose performance in the international tournaments has been a disappointment. Honing their skills on the pitch of English, Scottish, Spanish, and German teams will be a key to the national team competing seriously for the top prize in all of soccer – The World Cup.

Can Beckham alter the gravitational constant of the universe and make soccer into a mega sport in America? Former US player and current Los Angeles Galaxy President Alexi Lalas is betting $250 million over the next 5 years that he can. Lalas said recently that Beckham’s impact in America will surpass that of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan – two other marketing supermen whose legendary status as pitchmen for everything from perfume to high end automobiles has made them famous far beyond the confines of their sport.

Beckham already has that fame – and then some. Unlike Woods and Jordan who are modest in their own way about their celebrity, Beckham has made ostentation an art form. Houses, cars, jewelry, and a wife who formerly “sang” for the Spice Girls usually going him one better in the shop till you drop department, all done in the presence of dozens of flashing cameras, plastering his and her face over every tabloid in the business. “King David and Queen Victoria” have redefined the power couple. The Beckham brand is pure gold and it’s expected that once his ads for shoes, clothes, accessories, and cars start hitting the airwaves, the same kind of frenzy that accompany Jordan and Woods will make the Englishman into a household name.

But will it sell tickets to soccer matches? Professional soccer in America has tried several times to import saviors whose star power would ignite interest in the game and make soccer as popular in America as it is elsewhere. In 1975, the New York Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League (NASL) imported the aging Brazilian superstar Pelé to play in Giants Stadium, filling it to capacity for every home game. On the road, the Cosmos would routinely sell out the venues they played with Pelé on the pitch. But once the Cosmos left town, attendance would drop to its former dismal levels in those stadiums. Most NASL teams averaged less than 15,000 per game with some teams drawing under 5,000 per contest.

In 1977, the Cosmos imported another European superstar in Franz Beckenbauer – one of the best sweepers in the history of the game. And the San Antonio Thunder paid a bundle to bring the legendary Englishman Bobby Moore to town. Both players performed more than adequately, but since few Americans followed the international game, only true-blue soccer fans appreciated the significance of these two all-time greats playing in America.

And now the MSL will try again to goose interest in a game that Americans love to play as kids but fail to follow when they reach adulthood by bringing in a bona fide superstar. At age 32, Beckham’s best years may be behind him. But he should have plenty left in the tank to wow American spectators with his spectacular free kicks and pinpoint crosses. He will no doubt play before sold out stadiums all over the country once his career begins, tentatively set for July 21 in an exhibition at home against one of the English Premiere League’s best teams, Chelsea.

Many sports analysts are doubtful Beckham can do anything more than generate a little excitement for the Galaxy when they come to town. No one man can change the field on which soccer must compete for entertainment dollars with baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and the ever-expanding entertainment choices Americans are presented with.

But if you love soccer, Beckham is a godsend to a league desperate for legitimacy and respect. That can only have a positive impact both here and in Europe, where many are watching this experiment to see if other, equally gifted players will have the opportunity to play in a country where soccer has always been poised to take off into the stratosphere but ends up stuck on the ground, a victim of apathy and the glut of sports competing for the attention of the American people.

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.