Beckham? a Short-Term Step in Right Direction

By Leonard Shapiro (THE WASHINGTON POST, 16/01/07):

The news that mega-star David Beckham has joined the Los Angeles Galaxy with a contract reportedly worth $50 million over five years — with another $200 million in endorsement and merchandising opportunities also included in the deal–is generally being cheered at the highest levels of professional soccer in the United States, not to mention at the tattooed lad’s favorite local brokerage house.

But no one is quite ready to say that Beckham’s presence on a Major League Soccer roster is likely to push the league into must-see status on television in this country for years to come. After all, at 31, Beckham is mostly on the downhill slide of his career (he hasn’t even started for Real Madrid this season), and he’s not the sort of goal-scoring machine that likely would capture the fancy of the American sports public.

Still, The Beautiful Game in the U.S. has come a long way, baby, since the days when the late Jack Kent Cooke and other deep-pocketed sports moguls, also including the late Lamar Hunt, invested millions in the sport in the 1960s. Several deep-pocketed owners actually brought entire European teams across the pond to play in American football stadiums, usually filled by mostly empty seats.

I personally began covering the sport as a young reporter in the early 1970s, when Cooke had long since abandoned the game as a lost American cause. By then, Washington was the home for several under-funded clubs first known as the Darts and later Diplomats. Those teams, which included a one-armed striker (Casa), a future league commissioner (John Kerr) and a guy whose named I always enjoyed typing («Nana From Ghana»), played their games at Catholic University’s old football stadium, W.T. Woodson High School in Northern Virginia and later at RFK Stadium. Crowds in the range of 5,000 at any of those venues was always considered a great day at the box office.

Later on that decade, the North American Soccer League tried to go global in a very big way, importing the legendary Pele, among others, in an attempt to ignite a spark of passion in the U.S. The New York Cosmos, owned by Warner Communications, had the largest checkbook, bringing in other well-known international stars, a Georgio Chinaglia here, a Franz Beckenbauer there, and filling up ballparks at home and occasionally on the road with big-time crowds. A 1976 Cosmos soccer game once drew 77,691 fans to Giants Stadium; the same day the N.Y. Yankees played in front of 21,000 at Yankee Stadium.

(And permit me one sad aside. The voice of the Cosmos back then also had a strong Washington tie — the late, great Jim Karvellas, who died last month in Tampa after a battle with prostate cancer at the age of 71. Karvellas, who did sports on Channel 5 for a number of years, also was the play-by-play voice of the Baltimore and early Washington Bullets whose signature basketball call was » Bulls-eye!!» A major talent, and what a sweet, swell guy.)

The major problem for the old NASL was that the New York franchise was operating on an unlimited budget, and the rest of the league, which also expanded way too quickly, could hardly keep up. It created a financial recipe for disaster that eventually led to the folding of the NASL in 1984 and yet another setback for spectator soccer in the States.

Ironically, the same could not be said at the grass roots level of the game. Youth soccer began to take off in the 1970s, and is still soaring in the first decade of the 21st century. Just the other day, I went for a Saturday morning walk in a local South Florida park and was mesmerized by the sight of hundreds of youngsters, ranging from pee-wee 5- and 6-year-olds to teenagers playing in organized games on every inch of green grass in the place.

It reminded me of all the times I was told by NASL executives back in the day that once all the soccer kids grew up, got jobs and had a little disposable income in their pockets, just wait and see how many people will be buying tickets to games in 60,000-seat stadiums.

Several generations of those children have, indeed grown up, and while some of them have maintained an interest in following the sport, they’re mostly disposing their income in other areas. So are their soccer moms and dads, past and present.

Still, another audience also has emerged over the years, no thanks to Lou Dobbs and other immigration bashers. But an influx of thousands of Hispanic immigrants over the years clearly has had an impact on the MLS, and its Spanish language television network, Univision.

But despite continued visions of potential future grandeur, soccer remains a niche sport in this country, particularly on television. It still lags behind pro football, baseball and basketball in spectator and TV popularity, though it may well have surpassed professional hockey, a game that seems to be constantly heading in all the wrong directions after its disastrous lockout two years ago. Consider, for example, that D.C. United averaged about 18,000 a home game last season and the Washington Capitals are averaging about 13,000 a home game (albeit over a longer schedule).

Meanwhile, the signing of Beckham last week also was accompanied by the same sort of hyperbole that filled the airwaves when Pele enlisted as an American soccer savior 30 years ago.

Tim Lieweke, president of the company that owns the Galaxy, insisted in a news conference last week to announce the signing that, «David Beckham will have a greater impact on soccer in America than any athlete has ever had on a sport globally. He is truly the only individual that can build the bridge between soccer in America and the rest of the world.»

Kevin Payne, president of D.C. United, was a tad more realistic. He, too, believes that attendance and TV ratings on ABC/ESPN, the league’s network and cable partner, likely will improve whenever Beckham is on the air or in a stadium, but that «it’s still going to take time for a domestic league to get to the point where we’re competing with football, baseball or basketball. I also believe we were already heading in that direction.»

In Washington, he pointed out, cable ratings for D.C. United games on Comcast were about equal to ratings for Wizards regular season games and about 2 1/2 times greater than numbers for the Capitals. He also pointed out that for the first time, MLS actually is being paid a modest rights fee for its game by ABC/ESPN, as opposed to the league having to buy its own time on the networks.

«They [ABC/ESPN] have a huge commitment to the sport,» Payne said.

«They’re also one of those unusual companies that can shape the way the public views a certain sport. If they can make Texas hold ‘em poker a national sport, then why not soccer?»

Payne also believes that the league, which owns all the franchises, is not about to witness a similar spending spree that began the death spiral of the old North American Soccer League. The league does allow every team one exception to its $400,000 top salary cap figure and Payne said «some teams may try to make a big splash, but I don’t think you’re going to see that very much. We’re not going down that road this year. Our philosophy is team first, not a single player. We’re not going to sacrifice that concept.

«Let’s face it. Beckham is a global icon, a rare athlete who completely transcends his sport and becomes a celebrity athlete. I can only think of one other athlete today in the same category, and that’s Tiger Woods.»

The better news for MLS is that the majority of the players on league rosters are Americans. The last three No. 1 overall draft picks came out of American college or high school programs, a trend that seems likely to continue. Payne and his MLS colleagues also know that having an American team advance to the final rounds of the World Cup in four years would be far more beneficial to the growth of their league in this country than the signing of Beckham, who may move the ratings and attendance needle at first, but not over the long haul.

A far more realistic view on Beckham’s signing — along with the Hollywood arrival of his celebrity wife, Victoria, formerly Posh of the Spice Girls — was expressed last week by TV soccer broadcaster Ray Hudson.

«Comparing this to Pele’s signing is obscene and ridiculous,» Hudson told the Miami Herald. «He’s a teen idol, a David Cassidy, A one-trick pony on the field, over-rated, manufactured like his wife?You can’t blame the league. It had reached a plateau and had gotten stale. They needed a spark to start the bonfire, and Beckham’s going to do that. But what happens when the splash is over?»