By Jason Menard,
So soccer’s royal family will be heading Stateside to join Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy squad as early as June 30 th when David Beckham will leave the bright lights of Real Madrid for the big city of L.A.
And while this could be news, sporting fans throughout North America have had to stifle a yawn.
If Pele couldn’t kick soccer into the mainstream consciousness on this side of the Atlantic when he played MLS soccer in the 70s, who can honestly believe that an aging, glamour boy known more on this side of the ocean for his off-field exploits than anything he’s done on the pitch is going to be able to be anything more than a blip on the public radar.
On top of that, who can’t foresee this as being a $250 million (British reports) blunder that’s going to end unhappily for all.
Beckham and his wife, the artist formerly known as Posh Spice, are household names in England. Their every step is photographed and every fashion choice scrutinized by a ravenous British faithful. Here they’ll be nothing more than another couple of sunkissed faces in the crowd. A novelty act for sure, but certainly not the main course.
And how will a couple that’s so used to the adoration – and, arguably, so willing to court it – of a breathless public handle being relegated to the back pages of People magazine once the initial frenzy wears off? In less than a year they’ll be the subject – along with Britney and Lindsay’s panties – of a “where are they now?”-style expose on VH1.
Sporting-wise? Forget it. MLS already has a marquee talent in Freddie Adu, but hasn’t been able to translate his obvious marketability into any sort of Tiger Woods-esque revival of a moribund sport. And while Pele was big news, the sport was unable to maintain any momentum gained by his arrival. Once he was gone, so too were any of the casual viewers. If it couldn’t be done in the 1970s, there’s no way that Beckham has a chance in today’s marketplace.
Think back to that time. The NFL wasn’t the marketing juggernaut that it is today. The NBA was an afterthought league struggling for its very survival in the pre-Magic/Bird years, and Major League Baseball ruled the roost. The NHL, at the time, was a regional league that enjoyed pockets of support, but no general U.S.-wide presence.
Today? The NFL is arguably the most dominant sporting empire in the world and it’s only gaining steam. Basketball, thanks to the aforementioned Magic and Bird, along with a guy named Jordan, has captured the hearts – and, more importantly, wallets – of a younger generation. And baseball still has its die-hards and it seems to be recovering from its steroid scandal. Auto racing, specifically NASCAR, has come to the fore. And the NHL? Uhm… it’s a regional league that enjoys pockets of support, but no general U.S.-wide presence. What’s that they say about the more things change?
North American soccer fans – and they do exist – are already paying satellite charges to watch the world’s best play in European leagues. They’re certainly not going to pay first-rate ticket prices for second-rate soccer, in a league that features a guy who was no longer able to earn a roster spot on his own club.
So while this experiment is sure to arouse a quick bit of interest, it’s nothing that’s going to be sustainable long-term. In a sports market that’s already saturated, you gain nothing by making a big splash like this. You have to work from the ground level up. It’s not a 31-year-old pretty boy you have to attract – it’s the five-year-old kid who is looking to find a sport to call their own.
In fact, if the aforementioned Adu bids Adieu to MLS for a European league, then the league has truly missed its opportunity. It’s the younger players like Adu that the league must build around. Like Tiger, Adu could bring a legion of new fans to the sport and his youth would mean longevity. In the end it looks as if MLS is going to be replacing Adu’s promise for Beckham’s glamour. And no matter how you look at it, that’s a losing proposition.
The problem is that people on this side of the ocean view Beckham as a celebrity first and a soccer player a distant second. He’s known more for his hair than his passing, and our pundits would rather comment on the cut of his suit than the jersey on his back. And unless that perception changes rapidly, this is one play that’s doomed to fail.
Beckham’s arrival may cause a brief blip on the screen, but the sport is still doomed to flat line.
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