Nov 18, 2011

About That Beckham Effect...

"Major League Soccer's big investment seems to have paid off."

So begins a piece from the Economist arguing, effectively, that the $250 million the league invested to bring David Beckham to MLS was worth the cost.

"Mr Beckham’s star power has helped legitimise the league, encouraging other stars to follow (such as Thierry Henry of France) and leading to an influx of investment in new clubs in Seattle, Portland and, in Canada, Toronto and Vancouver," says the Economist. The article also quotes DC United Owner Will Chang saying Becks helped soccer "make the paradigm shift to being cool."

Chang's comment is absurd on a number of levels that we'll deal with in a minute. Let's first explore the story's main argument, that Beckham helped legitimize (note proper spelling) the league.

Did Beckham really lead other stars to follow him to MLS?
Past-their-prime superstars are as old as the league itself. Look at the original rosters from its inauguration year and you'll see names like Hugo Sanchez, Marco Etcheverry, Carlos Valderrama and Roberto Donadoni, to name but a few. Beckham was certainly not the first big name to join an MLS outfit, he was merely the biggest to do so.

In fact, there is probably LESS star power on MLS rosters at present than in the league's early days. Quick: name one player on the Houston Dynamo (the team that will face Beckham's Galaxy for the MLS Cup on Sunday). Not that easy, is it? Many MLS teams, including the Dynamo, have not even made use of their "Beckham rule" exception to sign one player to a contract that doesn't count against the salary cap. And the ones that have, have not always seen it work out in their favor.

And did Henry really join MLS because of Becks? Highly unlikely that it factored into his decision at all. More important to Henry was the ability to relocate to New York City and still get paid multiple millions to play soccer. Would MLS (and the New York Red Bulls) have been able to afford Henry without Becks' precedent? Absolutely. The Austrian drink company's investment in MLS predated Becks's arrival by more than one year. It dropped $200 million on a new stadium and clearly viewed the team as a cost center. It was going to invest in star player regardless.

This assumes it's even a good thing to attract such "star power." The Economist somehow views this connection as an established fact; big names = a successful league. In reality, one could argue (convincingly) that exactly the opposite is true. If it were just big names that make a league, we'd care a lot more about teams in Qatar and the Emirates.

So what does make a successful league? It's quite simple: fannies in the seats and eyeballs on tv. The Economist story mentions attendance being up 7 percent over last year, which is indeed substantial. More importantly, it follows years of smaller gains. How much of that was due to Becks? In his first two years in the league, arguably all of it. Since then, as Beckham's popularity has waned due to his poorly-managed forays in Europe, his influence at the gate has lessened as well. It was during this time that the most substantial gains were made. Since 2009, the arrival of the Seattle Sounders and their 40,000-odd season ticket holders was the real story behind the rise in attendance. Many MLS teams in bigger cities (Chicago, Dallas, Boston) have seen attendance drop off, at times significantly, since Beckham's arrival.

"Television figures are rising only slowly from low levels." Right, and really not until this year, meaning Beckham, by now a novelty, probably didn't have much (or anything) to do with it. MLS has shrewdly managed to turn this into lucrative television contracts, but the league remains all but ignored by mainstream media outside the Pacific Northwest.

Now to Will Chang. The DC United owner claimed Beckham's arrival helped make soccer cool and (quite literally) afforded U.S. players a place to play professionally. The second claim is of course ludicrous. While it's true that U.S. soccer players in the past did not have a professional league of their own, this was between 1984, when the old North American Soccer League went under, and 1996, MLS's first season. By the time Beckham came onto the scene in 2007, MLS was firmly entrenched as a business. As for "making soccer cool," the sport was widely played stateside long before Beckham's arrival. If numbers increased further since then, it's probably just a continuation of that trend and/or a result of the success of U.S. men's and women's teams at World Cups and (for the women) Olympic games--not due to a certain British midfielder with a cockney accent.

Americans now watch the World Cup in as many numbers and with as much passion as most countries. It will be a long time before businesses shut down on World Cup game days the way they do in Brazil, but in New York many office workers did mysteriously disappear at certain key times last June. The fact that we can field a competitive (men's) team is surely in no small part due to MLS--which, let's not forget, predates Beckham's arrival in LA by more than a decade. The team's greatest success, a quarterfinal berth at the 2002 tournament, long before Beckham shipped out to Spain, much less the U.S.

There is still a vast disparity between MLS and national team viewership and interest levels. Senior national teams (men's and women's) routinely lead Sportscenter broadcasts and newspapers' sports sections during World Cups. MLS gets one Sportscenter mention a year, for MLS Cup highlights, and that segment is usually toward the back-end of the show. How widely will the Galaxy's and Dynamo's hometown papers tout a triumph by their team? If they do at all, it will surely pale in comparison to a World Series title by the Dodgers or Astros.

That's all fine and good of course. Baseball is viewed as an American institution and soccer is seen as "un-American. Both assumptions are patently false, as we made clear a long time ago in one of the first posts in this space. Attitudes will change, slowly. Even then, MLS has little chance of becoming a truly major league. We'll know that has happened when the league is not celebrated for signing a player like David Beckham, but ridiculed for paying so much money for somebody so far past his prime whose priorities are clearly elsewhere. When such a move is called out as the blatant marketing ploy it is and was. When young American players, not aging European ones, attract attendance and media attention. At that point America will have become a true soccer nation. Until then we're just supporters of our national teams.

1 comment:

  1. The attitute of soccer being 'Un-America' will be a tough one to break. More success via the national team may be one thing than can do it.