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Friday, Jan. 26, 2007

SPORTS SCOPE

Signing of big name like Beckham long overdue by MLS


Here we go again.

Jack Gallagher

That was my initial reaction when I heard about the deal that will send David Beckham to Major League Soccer and the Los Angeles Galaxy from Real Madrid for a mind-boggling $250 million over five years.

It took me back to 1975, when Pele came to the United States to play for the New York Cosmos and changed the way the game was perceived in America. Pele's impact was substantial, and though not long-lasting, remains etched in the memory of many who saw the North American Soccer League in its halcyon days.

It has been a couple of weeks now, and the dust has settled, allowing the opportunity to put Beckham's big move into perspective.

The majority of the money in the deal will reportedly come through sponsorship and marketing deals cut by the MLS and Galaxy.

Beckham's playing contract will account for approximately $10 million a year -- a relative bargain when considering the returns his mere presence will bring.

News photo
David Beckham may be the first of several top foreign players targeted for acquisition by Major League Soccer. AP PHOTO

Former Dallas Burn (now Dallas FC) president Billy Hicks, who ran the team when it won the U.S. Cup in 1997, and worked for the club for six years, told me the sheer magnitude of figures is very significant.

"It shows me a great deal of global corporate belief in the level of the sport of soccer and MLS in the U.S," Hicks said. "These sponsors believe that they can get their money's worth from Beckham in the American market, as much or more than they can derive from him in Europe. It can only be a positive move for MLS and the fans of MLS."

The snickers and sarcasm emanating from Europe and the United Kingdom were predictable.

One of the sad realities in life is that when somebody is able to get a better lot for themselves, more often than not others will criticize rather than praise them.

It is one thing for the soccer community, or even the fans to knock Beckham, but when the media does it, that is the biggest laugh of all.

The savage stuff coming out of the U.K. -- "one of the most overrated players ever to kick a football" -- and the like is farcical.

Who built Beckham up with nonstop stories on the midfielder and his celebrity wife?

The media.

That's right. The same people who are getting worked into a lather now to see who can launch the biggest attack on the star.

What a joke.

I think a good deal of the animosity has to do with the fact that he is leaving Europe to go to the U.S. The words "soccer" and "United States" don't exactly go hand in hand, so some of the skepticism is warranted.

But there is also the undercurrent of the present political climate. Let's face it, folks, not many things American are very popular outside the U.S. right now.

Anyone who associates themselves with the nation in any way is putting a target on their back. Beckham's back is just a little bigger than most people's.

There is no doubt that Beckham's arrival in the States will have a powerful influence on the growth of the game at the professional level. This time, though, it will be a different type of effect.

Whereas, Pele opened eyes to the "beautiful game," Beckham's job is to give the MLS a permanent place among the major sports in the States. He knows it's not about the MLS trying to overtake the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL in popularity, it's about giving pro soccer more credibility.

Former Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing, who played with Pele, was quoted as saying that Beckham will mean more to the game now than the Brazilian superstar did back in the day.

"This is greater than the impact Pele had," Messing said. "We're at a different stage, it's a viable league, there's TV. . . . Pele was a meteor, but this will have a bigger impact. It's put MLS on the map, an absolutely dramatic move."

The Galaxy sold more than 5,000 season tickets -- in a stadium that seats just 28,000 -- within two days of the announcement of Beckham's signing, bringing in $4 million in new revenue.

Unlike the NASL, which had no salary cap and not much infrastructure, and failed in 1984, the MLS began play in 1996 with both.

Though its growth has been slow, the league has focused on building soccer-only stadiums, securing television and sponsorship contracts and developing homegrown talent.

Despite being under the radar for most of its existence, the MLS has succeeded on these fronts and looks set to grow exponentially with the addition of Beckham and other foreign stars.

The MLS has taken a cautionary approach over the years, too much so in my opinion, but with the splash signing of Beckham, it has made up for lost time. This season it will have 13 teams, and will likely add an expansion franchise in San Jose for the 2008 campaign.

With a salary cap (which is $2.1 million per team this season), the MLS has had a real problem on its hands in trying to attract name players from overseas.

Several years back, the league tried to bring in Kazuyoshi Miura, but the move bogged down when it came to the star's salary and an opportunity was lost.

It became pretty clear after a few seasons that for the MLS to be a real player on the American pro sports scene it was going to have to find a way to acquire internationally respected players.

In late 2006, the MLS passed a "designated-player rule" -- essentially clearing the way for teams to circumvent the salary cap for one player when presented with the opportunity to make a high-profile acquisition.

Now that the move for Beckham has been completed, it is clear that the MLS should seek to add a "name" player to the roster of each of its teams to complement the relative unknowns who comprise the rest of the squads.

This will create further buzz for the league and improve the overall quality of play -- two crucial elements for the circuit to be taken seriously.

There are rumors swirling that Beckham's Real Madrid teammate Ronaldo may join the New York Red Bulls, which would be another great move for the MLS.

Hicks, a former executive with NFL Europe and the Dallas Cowboys, says that the MLS has the checks in place to prevent what happened to the NASL -- which signed superstars Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and Johan Cruyff -- from occurring again.

"The single-entity ownership structure of the league should help protect it from runaway salary spending on talent," he said.

Once upon a time, in 1977, some 77,000 fans packed Giants Stadium to watch Pele and the Cosmos play. The expectations won't be quite as lofty this time around, but soccer can be big-time in America again.

Will it ever rival the likes of the Premiership or any of the top leagues in Europe?

That is doubtful.

But given a chance -- and more prominent players -- pro soccer can carve out a solid following in a country where its star once shone brightly.



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