“I’M COMING here to make a difference.” Those were the words of David Beckham when he signed a five-year contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007.
Now, after one injury-hit season in Major League Soccer and just 30 appearances, “Becks” wants to turn his back on America in favor of Italian giants AC Milan.
It’s indisputable that Beckham has raised the media profile of soccer in the States. He’s the one player who can rub shoulders with A-Rod and Kobe on ESPN’s SportsCenter program.
There’s an interesting article about the 33-year-old Englishman in today’s New York Times under the headline: His Wish to Exit Hurts, but Beckham Has Helped. Has he really?
Yes, Beckham has brought a buzz to MLS, helped increase attendances and boosted the profile of the league around the world.
Don Garber, the commissioner for MLS, said that even his hiking guide in a small Chinese village was aware of the Galaxy last summer because of Beckham.
The league expects to increase its number of teams from 15 to 18 by 2011 and, by the end of next year, nine stadiums specifically built for soccer are scheduled to be operational.
But one can also argue that Beckham’s desire to cut short his stay in LA will do more harm than good.
During his short loan spell with Milan, Beckham has discovered that it’s much easier being a star when you are surrounded by other quality players.
Star set to quit Galaxy after just one season
He also knows that he has a much better chance of impressing Fabio Capello, the current England coach, in Capello’s native country of Italy rather than the USA.
Beckham playing his football in the MLS is a bit like a Triple Crown winner coming out of retirement to compete in a claiming race at Aqueduct.
Considering the fanfare that greeted his arrival in the States, his departure after such a brief period of time would be a major PR setback for MLS as it enters its 14th season, not to mention the negative effect it will have on the Galaxy and their crowds.
David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, is quoted by the Times as saying: “Beckham at least rang the doorbell and a lot of people answered.”
But what good is it getting someone interested in a product if you can’t deliver on your promise? Next time, the customer won’t bother opening the door.
The simple truth is MLS needs Beckham more than Beckham needs the MLS.
Juan Pablo Ángel, the New York Red Bulls’ Colombian striker and perhaps the player with the second-highest profile, is not in the same league as Beckham.
Soccer is always going to struggle against American Football and baseball this side of the pond. Those two sports, with their constant interruptions between plays and innings, are so much more advertiser-friendly.
It’s encouraging that viewing figures for international matches are increasing. But MLS is still lights years behind the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga.
Without players with the charisma of Beckham, it always will be.