The Joy of Becks

>> Friday

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.


Matt 11:37 AM  

Good work. One thing, though, I'd say soccer being 4th in the country is a bit of a stretch. At best, I'd say 5th, because I thing the rankings go a little like this:
1. NFL
2. NASCAR (face facts, people)
3. MLB
4. NBA
5. NHL
6. MLS
5 and 6 is probably interchangable, depending on the region. Just sayin' is all.

Vinnie 12:30 PM  

Those old NASL names sound almost as ridiculous as the old XFL's or MLS's. Would you mind listing the rest of them for our amusement?

Mike 12:45 PM  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mike 1:04 PM  

Some are genuinely cringeworthy, and make names like "Chicago Fire" sound like "New York Yankees."

Just go to wikipedia and search "NASL" and it will give you a list of all the teams that folded and stuck around till the end.

I think my favorites are the Philadelphia Atoms, San Diego Sockers, and Team America (Fuck Yea) which was basically just the US National team playing in a league.

Matt 3:37 PM  

They're worse than most Minor League team names. Except the Clinton Lumber Kings or the Lansing Lug Nuts.

Mike 4:01 PM  

Even the Lugnuts and Lumber Kings probably have better business models than most NASL clubs had.

A. J. Simon 6:14 PM  

NASCAR is not in anyway second. Their propaganda machine had done a good job of promoting apples to oranges comparisons (comparing ratings and attendance for a sport that is happening in one place at one time per week vs. sports that are happening all over the country 13 times per DAY), but saying more people care about NASCAR than baseball in this country is just spurious.

Anonymous,  7:24 PM  

Great post.

I'd disagree with the assertion that the MLS is in any way more popular than the NHL (24 American teams to 12, for one thing, and I doubt you can find a statistic or a line of reasoning to back up MLS being more popular than the NHL.)

The only way in which the Pele/Beckham comparisons are apt, in my eyes, is that neither one - icon though they both are and were - can raise the standard of play by himself. MLS has a long way to go before it's even as popular as hockey in America and Canada, and that starts by raising the level of play out of second-tier status. Beckham can't do that by himself - it'll take years of youth development in America, not the signing of one past-his-peak English star.

Anonymous,  11:24 PM  

Cool article...I'm a little sick of hearing American commentators with no frame of reference make lazy comparisons between the NASL and MLS.

I think the fact that the US is now competitive in international soccer makes the league far more viable than the NASL, and the growing role of the Hispanic population in America (which historically does like soccer) is also somewhat underestimated by the old white guys who are paid to pontificate about American sports.

Anonymous,  3:53 AM  

Just wanted to clear up one thing...

The NY Cosmos did go on tours, back in the day. If you watch the wonderful documentary Once in a Lifetime, they mention the various world tours that the Cosmos were sent on.

But you still make a good point that no MLS team to this point was anywhere regarded enough to even consider trying to do a foreign tour.

Anonymous,  10:28 AM  

The NHL sucks... it is a complete waste of time.

BlueCarp 10:48 AM  

Another differnce between Pele and Becks: Pele was charismatic and outgoing. Becks is neither.

Jerry,  12:43 PM  

Nice post. I'm a big three sports fan and that doesn't include NeckCAR for me. I hope Beckham coming stateside helps to grow this league. I remember the Cosmos as a kid, and I lived in Michigan. I had foreign exchange students last year from Germany and South Korea. That had such a passion for soccer. They checked on their club teams every week to see how they were playing. I really believe we, as a nation, are missing out on a sport the rest of the world reveres.

JB 1:23 PM  

Great article. I just got around last night to watching the documentary "Once In A Lifetime" about the Cosmos. It's great and I strongly urge everyone to see it.

Anyone who would actually imply that this situation was anything like it was back then needs to watch 10 minutes of that movie and they'll realize the difference. When Pele came over, the Cosmos played on a largely dirt field on Randle's island in New York. The pitch was painted with green spray paint to appear like grass and routinely had broken beer bottles all over it. Pele's teammates were guys that had day jobs and some of them never even played soccer before...

The Legend 2:25 PM  

Here is teh real rankings

5)PGA Tour

Anonymous,  2:35 PM  

no other player should be compared to pele because no one has been able to do what pele did, he made history in the world cups, and those who know about soccer know what im talking about. Beckham is a good player, cant deny that, but he's never going to be at pele's level.

Anonymous,  2:49 PM  

The reason soccer isnt popular is because in america their is too many sports. The only american attention soccer gets its during the world cup and know that beckham came to MLS, and USA isnt respected much as a team in the world cups.I think thats why americans dont like soccer because theirs finally a sport where USA isnt number 1, we need to know how to lose and soccer is a world wide sport to see who is the best by winning a world cup and americans hate the fact that they cant win a world cup or have a legendery player like mostly every country has. Brazil has pele, Germany has Beckenbeur, France has Plantini, Mexico has Hugo sanchez,England has Best, Spain has Brutagueno, Italy has Vagio, Argentina has Maradona, Portugal has a portuguese player(forgot his name, but he was a top scorer) and so, so on, And America has ???????. Thats why america doesnt like soccer it all stars in with the national team.

Anonymous,  3:26 PM  

oh and the netherlands have Cryuff, Portugal has Albano and Ireland has Best, Uruguay has Andrade,Czech Republic has Nedved. so i guess England has Beckham or Michael Owen or Banks. Sorry for the mistake. And America Has ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Anonymous,  8:18 PM  

How about comparing Beckham to Gretzky going to LA and bringing the NHL south. Can Beckham have a bigger impact than that? NHL was on a roll until the lock out.

razo,  9:16 PM  

stop beating on futbolas we call it( not soccer)it is the king of all sport world wide.every star player has his time,rememberit the king of ALL SPORTS,baseball world series and only usa teams play?world series>?

please dont compare futbol wiht any other sport in terms of popularity,american football, and they rarely touch the ball with teir feets? come on guys!!

Mike 11:22 AM  

I personally would have picked a different player for England as their legendary player (Bobby Moore?), especially since George Best played for Northern Ireland, not England.

Also, my inclusion of soccer up the rankings ahead of NASCAR and the PGA Tour are because they don't technically qualify as "sports" under the YCS definition of a sport, as discussed in previous posts/drunken barroom debates. I put MLS above the NHL because MLS appears to be a sport on the rise, while the NHL seems on its way out the door.

Anonymous,  12:02 PM  

Lets get one thing strait. Soccer (or Futbolas) is not the worlds most popular sport. As odd as this may sound track and field is. Probably because every country in the world has a track team. If you live in Pittsburgh you would definately think Hockey is on the rise but I can see someone from somewhere else thinking it is not rising. I dont think nascar is that popular due to the fact that there is only one race a week and no hometown team to root for. As for soccer it is definately on the rise in america. More and more kids are playing soccer each year, I know i played for 12 years myself. As for Beckham vs. Pele. It is logical to compare him to Pele. Not because of the NASL but because they are both the most recognizable athletes in the world for thier time. And the differences between the MLS and the NASL have nothing to do with the comparison except that Beckham may be more successful at establishing soccer in the US.

Anonymous,  6:00 PM  

You guys, c'mon. Soccer is the world most famous sport period! Just because it isnt famous in America, it doesnt mean is not famous.But the reason americans dont like soccer is because Americans are NOT GOOD at soccer. I bet that if USA will win a world cup or make an impression, soccer would be popular in the U.S, but USA isnt even respected as a team. And for the rest of the "AMERICAN SPORTS" of course is popular in America, but because its just in the American states. Americans hate the fact that when it comes to soccer, they are not number 1, and that kills them cuz Americans are use to being #1, but American football, hockey and baseball are just american teams that play againts Their own states, but baseball is full with LATINO players, so if theirs a world cup for baseball, USA wouldnt have a team. Soccer is the most popular sport, wether u like it or not. You have to face the fact people. But i hope USA win a world cup one of these years. A world cup gets more than 1 billion tv viewers, and soccer games sale more tickets than a Celebrity concert. But in USA they dont sell tickets cuz they dont have top players and im glad beckham is coming to meke a change hopefully more top players come cuz the only time that theirs sold out tickets for a soccer game is when mexican teams come to play to the USA. and please DONT COMPARE BECKHAM TO PELE, EVEN IF BECKHAM IS MORE FAMOUS AND RICH, HE WILL NEVER BE AT PELES LEVEL CUZ PELE MADE HISTORY! Beckham is a good player but c'mon if you dont know the soccer history of PEle or Beckham please dont write or say anything cuz you dont know whAT ur writing about. The only thing american people know about beckham is that He is cute and married to a spice girl. But for you guys that know about soccer PELES history, please to the honor to write. IS like if i compared Joe montana with Jeff garcia, its not right. And pele is as famous as beckham is just that Beckham got recognoize for his cuteness first then his talent and pele got recognize for his talent first then how not cute he was,just like ronaldinho. FUTBOL #1

Anonymous,  6:07 PM  


Anonymous,  6:22 PM  

another thing soccer aka. fotball\futbol was invented by the aztecs, but the british took the credit. I want to know if soccer aka. fotball\futbol came frst as a world wide sport, why did the americans used the name for American football, if they knew the name was taken. And then they have the nerve to name Fotball\futbol, soccer! knowing that the sport already had its name. I think thats why the USA "Soccer" team isnt that good, its karma cuz they shouldnt of mess with the king of all sports and rename it with an american name like soccer!. But if a person says i love fotball, they think their talking about soccer, so you need to say i love american football to seperate the sport. America, you should of never taken the king sports name to name an american sport that isnt world wide famous like football(soccer). And especially rename it after being known as football world wide cuz world wide soccer is known as football\futbol and in the USA is known as soccer, why did the americans rename football\futbol as soccer?

Anonymous,  7:53 PM  

Excellent article, Mike. This is the first time I've actually checked out your blog- but you're probably already a better writer about soccer than 98% of Americans that get paid to cover the sport* (* to be fair to them, most of these guys spend most of their time pretending soccer doesn't exist as they go into needless depth on second string offensive linemen at USC or middle relievers on the San Francisco Giants or something...).

I have my own thoughts on Becks, but they're pretty close to yours.

Less than three months until Fire season starts!


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