DO THEY WANT MLS AND BECKS TO SUCCEED?
Yesterday MLS and David Beckham announced a 5-year, $250M deal to bring him to the LA Galaxy, and make the pop-idol the face of MLS. Now there’s plenty of cynicism surrounding MLS, and perhaps even more surrounding David Beckham, but I doubt that anything will have the nay-saying sports writers around the globe salivating with anticipation as much as this dog and ponytail show certain to arrive at a stadium near you in June of this year.
But before you purists poo-poo, consider this theory: David Beckham is the best thing to happen to MLS in its history - full stop. No single player has or will bring more money to the league, as he will the day he dons the green and gold jersey of the Galaxy, the most profligate franchise in the league, I might add. No single event will do more to raise the profile of the entire league than the first ball he strokes over the wall and into the back of the net - it will be replayed on every newscast in the world the day it happens. In fact, if Zinedine Zidane came out of retirement to play for DC United, it wouldn’t mean as much commercially as the peroxide-blonde boy from London, via Manchester and Madrid. The truth is that despite the whopping sum of a quarter of a billion dollars, in its majority tied to advertising and promotional considerations, and as such commercially sound, I’d be hard pressed to bet against this guy alone doubling the leagues advertising revenue in a year.
But before the man stroking a golden comb through his hair has even set foot stateside, questions are already being raised about his ability to raise MLS to NFL level popularity in the US. I have to say that this is the single most disingenuous question that the enemies of soccer in the US have raised in their 30-year old quest to block the importation of the world’s favorite game, to the world’s favorite economy. Make no mistake about it – there are people both within the US and in the global sports writing community that would love nothing more than to label this venture, and MLS altogether, an abject failure. It hinges on one thing: setting the expectation of the league so high that it could only be reached if Jesus Christ blessed himself wearing the black and red of DC United, before entering the pitch at RFK. It makes you wonder if they don't think it will work, or if they really don't want it to?
Sporting vs. Commerical Considerations
When signing a player like David Beckham, there are two considerations – sporting and commercial. On the balance, MLS has made it pretty clear that this deal has been driven by commercial interests. But for a moment, let’s examine the sporting decision first. Before you flippantly dismiss Beckham as a has been who can no longer cut it at the biggest club in the world, ask yourself if anyone else in MLS today could have? For that matter, neither could Ronaldo or Luis Figo, but you'd be hard pressed to find a team in MLS that wouldn't take either of those so-called rejects. In fact, can you name 3 midfielders in MLS, right now, without going to web, that are demonstrably better than David Beckham? From a sporting perspective it’s a good move for the Galaxy.
To date, they have on their books one Landon Donovan – the single most overrated player in America, Santino Quaranta – a DC United reject who lost his place in the team to Freddy (Much) Adu (About Nothing), and Cobi Jones, who to this day, still looks like he just recently learned how to kick straight. Will Beckham make them contenders in just one year: absolutely. Why? Because the regular season means nothing in a league where all but two teams make the playoffs, and there a player of Beckham’s qualities can make a game-breaking contribution with one swing of his foot. In fact, MLS may even suit Beckham in his current incarnation better than most leagues. He doesn’t have the quality of players to target with his crosses and through balls from the wing, and he himself lacks the pace and close control to be a threat running at defenders and scoring goals from the run of play. But if he can eek out a role as a playmaker whose sole responsibility is to enable his teammates, I could even envisage Beckham playing so well that he'd be considered for the England team – maybe for a friendly or two, if nothing else to thank him for his past contributions.
Truly great players inspire us, and if Beckham weren’t married to Posh Spice, or play for one of the two richest clubs in the world, he wouldn’t. But for MLS, and particularly for the LA Galaxy, he’ll do just fine, thank you very much. That’s not a knock on the league, but a statement of the obvious – Beckham’s sporting value is in enabling his teammates, and while enabling the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, or Raul is not likely to be on the cards in MLS, he will certainly make his teammate’s lives a lot easier. Furthermore, by all accounts, Beckham is a model professional who, aside from his extra-curricular distractions, practices as diligently as and even more so, than most professionals today. That alone will have a great impact on the young players who will come into contact with him. If he plays at full capacity, there's no doubt he’ll be a big success in MLS.
Okay, Let's Just Get to the Gettin'
The real reason for this transaction is commercial - I mean, let's be honest. Even if there were no quality left in his game, he would still certainly be a good draw. Beckham’s enormous global branding, particularly in Asia, really makes the advertisers drool, where his midas touch make tours and television rights lucrative. Consider that today, the most heavily spectated game in the history of the English football was between Everton and Fulham FC in 2003? That’s because each team had a single Chinese player on the roster, and if 3% of the Chinese population tuned into the game, it would have meant more viewers then there are people in the UK. Today, interest in the EPL in China remains, even if the Chinese players do not. That, in a nutshell, is the commercial appeal of Beckham in Asia.
As a part of a large contingent of world class players at Real Madrid, commercially Beckham completed a package that was unrivaled in football. At one time, Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo, Roberto Carlos and Beckham all wore the Real Madrid jersey. It seems now, only Roberto Carlos will remain. At the LA Galaxy, the story will be a team of Beckham and everyone else, and one has to wonder how many times a team like that can tour the US or the Asian continent profitably.
As such another consideration has to be included in the analysis – can Beckham begin to draw other well known stars to MLS in similar arrangements? Could Ronaldo follow? How about Luis Figo? Could even Zinedine Zidane be drawn out of retirement, as was Pele in 1974? In all likelihood, the answer is no, but a single MLS team with those types of marquee players on the roster, touring the country, could be very lucrative indeed. This, however, is unlikely given the structure of the league, and the so-called Beckham rule, that allows a team to max out the MLS contribution to their salary cap at $400K on just one player, and the team can kick in the rest. More likely such players would be dispersed throughout the league, rather than concentrated in one team. But could Beckham alone be enough. Let’s analyze the numbers, shall we?
$250M over 5 years is a figure that’s been bandied about, but most of this money would come from endorsements and a share of profits, conditional on his performance and ability to draw advertising revenue to the league. The first season will certainly bring in the attention they want, but without the addition of other marquee players, it will be impossible for MLS to have that kind draw. I doubt that at the end of his contract, a 36-year old Beckham will continue to draw the numbers required to justify $1M per week potential contract. As such, I think it's pretty clear that MLS are betting on the Beckham's ability to draw more marquee players as well as fans.
Consider the numbers: in order to make sense, giving Beckham $1M per week, would require that the league bring in, as a direct result, at least as much in advertising, with additional money coming from ticket, concessions and merchandising, otherwise it’s a net zero transaction. Imagine for a moment that there are only 1 million avid soccer fans in the US – myself included. It’s not hard to imagine that advertisers such as Gilette, Motorolla, Adidas and Pepsi would collectively be willing to share the burden of paying MLS a dollar a week to advertise specifically to me, just in the hopes that Beckham’s image will generate more than $52 a year in additional sales to their companies. That's not a very high threshold given the existing margins on all of their products. Much of the cost would be covered in renegotiated TV rights, which advertisers would pay to the networks anyway, and possibly redistribute to advertising during MLS games. It's more than plausible, and ultimately the difference between MLS and the other successful leagues around the world is TV rights.
Or how about this scenario – a tour of the US and Asia with two MLS teams, each with two of the following four players on the roster – Beckham, Ronaldo, Figo and Zidane drawn out of retirement. Now that would put assess in the seats. It harkens back to a time when Pele, Cruyff, Best and Beckenbauer all played in the NASL at the same time, but let’s be honest – 3 of those players were broke and needed the money (Beckenbauer excluded) and that’s not the case with our modern wish list. Nevertheless, it would be interesting, and it’s possible now that the first step of buying Beckham has already been taken. While an avid fan will be relatively unmoved by such a setup over the long run, the avid fan never seems to be the concern of the cynics who want to destroy soccer in the US. Somehow, the idea has become ingrained that soccer needs to pull fans from other sports, namely the NFL. As if NFL fans don't also watch baseball, basketball or hockey. I mean, it's not like you have to go to three stadiums in a day to watch the Redskins, Nationals and Wizards. I believe they've invented something called television, where you can enjoy any of the above in the confort of your own home.
I have always been of the opinion that this expectation, that MLS compete directly with the NFL, is merely the result of a two-pronged attack on soccer in the US by those who cynically set absurdly high expectations hoping that it will fail. Why in the world does MLS have to reach NFL level popularity, anyway? To date, the richest NFL franchise is probably the Dallas Cowboys, and with their new stadium coming, you couldn’t sell that team for less than $2 billion today. Real Madrid, on the other hand, the richest club in the world is worth barely more than half that sum – about the same that a rather average NFL team like the Washington Redskins is worth today. So why does MLS need to reach NFL levels in order to be a success, when the richest football clubs in the world are worth less than one of least successful teams in the NFL?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Malcolm Glazer, the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, certainly not one of the marquee teams in the NFL, just buy Manchester United - the second richest club in the world? So I ask again, why is the NFL the standard for the success of MLS? I'll tell you why: because there are enemies of soccer in the US that want to see it fail who are putting these ridiculous expectations on MLS with the full knowledge that they can't even be matched by baseball, basketball and hockey. And there are those outside the US who want to see soccer fail here because they enjoy the fact that despite all our power and might, we still have one of the worst national teams and leagues in the world’s favorite sport. It’s just one (of the few remaining) ways to feel better about their economic inferiority to everyone's favorite villain. Sure, they're rich and they make good movies, but we've got the best cheese and soccer team in the world!
Deep down inside, they want this to continue, because they fear that if soccer ever really did reach NFL levels in this country, that the collective buying power of our economy would rob them of their favorite players domestically. And they’re right. If you don’t believe me, just ask our neighbors to the north how they feel about NHL, and all the Canadian teams who have relocated to the US. So, to sabotage us, and setup the headlines they love to run, they set the bar at a level that no soccer team on earth has reached, much less any MLS team, waiting gleefully to savage our efforts when ultimately we don’t reach that pinnacle.
Remember which World Cup sold the most tickets in history? It wasn’t Spain82, Italia90 France98 or even Germany2006. It was USA94. Why? Because no place on earth has as many 70,000 seat stadiums to fill that could even host an event like the World Cup, much less sell them out. And that was before we had a league of our own or a national team to speak of. Today, we’d easily surpass the records of 1994, and if players like Beckham and Ronaldo, or even all these players from S. American willing to play in places like the Ukraine, start to think they can get a piece of the action, both in sporting and commercial terms, on this side of the Atlantic, it’d be a brave new world in which the cynics have no interest. But the possibility has them shaking in their boots.
But there are enemies within our borders as well. Those who don’t understand the appeal of soccer, the ones who tell you there isn’t enough scoring – which is basically their only argument against the game. These are the same people who crap their pants at the sight of a double play in baseball, or a 1st down in football, but somehow can’t understand how we get so excited by a string of 10 one-touch passes resulting in a great shot and save. But I digress…
These people fear what they don’t understand, and worse than that, fear their jobs will one day require that they diligently cover a game they are incapable or unwilling to understand. And as such, they also set the bar at the NFL level, in the hopes that when MLS doesn’t reach that level they can call our endeavor a failure, and just be done with it.
Despite the paucity of premier teams and players, average MLS attendance is similar to that of the big leagues in Europe, because most of the stadiums are comparatively small, even if they are full. The difference is revenue from television rights, which some star quality would bring up to a level high enough to start bringing quality players to the US. And it doesn't get any better than Becks for star quality in soccer. If MLS could get, say, $1B over four years in TV rights, that alone would justify the Beckham rule, and make the league a resounding financial success. 10 years ago, German soccer had to experiment with television blackouts because their games on TV were unattended. Even in England, where the fans are admittedly more passionate than anywhere else, you can still get walk up tickets for a game between Manchester United and say, Watford, for less then the price of lunch at TGI Friday’s.
To that end, commercially, the Beckham deal makes all the sense in the world, not to take MLS to an NFL level (a level that baseball, hockey and basketball have not acheived financially) but certainly to the level of say the French Ligue 1 or Dutch Eredivise. It’s disingenuous to suggest that MLS would be a failure if doesn’t reach the interest of the NFL, or say the Champions League – even the EPL can’t measure up that.
MLS and Beckham were made for each other – a league that needs a marquee player, and a marquee player that needs a league. Commercially it’s is a low threshold considering the structure of the agreement, and the potential for other players to follow. In sporting terms, Beckham will immediately become one of the best midfielders in the league, if not the best, and will likely remain so for the remainder of his playing days, unless more marquee players follow him. and that wouldn’t be a bad problem to have at all, now would it?
On the whole, if you’re an American soccer fan, and want to see better games with better players in this country, then put your money (literally) on Beckham and the MLS.
I certainly will.