Great Expectations: Beckham's Superstar Splashdown

Marketing giant David Beckham could eclipse H'wood, but can he elevate soccer?

July 13, 2007 — -- David Beckham, he of the platinum foot -- and, on occasion, platinum hair -- will be introduced as the newest member of Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy this afternoon, capping what for the league has been a 12-year slow burn toward national prominence.

Beckham's rip-roaring rise to the forefront of soccer and celebrity happens once in a generation. Called up to Manchester United as a teen, "Becks" was the best known athlete in the world by the time he turned 27.

He comes to America now in a dual role -- the kind he's known, but on an even larger scale, for the past decade -- one part athlete with a responsibility to a team, another part marketing colossus. The cursed conventional wisdom, which promised fans that soccer would become a major American spectator sport by the early 1980s, slots Beckham into the sports-celebrity cult as the guy with a big something to offer everyone.

The expectations are massive. And in the short term, there's good reason to believe they will, in fact, be fulfilled.

"There's no question he'll put some well-toned butts in the seats, and he's built for ESPN highlights, " said David Hirshey, soccer journalist for and executive editor of HarperCollins. "It's like an NFL quarterback who sits back and throws an 80-yard touchdown pass. They're going to show that even if he throws a couple interceptions."

In his role with HarperCollins, Hirshey published Beckham's autobiography. He swears to the star's charm.

"Becks is a well-mannered lad who loves the game and whose enthusiasm is infectious. He's genuine even if his hair color isn't," Hirshey said. "The question now is whether the American audience will appreciate his more casual elegance on the field."

What goes without question is that Beckham will appear in a ton of commercials and on a ton of billboards. He'll be photographed everywhere he goes -- certainly everywhere he goes with Posh. He will not, however, go to Les Deux and vomit on himself. David Beckham is not a train wreck. Please don't be disappointed.

As for concerns that age has depleted his near legendary physical stamina, evidence to the contrary might be found on the cover of this week's W Magazine. The racy photo shoot features Becks and Posh, in various states of undress, and is proof in itself that Beckham has not let himself go as he enters his fourth decade.

The England midfielder, as few nonsoccer fans have cared enough to learn, is still a fantastic athlete. Never a sprinting champion, he runs around, in the words of Mark Irwin of Britain's Sun newspaper, "like a wild man" during a game. His speed on the ball (translation: when he is moving into space, or running to meet a pass) will be on par with the best in the MLS. His habit of kicking a soccer ball into precisely the place he wants will make him a "SportsCenter" star. Beckham, as they also say in his home country, is class.

That class, both on and off the field, and a self-deprecating streak -- a mark of charisma in its own right -- will be a hallmark of Beckham's stay.

Elevating American pro soccer into the economic and social class of the National Football League or Major League Baseball likely will not.

Still, the idea of breaking into what remains of the old school "mainstream" is not applicable or even necessarily desirable in the current market. As any marketing consultant worth their BlackBerry will tell you, the game these days is to find the niche crowd and drill it like an oil field.

"If just a few thousand eyes are opened to our vision of the beautiful game, then Beckham's crusade will be labeled a success," Hirshey said. "But he can't do it by himself. He can ignite the firestorm, but he can't fuel it for longer than he's here."

His arrival offers the league a unique opportunity. The market exists. It's not just males 18-to-34. It's immigrants and children and families and soccer fanatics. In a word, it's indie. And indies make money, as enough of Beckham's new neighbors can attest.

Ed Bleier, who watched as Pele was introduced to the American media June 10, 1975, and now sits on the executive board of CKX, Simon Fuller's management company (which represents Beckham and was key in getting him to the states), said success for Beckham and soccer and America is not quantifiable by traditional standards.

"I don't see the amount of TV time or ratings as success," Bleier said. "There are so many sports networks these days. … I'd say if the league can fill its 20,000- to 30,000-seat stadiums and have a competitive schedule, and not lose its best player to Europe, then they've done well."

Filling the stadiums? It's almost an afterthought in an era when merchandising and broadcast contract money dominates the sports business landscape. But for all the highly touted megaclubs of Europe, more than 99 percent of soccer teams abroad count the gate as their most important source of revenue.

For American soccer in particular, the foundation for building a larger fan base is rooted in the match-day experience. They will come out for Beckham: The Galaxy will be a sellout machine at home and there are record crowds already set to see him in Chicago, D.C. and New York. The trick now is getting them to come back for another taste.

That minor detail will require some major efforts on the part of the people who run MLS. Average official attendance right now hovers around 15,000 fans, but recent reports suggest that figure might be inflated by giveaways and flat-out doctoring of the totals.

The numbers that will need no inflation will reside on the merchandising sales sheet. The Beckham brand is rock solid. Perhaps the only justifiable comparison in that regard is Michael Jordan. Like Mike, but on a larger scale, Becks will be selling anything and everything, even after he's quit the game. The Galaxy, and by extension the Anschutz group, the financiers of this epic $250 million crossover, will recoup their investment and then some.

The questions, then, rest not with Beckham, but with the proprietors of the MLS and the American public at large.

So when the bulbs start flashing this afternoon and the whatever-you-want-to-call-him of American soccer holds the first of many promotional news conferences, don't get too caught up in the rush.

The answers, dear reader, lie not with this international superstar, but in ourselves.