Overreliance on Beckham spells trouble for MLS

September 1, 2007
DavisBy Steve Davis, ESPNsoccernet
(Archive)

If the skies opened up gloriously and it suddenly began raining chocolate chip cookies, some poor Los Angeles Galaxy player would get hit in the head with the oven that baked them all.

Such is bane of the luckless. And, brother, do the Galaxy fall into that category right now. Project David Beckham will take at least a six-week break thanks to a right knee sprain suffered in last Wednesday's SuperLiga final loss to Pachuca.

News of Beckham's latest injury bombshell is horrible for the Galaxy of course -- the entire organization is being ground up by the weight of it all. But Major League Soccer looks like a Bad Luck Schleprock in this whole fiasco, too.

Talk about a Major League Bummer. For $6.5 million guaranteed this year, the Galaxy and MLS got 310 minutes in six matches from Beckham.

On the one hand, the illustrious midfielder has already accomplished much of what he was brought here to do. He's raised awareness of MLS among people who knew nothing about it and stirred curiosity among the soccer snobs -- those who knew of MLS but dismissed it as inferior to their association of choice.

Beckham's brief appearance against Chelsea back on July 21 drew a record ESPN audience for a match involving an MLS team. It earned a 1.0 rating, seen by about 1.4 million people.

But the league has forfeited the initiative and stands to suffer from the backlash of overreliance on Beckham to sell its brand. Plus, dipping too often into the Beckham well came at the expense of awareness of some other good other stories happening around MLS.

Hey, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, you got any more of those killer 25-yard volleys in you?

Value For Money
Based on David Beckham's annual salary of $6.5 million, here's what the Galaxy got for their expenditure:

Games (6): $1,083,333 per game

Starts (4): $1,625,000 per start

Minutes played (310): $20,968 per minute

Goals (1): $6,500,000 per goal

Assists (3): $2,166,667 per assist

Blanco has been fabulous so far; a master of passing and efficient movement on the field and demonstrating the ability to sell a few more tickets. But instead of applauding Blanco, most of us were watching a guy sit on the bench.

The list of particularly affected teams, ones sure to suffer the most marketing and public relations whiplash, includes Real Salt Lake, Kansas City, Columbus and possibly Houston. The former trio had been busily primping for September dates with Becks. The Galaxy's visit to Houston is set for Oct. 7, toward the back end of the period of Beckham-injury purgatory.

If you think Beckham's injury travails aren't migraine-inducing for officials in those cities, consider this one number: 39,169. That's what the Galaxy's five league matches have averaged in attendance since Beckham arrived. Compare that to the league's overall average of 15,906.

The Galaxy's next road match is Sept. 19 against Real Salt Lake at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the devoted fans continue to turn out despite a woeful team. The supporters there deserve a special reward.

But wouldn't you know it? On the same night RSL's Andy Williams strikes a wonder goal from 60 yards to cinch win No. 3 for the season, Beckham sprains a knee. Suddenly, plans for a special night in Salt Lake City are deader than a box of hammers.

RSL officials had already sold 25,000 seats and were meeting about how many additional seating areas to open at Rice-Eccles. Now, that's a happy meeting. But a planning session on PR strategy to deal with ticket buyers hacked off over the latest Beckham setback? Not so much.

Kansas City had sold almost 27,000 tickets for its Sept. 27 match against the Galaxy at Arrowhead Stadium. And that was before an ad blitz designed to spotlight Beckham's visit. Indeed, the Wizards had pretty much built their entire late-summer marketing plan around No. 23's visit.

And it was working. Officials in Kansas City were allowing themselves to wonder quietly about potentially overtaking the all-time attendance mark for a soccer game in the city. (A crowd of 37,319 watched the United States down Costa Rica in a 2002 World Cup qualifier.)

The Crew's Sept. 30 match against the L.A. Galaxy has been sold out for nearly two weeks. Officials in Ohio were selling standing room only tickets last week. Anybody care to stand around now and watch balls bounce off various Alan Gordon appendages?

It all really is a shame, especially for Beckham, because the iconic midfielder really has been the very picture of class and professionalism through it all. At that introductory news conference back on July 12, Beckham dutifully and cheerfully walked the entire line of reporters, remaining without complaint until every interview request had been fulfilled.

If he was courteous and accommodating off the field, he has been absolutely heroic on it. So people should resist the urge to blame Beckham for his extended injury frustration. The man has been clearly upset by it all, so suggestions that he has dogged it in any way are coming only from people who wouldn't know Major League Soccer from Major Tom.

Yes, it was probably Beckham's ill-advised decision to play in that friendly against Chelsea. And, yes, it was probably his call to join the starting lineup against Chivas USA on Aug. 23, mere hours after his trans-Atlantic flight.

But how does that make him any different from anybody else? Every athlete worth his weight in shoe laces wants to get on the field and stay on the field. It's up to managers to, well, manage.

Recriminations and the fluid, flammable blame game are being parceled out at breakneck rate these days. Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas is having a go at the league for the busy schedule. So are the players, and so is manager Frank Yallop. Never mind that this team was terrible before Beckham arrived.

Yallop, to his credit, has accepted some of the blame, acknowledging that playing Beckham for 90 minutes against Chivas USA was hardly his finest managerial moment.

Indeed, Yallop may be equal part victim and partner in crime here. He'll probably pay with his job, and he certainly shares some of the blame. On the other hand, what manager could have properly contained this wholly untenable situation? Beckham was like this huge rush of air that flames an already intense fire. It gets out of control and consumes people as it grows.

Major League Soccer will surely learn lessons from it all. But people will be burned in the process.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.