Beckham and the MLS: success or failure

Taking an in-depth look at the David Beckham and MLS partnership. Has this situation accomplished what it set out to do?Earlier this season, David Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy played a series of barnstorming games in South Korea and China. Aside from England, Asia has been Beckham’s most rabid fan base since the 2002 World Cup was held there.

In the first match against FC Seoul, the 65,000-seat stadium was only half full. Five years ago, they would have required riot police to keep people out.

After one year in America, David Beckham is already fading from the world’s consciousness.

It’s fair to ask, has Beckham been a success for Major League Soccer?

When he committed to the league, Beckham and MLS had a few goals. One, to increase the league’s profile; two, to raise interest in soccer generally; three, to boost the level of play in the league; and four, to encourage other international stars to join MLS.

Last January, the league’s profile shot through the roof, at home and abroad. North American journalists and opinion makers who’d never before wrapped their lips around the word “soccer” without scorn were forced to reconsider.

The problem here is that this news is always Beckham-centric. Interest in his arrival has yet to translate to any interest in the league generally. MLS still has work to do promoting its other stars and teams, while continuing to use Beckham as the sharp point of the marketing spear. That’s a tough job.

Beckham also promised to do his utmost to push the game forward in the U.S. He needn’t have bothered.

Soccer already is a mass participatory movement among North American kids. Beckham set himself a goal that had already been accomplished in this case.

The English star also talked about raising the level of play in the league. That’s been a bust. First, he didn’t play. Beckham managed only five appearances in league games all season. When he did play, he did it on a wretched team that couldn’t make the playoffs. Without Beckham as a foil, we weren’t able to see if anyone else had to boost their game to offset him. Arguably, Juan Pablo Angel, with his quickness and ability in the air, did more than anyone to raise the stakes for MLS defenders last year.

Which brings us to Beckham’s fourth objective – blazing a path for other international stars.

This was key to MLS’s plan for Beckham. They correctly realized from the start that the league would not enjoy widespread international respectability until top players who weren’t so interested in the ancillary benefits of U.S. sports stardom – endorsement deals, Hollywood careers – chose MLS.

Aside from a trickle of fading South and Central American stars, that has not happened. In fact, the balance seems to be tilting the other way. The best, young U.S. talent views MLS as a gateway to overseas leagues.

That’s the most worrying trend. If Beckham becomes a one-off, there’s no other way to view the experiment of winning him to this side of the Atlantic than as a failure.

I continue to believe that over the long term, say a generation or so, this continent will embrace professional soccer on a massive scale. Immigration trends, especially in the southern U.S.; the ready availability on TV of Premier League and Serie A games and highlights; the live spectator experience of soccer – all those factors and more will eventually push soccer onto the mainstream conscience.

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