Author's note: Yes, I know this is our second Beckham post in a row, but it's a story worth going into. Also, when Bechtel asked me last night to write a piece "comparing Becks' arrival with Pele coming in the 1970s," I initially thought The Beck was referring to himself.
David Beckham will not bring MLS to EPL-level popularity. David Beckham will not kill MLS. Settle down, people.
The dust has begun to settle on the biggest blockbuster move in Major League Soccer's history, with David Beckham leaving Spanish giants Real Madrid for the greener pastures and faker breasts of Southern California. They say that history repeats itself, and in the minds of many sportswriters who don't spend the majority (or even a slim minority) of their time writing about soccer, the move has drawn comparisons to Pele signing for the now-defunct New York Cosmos in the now-defunct North American Soccer League in the 1970s. Just this morning passing by a sports bar, I saw Becks and Pele on Sportscenter. Oh, brother.
Are there similarities? Sure. Both Pele and Beckham are icons that transcend their sport. They both played a sport that was/is looking for a foothold in the crowded national sports landscape. For another example, not many Americans follow skiing with the passion of a Packers or Red Sox fan, but I bet a lot of people would be able to tell me who Bode Miller or Picabo Street is. Same with golf and Tiger Woods, or Tennis and Andre Agassi. Likewise, Beckham's move could mirror Pele's by bringing more star talent to America's top flight. Pele's name lent instant credibility to the upstart North American Soccer League, which helped lure players like Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, and George Best. Today, the MLS offseason rumor mill is flying with word of Ronaldo (Brazil), Pavel Nedved (Czech Republic), Claudio Reyna (USA), Luis Figo (Portugal) and Jared Borghetti(Mexico) making the jump to MLS by this time next year. Beckham's signing bought the league more free advertising in a day than it has probably had in its previous 11 seasons.
But the comparison between Beckham's arrival in 2007 with Pele's in 1975 is a faulty one. It looks similar on the surface, but the reality is anything but. The two players enter two completely different teams in different leagues in different eras with totally different standing in the sports mindset.
Major League Soccer is not the NASL, Becks is not Pele.
For starters, soccer, while still definitely the 4th or 5th sport in a 3-sport country (Depending on where you place hockey in the national consciousness,) is in a much better position now than it was in the 1970s. The 2006 World Cup Final drew more viewers than the World Series in 2006. That never would have happened in the 1970s, regardless of who was playing. Pele's arrival was a last gasp for a league on the verge of folding. Beckham's arrival at Victoria Street is the logical next step in a league that has survived its financial childhood and is maturing into a legitimate, stable, long-term league.
Stemming from this relatively increased popularity, Major League Soccer actually has the money to afford to pay Beckham without bankrupting the league like the Cosmos's All-Washup-All-Star team did in the 1970s. The NASL had no salary cap, and no league-wide structure to ensure that payroll expanded correspondingly with financial growth. The end result was a player-salary arms race between the New York Cosmos and Los Angeles Aztecs. Any game not involving those teams was more or less irrelevant. Teams regularly folded like socks.
MLS on the other hand is organized in a single-entity structure, and has alotted only one "Designated Player" slot per team (13 league wide). The slots are tradeable, but no team can have more than two. New York has two such slots since trading Honduran international and team captain Amado Guevara to CD Chivas USA in exchange for their DP slot. RBNY can now sign two players, for whatever salary they want, with it only counting as $450,000 against the salary cap. This structure allows even the small-market teams like Kansas City Wizards and Columbus Crew to avoid repeating the fate of their predecessors, teams like the Tulsa Roughnecks and Tampa Bay Rowdies, who simply could not afford to keep pace with the wild spending of the Aztecs and Cosmos.
So where's this money coming from? Well, for one, ESPN has just signed an 8-year deal with MLS, marking the first time that rights fees have ever been paid to the league. Next summer, if you turn on ESPN2 on Thursday nights expecting to see a baseball game. Sorry to disappoint you, but you will be watching the best soccer teams in America (and one in Canada) square off. By contrast, the first NASL game to be televised on ABC, went to commercial breaks. Yes. Commercial breaks in a soccer game. But the players kept playing, and during the break, the first goal of the game was scored. Soccer's come a long way since then.
The money that MLS has that the NASL never had also comes from teams having control over their revenue streams by playing in their own stadiums. The idea that the NASL was widely popular in the 1970s is a stretch at best, and a farce at worst. The NASL average attendance never hit 15,000, and even during Pele's reign, leaguewide attendance only averaged about 8,000. Even teams in big markets like the Chicago Sting and Toronto Blizzard struggled to draw 5-digit crowds. Many tickets were just given away. Sure, the Cosmos may have been the league's highest-drawing team, and were popular in the era of Studio 54. However, even the Cosmos couldn't fill half the seats in Giants Stadium even in their Pele heyday. Likewise, they still had to pay rent to play in a stadium that did not belong to them. A few seasons later, attendance dropped, fan interest fizzled, and the Cosmos were relegated to the sports nostalgia scrap heap.
Fast-forward to 2007. This season, Major League Soccer will have 13 clubs in 12 cities. Of those 13 clubs, 7 will play in stadiums designed for Major League Soccer. One more (New England) plays in a stadium its owner (Bob Kraft) owns (Woohoo! Free rent!). New stadiums in New York and Salt Lake have already broken ground. New stadiums in Kansas City and Washington, DC are not far off. In addition to not having to pay rent, MLS owners can fill dates by booking other events, such as lacrosse, high school and college sports, international matches, other sporting events, and concerts, which bring in the most money. Having control of this revenue is what will enable Anschutz Entertainment Group (Owners of the LA Galaxy) to pay Beckham. It also offers a more aesthetically pleasing game than watching a perfect cross headed into the back of the net with "BRONCOS" painted across the front of the goal mouth.
In addition to new money coming in through local investment (MLS has had 6 new ownership groups come into the league since 2005), MLS is also attracting more foreign investment to help fund its growth. It has a 10-year, $252 million deal with adidas. The New York club was bought by Red Bull last year along with their to-be-built stadium for more than $100 million. Salt Lake sold ad space on its jersey to European juicemaker Xango for $500,000 a season. That's about a quarter of their team salary paid for before they sell a single ticket. Another AEG-owned team (believed to be the Chicago Fire) will be selling ad space on its jersey much like many European giants in a deal rumored to be in the millions. The NASL never had that kind of coin lying around. MLS is slowly making money thanks to the slow-and-steady approach advocated by Commissioner Don Garber since 2002. The NASL had a "Let's be the NFL next week" approach that was as unrealistic as it was financially insane.
Today, MLS teams are actually reporting profits instead of hemorraging cash like the NASL did. Beckham's drawing power only opens new revenue streams for the league that the NASL didn't have. Just think about how much e-commerce has evolved since...well...since it was created, which was likely after the NASL's demise in 1984. I imagine gold and green David Beckham Galaxy shirts are flying off the e-shelves from Orange County to Okinawa (Becks is huge in Asia, possibly leading to foreign broadcast rights fees to be paid to the league), and in fact, Los Angeles Galaxy is planning a tour of Asia in 2008. MLS teams didn't tour untill now. NASL teams never toured. European giants tour America. Now it's on the other foot, and Los Angeles Galaxy and MLS can develop its brand around the footballing world.
The other difference between Beckham and Pele is the players themselves, perhaps something that even the media is underestimating. While much has been made of Becks making the turn stateside because wants to be a movie star, or because he hasn't been able to crack the starting lineup at Real Madrid, that doesn't mean he's a washed up pretty boy. He's still a hell of a footballer. Staying in the first team for a club of Real Madrid's calibre is hard to do for any player. Becks is 31. Pele was 35 when he signed with the Cosmos. Beckenbauer still played with the Cosmos when he was 38. While Beckham is definitely past his peak, he is still in his prime. Becks could be a marquee name for MLS for a good 4-5 years. And this is in a league where the talent pool is much deeper than anything the NASL ever produced, largely due to the fact that more kids played soccer in the 1980s and 1990s than did in the 1950s and 1960s.
I would be hard-pressed to find any area where the NASL was in better shape at the time of Pele's signing than MLS is today. If you can, let me know, but untill that time, any surface comparisons between Becks and Pele will be just that. Comparisons that are relevant on the surface.