At long last, the Major League Soccer circus has come to town in the form of one David Robert Joseph Beckham. Like most carnival acts, his arrival in Los Angeles is bound to draw interest from both devotees and neophytes alike. But the funny thing about the circus is that it's a show most people need to see only once. And with Beckham's feet now firmly planted stateside, the hard work of convincing those fans to keep coming back to the Big Top will begin for MLS.
There is no doubting that Beckham is expected to make a huge impact on the sport in the U.S., and in some respects he's done that before he's even kicked a ball. But for all the talk about international broadcast rights and jersey sales, sustaining the momentum he will provide is the real -- and risky -- challenge for MLS.
Not because the league is on the road to fiscal ruin (it's not), but if on Beckham's retirement day MLS finds itself still averaging 15,000 fans per game (as it has in recent years), then the move will have been an abject failure. And what's scary is that for all the comparisons to Pelé and the North American Soccer League, MLS itself has been down this road before, albeit on a much smaller scale, and the results have not been encouraging.
Remember when the Galaxy signed former Mexican international Luis Hernandez in 2000? His arrival was trumpeted as the key to making a gigantic, permanent inroad into L.A.'s vast Hispanic market. When his May 20, 2000, debut drew 40,000 fans, those in favor of the deal said, "See?" The only problem was that the Galaxy's attendance quickly reverted to their previous average.
Much the same thing happened with the introduction of Freddy Adu. The buzz surrounding Adu's entry into the league did indeed give MLS some much-needed exposure as well as a bump in attendance, but it wasn't sustainable. The official leaguewide attendance average in 2004, Adu's rookie season, was 15,559. In 2005, it was 15,108, a mere 200 fans above its 2003 mark. And while United's attendance did grow during this period, this was more due to the fact that the team rejoined the league's elite after some lean years rather than because of Adu's drawing power.
Fortunately for MLS, there are some important differences between those examples and Beckham's arrival, not the least of which is that the Englishman's Q rating and sheer ability dwarfs that of Hernandez and Adu.
"I think there is a credibility associated with David Beckham, certainly throughout the soccer community," said L.A. general manager Alexi Lalas. "We're getting a player who is coming off a La Liga championship for one of the world's superclubs [Real Madrid]. We're getting a player who has recently been called back into [the national team of] England. So there is that level of respect and credibility that comes with him."
Perhaps a bigger distinction is that in the midst of its 12th season, MLS sits on a foundation that is stronger than ever. The investments in soccer-specific stadiums have improved the fan experience in the stands, while the advent of the reserve league and youth teams for MLS clubs looks set to advance the on-field product. These improvements have manifested themselves in a more diverse ownership group leaguewide as well as increased sponsorship and television revenues.
"[MLS] has their bearings better," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC's Marshall School of Business. "They are much more consistently on message. They have some momentum now. I think they are in a far better position to take advantage of a transcendent star like Beckham than they were a few years ago."
Riding Beckham's coattails to the promised land of sustainable growth will require several things on the part of MLS. One will be using his presence to attract other international players closer to their prime years. This use of the "designated player rule" will have the effect of improving the on-field product in the short term while waiting for other, longer-term projects like the league's youth system to bear fruit, all while continuing to build new stadiums.
But the biggest challenge will be managing the already insane expectations surrounding Beckham. On the one hand, it is those very hopes that are driving the Beckham frenzy, yet they could also cause the whole exercise to fail in its quest to push the game forward.
"If you market and promote something, and customers ultimately feel let down by the experience or don't feel as though they received value for their time and investment, it's going to ring very hollow," Carter said.
That is essentially what happened in the case of Adu. While stopping short of saying that the then-14-year-old Adu would dominate the league, MLS did little to quell the tsunami of expectations that preceded his arrival. And when Adu's on-field performance didn't meet those unrealistic hopes, MLS was left fighting the perception that it had sold the public a bill of goods.
Listening to the pronouncements of Lalas, MLS commissioner Don Garber and even Beckham himself, it's clear that the league has learned its lesson from the Adu affair. All three have stated that Beckham will not save the league on his own, but their disclaimers will carry them only so far. The Pandora's box of fan expectations has been opened, and with the Galaxy struggling mightily in the standings, there exists the real possibility that Beckham's on-field influence will be blunted, which puts at risk his ability to impact the sport long-term.
In the meantime, MLS will have to focus on things it can control, such as making the in-stadium experience as positive as possible for spectators. And while the league will welcome a slew of novice fans who will be drawn to Beckham's star power, MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis says the league is poised to attract more hard-core soccer fans who dismiss MLS as second-rate.
"We believe that there are enough soccer fans in this country that if we can capture a bigger portion of that market, we would be extraordinarily successful," Gazidis said. "Our business is a soccer business and needs to be built on soccer fans. So are there fans of soccer in this country who are not fans of MLS? Absolutely, and that's our opportunity."
MLS has five years to seize that chance before the circus leaves town, and the clock is ticking.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.