Sunday, August 05, 2007

Beckham's comet threatens to flame out early

I promised myself I wasn't going to write a piece on the obnoxious Beckhamania, as I loathe all things overhyped. But it's so suffocating those of us who are already Major League Soccer (MLS) fans that I can't help but vent.

MLS is trying to expand its appeal in the country. 18 million Americans play soccer, 80 percent more than play baseball. Millions follow foreign soccer leagues from Mexico, England and Italy, but the majority of these do not follow MLS.

The American league's popularity is growing steadily. MLS is the 12th most well-attended first division in the world, in only its 12th year of existence. The league's average attendance of nearly 15,000 fans a game is not that far off the National Hockey League's (16,486) or the National Basketball Association's (17,757).

The league's popularity is growing but not fast enough for the league's increasingly ambitious investors. And the increasing popularity hasn't translated into significantly increased TV ratings for MLS games. Too many people in America are soccer fans but not MLS fans and the league wants to change that.

With much fanfare, English player David Beckham recently signed a 5 year, $250 million contract with MLS and Los Angeles Galaxy.

Beckham is no longer even one of the best 50 soccer players in the world, but he is probably one of the world's top five most recognizible athletes. He is a pop star in a city whose middle name is celebrity. Beckham's primary jobs are to sell jerseys, to put fannies in the seats of other MLS stadia and to get the league media exposure.

He's already succeeded on all three counts. Even non-soccer fans know generally that some big soccer player is coming to the US. Media attention has been through the roof.

Ticket sales have skyrocketed too. New England and Columbus have sold twice as many tickets for LA's visits as they normally do. New York's average attendance is about 11,500 but they've already sold 50,000 (and counting) for the Galaxy game.

There's only one problem: Beckham's injured. He hurt his ankle in early June with England. He was given a cortisone shot and played in his former club Real Madrid's last two league games, which made the injury even worse. He arrived about a month ago but has only played 12 minutes for the Galaxy in one friendly (exhibition game) and only participated in a single (photo op) training season.

Galaxy coach Frank Yallop is being sensible. He won't play Beckham until the player is fully fit, lest the prize investment be injured even more severely.

The whole situation has been a mess for MLS and Los Angeles, whose marketing strategies for the season were based around Beckhamania. The club changed its logos and colors the day Beckham was introduced. The Galaxy's schedule was backloaded by the league with away games to maximize Beckham's impact on attendance (LA already sells out most of its home games).

Toronto FC has already issued a statement warning fans that no refunds would be given if Beckham didn't play. New York has done the same.

You'd think this would be self-evident. Soccer players, even massively hyped ones, are human beings. This is a sport where starters may run 7 miles a game or more for 90 minutes (with only one short break); none of this run hard for 8 seconds and catch your breath for 45 seconds stuff for soccer players.

In such an environment, having healthy ankles isn't an afterthought. This isn't rec soccer where players get subbed off every 10 minutes. The ticket stub says FC Dallas vs Los Angeles Galaxy, not Carlos Ruiz vs David Beckham.

But there are some idiots out there who don't get it. After the recent Dallas-LA game, one soccer mom whined "My daughter has a broken ankle and she sat in the car and made it up here for the game."

Because she expected that a little girl sitting in a car for 220 miles was going to magically send good vibrations to cure Beckham's ankle?

"We weren't going to waste the tickets, but it was a big disappointment," said one man, of whom it would be deceitful to call a fan.

This was after a 6-5 LA victory which was arguably the most entertaining game ever played between two MLS teams and this guy's abiding memory of the game was disappointment about who didn't play. What could a player with one good ankle have possibly added to one of the most remarkable games ever played between two US clubs?

But that doesn't matter. To these people, soccer has nothing to do with it. They were drawn to the game based on celebrity, flash, glamour and glitz.

Given the irrationality of our culture, I'm surprised no one's filed a lawsuit... yet.

In a way, you can't blame them. The media hype would have you believe that Beckham is here to save soccer in America. The MLS would (rightly) have you believe that soccer in America doesn't need saving; Beckham's only trying to take it to the next level.

LA general manager Alexi Lalas said that Beckham could have a bigger legacy on American soccer than Pele did. Of course, that's not as an outrageous statement as it might seem.

The old North American Soccer League was in tatters only a few years after Pele retired. And the NASL was never really that healthy, outside a few extremely successful teams, when he was there. So while Pele's contribution while he played was huge, the legacy he left was fleeting. But the headlines are going to be "Lalas: Beckham can be bigger than Pele."

In that way, MLS is a victim of its own strategy. It invited huge media exposure. But it's media exposure the league can't control now. It can't shove the genie back into the bottle and say "Don't come back until Becks is healthy."

MLS and LA based its marketing strategy on Beckham. But now that Beckham's injured, as is always a possibility in sports, everyone's calling for patience.

Given the gargantuan hype he helped flame, Lalas sounds more than a bit disingenuous when he called for everyone to realize that when they buy a ticket to see the Galaxy play, they're buying it to see a team and not just one player.

In order to succeed, MLS must try to bring in real fans, not just the ADD types who drool over the celebrity culture. MLS can not pander to those who watch one of the most thrilling soccer games you can possibly imagine only to whine about the 'big disappointment' of someone not playing.

MLS should learn from the National Hockey League's experience. In the early and mid-90s, the NHL tried all kinds of lame gimmicks to bring in the [insert dramatic music] casual fan.

The league threw franchises left and right at places where most people's only experience of real ice was in their glass of soda. The NHL now has more teams in the Sun Belt than it does in Canada. Even Canadian icon Wayne Gretzky was sent to, you guessed it, Los Angeles.

Ask yourself: where is the NHL now? Here's an anecdote to explain why.

I'll never forget being in the Peace Corps and watching a tape someone had brought back of the 1996 NHL all-star game. The broadcaster (Fox) destroyed the telecast with all this amateurish graphics. There was a blue cloud that surrounded the puck. A red comet tail graphic was made every time the puck was shot. It was obnoxious.

The purpose of the graphics was to make the game 'more accessible' to the casual fan, who apparently found it difficult to follow a black puck against the backdrop of white ice.

There were eight of us watching the game: myself and three others were hockey fans, four were not. The four hockey fans thought the graphics were idiotic. The four non-fans thought the graphics were really omigawdsuperfantasticallyawesome.

Ten minutes into the game, the four hockey fans were still there, bitching about not being able to follow the puck. All four of the non-fans, so enamored with the hip graphics, had left the room.

Ten years later, the NHL remains mostly ignored in the US, outside the northeast and a few other cities.

Beckham is the MLS' version of the comet tail graphic designed to bring in the [insert dramatic music] casual fan. But once the newness factor wears off, will the comet flame out? Once these folks gotten their dose of Beckham's celebrity and another takes his place, will these paparazzi followers still be buying MLS tickets? And more importantly, in the meantime, will the MLS have turned off the hard core soccer fans who are far more important to the league's long term success?

Update: this blog in the notoriously anti-US soccer Guardian opines that some of the passion of soccer around the world is starting to seep into MLS. This shouldn't degenerate into the hooliganism, racism and general irrationality that prevails in some places, but it's certainly a welcome antidote to the stale, homogeneized experiences offered by most US (professional) sports venues.

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