David Beckham was not the greatest player of all time, but he may go down as the player who changed the sport more than any other, and mostly because he was always one step ahead. And not through tactical innovations or sophisticated play style, but through brand management. The brand demands foresight, intelligence and financial savvy, qualities which you won’t find in any average footballer. His one-in-a-billion good looks help as well.
In retrospect, the meeting of Beckham and America was a match made in heaven. Beckham was the poster boy of the explosion of TV and commercial money in the Premier League. He was an icon of the Galactico era at Real Madrid. He made two nations go football mad at the 2002 World Cup in S. Korea/Japan. But perhaps his biggest impact will prove to be in the United States. And as we know from following this year’s election, what happens in the United States affects all of us. Those two key words again: brand management.
Many Americans have long derided “soccer” as a game played by sissy Europeans, full of diving and confusing timekeeping. From a European point of view, American sports are often too full of ad breaks, and obsessed with meaningless statistics. Our perceptions of each other’s sports are characterized by negativity. It is strange that despite America’s place in the world as some sort of bastion of global capitalism and Europe being a socialist paradise that sports leagues in the two worlds are polar opposite to these ideals.
In European football, the free market rules all. Clubs are bought and sold, players are priced and transferred for huge fees, massive clubs soak up all the wealth leaving smaller teams to fend for themselves and pick up the scraps that fall from the table. In America, the system is borderline Marxist, with an emphasis on equality, parity and “fairness”. No team is allowed to enjoy unrestrained power, and the draft system in place means that all teams are given a helping hand no matter the circumstances. At least that’s the idea. Perhaps one of the most core systems of the European game, promotion and relegation, is the most alien of all to Americans.
However, the face of football is changing in America. The MLS is now a stable, viable league. Slowly, it is expanding. A recent study by Deloitte suggest that promotion and relegation would have a positive effect on the MLS. Beckham himself has the rights to a new “franchise” in Orlando (something written into his contract when he signed to the MLS, showing that even at the earliest days Beckham had designs on something bigger than himself). The league is enjoying record attendances. This week is the first leg of MLS Cup semi-final, and Montreal has sold out the Olympic Stadium (61004 seats) for the match against rivals Toronto, something almost unimaginable for a soccer game only a decade ago. Teams are capable of buying not just aging stars, but current ones, such as Giovinco.
Beckham arrived in the US as a global superstar. But they have had those in American soccer before, why did Pele, or Beckenbauer not instill the same love of the game as Golden Balls? It’s those two words again. Beckham was the perfect acquisition for LA Galaxy, a team situated in Hollywood country. Obsessed with image, glamour, style. And nobody has style like Beckham, at least that’s what his ad campaigns and fashion shoots would tell you. American football fans weren’t focused on the negatives of soccer anymore, the diving and the strange rules. They were focused on all that is good in the European game. The personality, the panache, the flair, the sophistication. Beckham carefully cultivated an image throughout his career and it payed off in spades.
Not only that, but LA Galaxy enjoyed success on the field as well (possibly more directly attributable to the less glamourous Robbie Keane). Neverthereless, the MLS knew what they had with Beckham, and sought to reproduce it. Teams like Red Bull NY recruited suave Frenchman Thierry Henry, New York City opted for the vintage Andrea Pirlo, Toronto… eh… Jermaine Defoe. But the point stands, teams across the country all know what to do in a post-Beckham world. And that is: imitate David Beckham. Not just his play style, but his business style. Make it about image. Make it about fashion. Make it bout the brand. And people will pay to see it.
The MLS continues to grow. Imagine the implications for Europe if the US was to ever throw the full weight of its financial clout behind the game. And the attractiveness of living and playing in the United States should not be underestimated. For many, it is still the promised land. The thought of the Seattle Sounders battling Real Madrid for the signing of the next big superstar in world football in the 2020’s may not be so farfetched. In the years to come, perhaps we will see a true shifting in the balance of power in the sport. And where will David Beckham and his franchise from the sunny climate of Orlando be? He won’t have his feet up. You can bet he’ll be one step ahead. The brand demands it.
For more discussion of David Beckham, the MLS and all things Premier League, check out the latest episode of the PUPcast here