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Monday, July 13, 2009

David Beckham: The Cure or the Ailment?

David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane Footprint Fields Community ProgramDavid Beckham with MLS Works "Footprint Fields," 11 July 2009.

A few days ago, I read excerpts of Grant Wahl's new book, "The Beckham Experiment." After I read it in its entirety, I will do a book review. The initial excerpts were not flattering to Mr. Beckham. Landon Donovan questioned his commitment to the Galaxy and US soccer.

Image courtesy of Amazon.com.
Did it succeed or fail? Read the book...

The title of the recent book reminded me of a commentary that I wrote in January 2007 for AC Cugini Scuola Calcio called "David Beckham: The Cure Or The Ailment."

David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane Footprint Fields Community Program
David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane promoting Footprint Fields.

Here it is:

On Thursday, January 11, Major League Soccer, Anschutz Entertainment Group, and the Los Angeles Galaxy announced the deal of the new millennium. David Beckham, the most famous and celebrated global soccer star, was coming to America. Not just for a few summer friendlies. But to give five years of his labors, and to accept a personal challenge on the only continent that has yet to embrace his chosen sport.

Last August, I had the pleasure to interview Alexi Lalas, the President and General Manager of the Galaxy. I would like to re-post his response to the following questions. Now that you are in management, what are the qualities that you look for in a player to join the Galaxy? Does the Galaxy have a youth system in place?
"We have a youth system that will start next year and is an essential part for any team to cultivate talent. A player for the Galaxy has to have personality on and off the field. I want men who aren't afraid to have an opinion and express themselves. We have too many boys running around now, I'm dying for some character, not a clown, but someone who excites the fans, on and off the field."
I doubt that Mr. Lalas could have envisioned anyone more qualified to “excite the fans, on and off the field,” than Mr. Beckham, a recognized global brand.

Contractual Terms

Here are the key points of his contract from an article in the Wall Street Journal. According to Steven Goff of The Washington Post, MLS did not release these figures. Beckham's marketing team presented the deal to the media.

"Mr. Beckham's five-year pact includes an annual salary approaching $10 million a year, 40% to 50% of team-jersey sales and a share of club ticket revenue. His endorsements are expected to bring in $20 million to $25 million a year. Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which owns the operating rights to the Galaxy and two other MLS teams, said it estimates that, including endorsements, Mr. Beckham could earn in excess of $250 million over the five years -- a deal the company called "the biggest in sporting history." (1) Note: adidas, Gillette, Motorola, Pepsi, and Volkswagen are his primary sponsors.

Mr. Don Garber, Commissioner of MLS, had this to say about the historic moment:
"David Beckham is a global sports icon who will transcend the sport of soccer in America. His decision to continue his storied career in Major League Soccer is testament to the fact that America is rapidly becoming a true 'Soccer Nation' with Major League Soccer at the core. In the last few years, MLS has added three new teams, six new owners, four new soccer specific stadiums and signed four long term television agreements. The addition of David Beckham represents another significant step forward for the MLS and the sport." (2)

Noted financial wizard, Mr. J. P. Morgan, once said, "Put all of your eggs in one basket. And watch the basket." MLS and AEG obtained Beckham on a free transfer. Real Madrid, in 2003, paid 25 million pounds (~US $42m) to Manchester United for his services. MLS and AEG have invested, and staked their soccer credibility, on one golden egg. A man with a rich pedigree in world football, along with instant recognition. Whether it is in California, Cote d'Ivoire, or China. If you mention the name David Beckham, or show people his photograph, they know that he can bend a ball around a wall of defenders, is a fashion statement, and one of the most famous people on the planet.

David, who will turn 32 on May 2, is married to Victoria Adams, and has three sons: Brooklyn, Romeo, and Cruz. He has represented his country on 94 occasions, and was the captain 58 times. Both are significant achievements. He scored 17 times for England, and remains the only Englishman to score in three different World Cup competitions. He represented his country with great pride and determination. Even if the Three Lions failed to win any international honors during his ten years in the England shirt. Twice, he was runner-up for the FIFA World Player of the Year. At Manchester United, he won four English Premiership championships, the FA Cup, and the European Champions League.

His tenure at Real Madrid has not been a smooth ride. Madrid has not won any domestic or European honors, and has had six coaches since Beckham arrived in 2003. Presently, he has only started in five league games under Coach Fabio Capello, and has been used mostly as substitute. Or not at all. These developments hastened his departure, even though Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan, among many others, were keen to employ his services when his contract expired at the end of June 2007. According to Football Italia, from an article that appeared in the Gazzetta dello Sport, Beckham was heading to AC Milan before his friend, actor Tom Cruise, intervened.

"If Beckham had stayed in Europe, it would've been with Milan. At the end of the day he opted for Los Angeles and informed us of his decision," stated Vice-President Adriano Galliani (of AC Milan). The 'Gazzetta dello Sport' insists that the Rossoneri (the nickname of the Milanese team) had a deal to bring him to Serie A worth 2.8m pounds (~US $5.5m) per season for three years and including his entire lucrative image rights. International agent Ernesto Bronzetti reportedly met with Becks and representative Terry Byrne in the Calle Serrano office to discuss the details. The proposal was ready to be accepted on Wednesday, but a conversation with actor Tom Cruise changed his mind and he plumped for 128m pounds (US $250m) switch to LA Galaxy.
'I was on the phone to him for about an hour Thursday night and an hour the night before,' revealed Beckham. 'Obviously I asked him for his advice because he is a very wise man and a very good friend of mine. It's going to be a big help for us to have friends when we arrive in LA.' " (3)
One of his teammates at Real Madrid, goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, paid Beckham a high tribute:
"(Casillas) described his team-mate as a 'magnificent person'. It's a pity, said Casillas. Those of us who have known him believe him to be a great player and a great professional. He has given everything to Real Madrid." (4)
Germany v Spain - UEFA EURO 2008 Final
Iker Casillas raising the European Cup in 2008.
Fabio Capello reacted in his usual blunt manner.
"The player, Capello said, has decided to go away. He has always been a great professional, but we can't count on a player who has signed such an important contract with another club. He will train, but he will not play. He decided himself to go away, it was not up to me. Therefore, if there are any questions, ask him." (5)
World Cup Qualification: England Take A Step Closer
Even Don Fabio admitted his error to bench Beckham at Real Madrid.
Cost-Benefit Analysis

Beckham is one of the best dead ball specialists in the world. He also is one of the most precise at crossing the ball. At Manchester United, sophisticated testing indicated that he was one of the fittest players in the modern game. David is an athlete who truly plays the game for 90 minutes.

I remember when Pele' arrived in 1975. Some have equated Beckham's arrival with that quantum leap. This is a historic signing, but when he arrived, it was similar, in my humble opinion, to a man landing on the moon. The best player of all time risked much more than Beckham ever will. The famed Brazilian landed in the barren desert of international football. I remember seeing him play on a bumpy high school field in front of about 10,000 fans in Northern Virginia. Many years ago, he, and other greats such as Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, and Giorgio Chinaglia, planted the seeds that allowed the MLS to sign one of the Real Madrid "galacticos." Beckham will play on the best pitches, and I hope that the MLS will use common sense to remove gridiron stripes that sometimes, especially during recent play-off games, appear due to scheduling conflicts. These are painful reminders of 1970s. 

When fields have an amateur appearance, the rest of the world will not take us seriously. Nor will domestic fans. The game needs to be respected. To their credit, MLS is constructing soccer specific stadia (SSS) to alleviate this problem.

Beckham's tremendous marketing appeal will greatly assist the sport in North America. Witness the mainstream media coverage since last week. He also speaks and understands Spanish, which was deemed a key criterion by US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati in his choice for the next US National Team Coach. The Hispanic television market, such as ESPN Deportes, GolTV, Telefutura, Telemundo, and Univision actively promote and televise the sport in this country to a knowledgeable and increasingly important consumer audience. Beckham is media savvy, comes across as humble, knowledgeable about our country "I'm sure Victoria will become a soccer mum," and most of all, genuine. Despite the king's ransom he will receive, I sense that was not his only reason to come here. He would earn over half to two/thirds of his annual compensation regardless of where he played due to lucrative endorsements and shirt sales.

People who do not follow soccer may be curious about this phenomenon from England. But despite the many positive aspects of this deal, the following questions remain. Will he help or hurt the domestic program in the long-run? Will the North American professional league become more competitive, more tactical, raise its standard of play, and be able to attract and afford other foreign stars in the prime of their careers?

A Cure or Temporary Solution?

Will Beckham be a cure, or a temporary solution, to the mantra "Soccer is the sport of the future" that we have heard for 30 years? Will more Americans become passionate fans of soccer? Will Beckham, by his own desire, be able to lure back many of the children who stop playing soccer in their early teens? Or as he said, "To bring the game to another level." He already has a soccer academy in Los Angeles. His commitment to youth soccer is without argument. The key will be to make young people life-long fans with a passion for the sport. Not merely a passion for an expensive shirt that has 23 and "Beckham" on its back and shoulders. These are valid concerns that fans, the media, critics, coaches, players, and management need to evaluate.

For all of the millions who participate in soccer in this country, only a small percentage actually follow the professional game either here or abroad, and that is a disturbing reality. Beckham is sincere in his hope to become a goodwill ambassador for the sport. But one man can not be the panacea. We all need to recognize this, and to realize that potential Hollywood glitz and glamour may not translate onto the soccer pitch. Or to make casual fans into serious ones who follow the world game. In all sincerity, as a fan of soccer, and one who has witnessed tremendous strides in the sport in our country, I hope that Beckham proves to be a positive catalyst for future growth and quality.

Voices of Dissent
Houston Dynamo v Los Angeles Galaxy
Landon Donovan and David Beckham in better times.

Since Beckham's deal was announced as one the largest in the history of team sports, it is important to look at some other important figures. The salary cap for MLS teams is $2.2 million. If we assume a roster size of 22, the average annual salary is $100,000. The league minimum is $11,700. That was not a typo, and several players in this league are earning that salary. MLS recently instituted a Designated Player Rule for cases such as Beckham. MLS will pay $400,000 of his salary, and AEG will assume the rest. Each team is allowed one of these players that can exceed the salary cap, and in some cases, perhaps two. Last year, the two highest paid players in the MLS were Juan Francisco Palencia of Chivas USA, $1.36m, along with Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy, $900,000, respectively.

If we look at average salaries in baseball, basketball, and gridiron football, it is obvious that American soccer players lag far behind. Goff, the expert soccer writer for the Washington Post, interviewed Alecko Eskandarian, a former D.C. United player. He had the following opinion about Beckham's lucrative contract:

"The first thing that jumped out at me was the figure he was making. I mean, that's unbelievable," said former D.C. United player Alecko Eskandarian (now a Galaxy teammate), who was traded to expansion club Toronto FC last month. "As much as I'm all for the exposure, I feel like if [MLS clubs] have all this money they could divvy up some of it, especially for some of the younger players with developmental contracts. It's really not fair what they make. To think that one guy could make more in one day of practice than some guys make for a whole year of effort is pretty shocking." (6)

Roberto Donadoni, the present national team coach of Italy, and a former MLS player for the Metrostars during 1996 and 1997, had the following intriguing comment:
"This transfer is shocking, but I hope that the Americans truly want to invest in soccer starting from the basics, not just big names." The former winger had words of advice for the owners of the Major League Soccer sides. "In the States this sport has another dimension," he added to the ANSA news agency. "They need famous names to get people into the stadiums. If they want to invest in football, then they have to work on the foundations." (7)
As well all know, the strength of a house starts with its foundation. Passion is the key. It can not be simulated. It comes from the heart, and not from a bank account, fame, or polished marketing campaigns. I wish David Beckham, the LA Galaxy, and the MLS all the best to promote a passion for the game. Welcome to America, Mr. Beckham.


(1) "Will ‘Brand Beckham’ Sell in the US?"
(2) Galaxy To Get Beckham In The Summer.
(3) Rossoneri 'Had Won Becks Race.'
(4) Galaxy Owners Defend Beckham Move.
(5) Capello Archivia Beckham e non solo.
(6) MLS's Posh Pickup.
(7) Donadoni Has His Doubts.

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