Saturday, February 2, 2008


Over a year ago for Sports NY Style - a public access show with a web add-in here in Manhattan - I published my first article outside of the weekly work I do for the New York Beacon. It discussed why David Beckham's signing with MLS' Los Angeles Galaxy was much more significant than many pundits were claiming. Despite this being the eve of the Super Bowl, I wanted to share something about football - :) - that I was pretty proud of thirteen months back.

I'm proud of this article for two reasons. For starters, it was one of a few articles I wrote for a good bunch of guys who gave me the opportunity to cover the NFL Draft a few months later and some boxing in Las Vegas (the weekend of Mayweather/De La Hoya in May). Secondly, while I feel that I am improving in this realm - if it's a cardinal sin to admit failures as a writer, send me to the place below - this article shows how much I needed to grow in the craft. In retrospect, it could have been much better. Yet, I'm proud to know that after writing this article, there was a renewed interest in the sport of soccer for me.

Enough rambling.

Why Beckham’s Signing IS a Big Deal?

David Beckham will join the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer after his contract with La Liga’s Real Madrid expires in June. Though the extraordinary finances and the glitz of the City of Angels have certainly opened a few eyes, the news has been received with a rather ho-hum attitude. Fellow sports scribes and talking heads waste little time discussing their personal dislike for soccer/football. The accepted view of soccer in the United States is one of indifference in comparison to just about every other nation in the world. So as much as Beckham and MLS would love to hear unbridled praise and ‘props’ for this union, their cries will fall on deaf ears.

At least for now.

Beckham brings an uncanny presence to a sport that has been searching for a marketable face combined with all-world talent to roam the fields of the United States. You probably know by now that bringing an older international superstar to an American league is nothing new as the North American Soccer League signed an aging Pelé and others to the States in the 1970s. Yet, what has not been discussed is how the MLS has managed to avoid many of the mistakes the NASL made since its birth in 1995. Because the league (not individual team) management doles out the contracts, no team has gone under due to the salaries of star players contributing to operating costs while the revenues are wiped away. Since teams are starting to play in soccer-specific stadiums (as the New York Red Bulls will do in 2008), they do not have to struggle to fill NFL stadiums as the demand is smaller than the capacity. Most importantly, Major League Soccer has not fallen in love with itself by over expanding to markets that are uninterested and spreading its talent pool thin.

So what does this have to do with the British icon?

Beckham comes into a situation where the league is slowly building a foundation to attract top-tier players from around the globe. The team he joins, the Galaxy, is the first franchise to turn a profit in the twelve-year existence of the league. Considering that LA is the second largest market in the country, marketing opportunities for the league, the team and himself are plentiful. Though he would not play in a stadium of nearly one hundred thousand people as he had been accustomed to, he will play in an area that is as close to the soccer-crazy Mexico as you can get in the US. Los Angeles happens to be home to the Galaxy and Chivas USA, a team co-owned by the same owners of the famed Chivas team in Mexico’s Premier League. MLS, in having two teams sharing the same venue and city, is hoping to target much of the Mexican league’s fan base that lives in the United States, but has traditionally ignored the American product. Beckham may play for the Galaxy, but the league hopes to show those fans that it is serious about attracting and possibly competing at an elite level to the rest of the world. Just as Danica Patrick raised the profile of Indy Car Racing or Maria Sharapova for tennis, all the players in the league can only benefit from the new guy in town, even if his arrival creates some jealousies. Yet, unlike Patrick and Sharapova, Beckham (besides being a man) has actually been a winner.

To believe that Beckham will do for soccer and the MLS what Wayne Gretzky did for hockey and the NHL seems shortsighted, especially when you consider how long hockey had existed in the United States before the Great One left Edmonton for Los Angeles. Hockey has a long tradition of developing American players, traditionally in northern, cold weather cities. It’s no coincidence that four of the Original Six franchises are American-based and have never flirted with relocation or folding due to lack of fanfare. Gretzky’s move south was a challenge for the NHL to see if they can find fans in warm-weather cities where people tend to flock for basketball games during the winter months. The NHL may never have that grand appeal as baseball, basketball or football, yet Gretzky is the source of inspiration of many players that are playing for a team near you.

Soccer happens to be the second largest participant sport in the United States next to running. It’s hard to believe that if you pay attention to fellow media heads and watch another Derek Jeter or Tom Brady ad for Movato watches. Unlike past generations, including those of us born in the eighties, kids playing soccer today have a legitimate professional league here in the States to look to as the standard of play. As we have access to games across the globe, today’s players also can watch the greats around the globe such as Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho. The creation of MLS is a result of a demand for soccer here in the States as the 1994 World Cup started a movement to bring the game to this country in a way that did not exist before. The pro leagues that we love today would have never lived beyond its infancy if it succumbed to early criticisms of play and interest. MLS and soccer are walking that very same path. Just as Red Grange had to be plucked from a much more popular college game to give the NFL legitimacy, Beckham needed to come here to show the country that soccer has a home here.

Soccer is not going to be on par with baseball, American football or basketball. To expect Beckham’s signing to suddenly fill every stadium in the league in the short run would be ambitious, but unwise. Beckham’s signing with the Galaxy will open the floodgates as the MLS will finally be able to compete with international leagues for talent due to its growing financial status and its diverse markets. Yet, for those non-soccer fans, the deal is a grandiose version of the types of deals that normally occur in other professional sports. A veteran joins a new team for a greater chance to win a championship or to prove that he or she can run with the young blood. His skills may be diminished despite his solid performance at the recent World Cup. He may be more glitz than grit to most pundits. He just may be in this for the allure of Hollywood and brighter skies than in Manchester and Madrid. Yet, David Beckham is living proof that Major League Soccer isn’t a fad, even if you don’t care.

Ironically, the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins will play the first NFL regular season game outside of North America in London this fall. The British may feel just as ho-hum about our football as we feel about theirs.

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