Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Brightest Star in the Galaxy...Well, at the Home Depot Center, Anyway

First and foremost, let’s sit back and meditate the coup that the LA Galaxy (and MLS) has just pulled: signing a not a player but an icon. David Beckham transcends what we think of as a mere “athlete”—he has become a brand. He his own line of adidas clothes and has molded himself in the image of Michal Jordan (though it must be said that Jordan’s play was the reason that he garnered all the adoration that he did—though Beckham is by no means a bad player, he certainly is not seen as the dominant player that Michael Jordan was—though it should be noted that there are five men on the court in basketball compared to the legion of eleven on the soccer pitch—which makes it difficult to dominate in futbol the way one can in basketball).

There are a few things to look at when investigating what this move will mean to anyone. Certainly, MLS wants to be seen as a more legitimate league. A Guardian article I read today said that many English commentators see the MLS as equivalent to a league full of the sides on the lower end of the Coca Cola Championship or even as a league full of the best sides in League One (the equivalent of England’s third flight)—though it was pointed out that many MLS teams consistently beat the Premiership’s mid-table teams. By signing high stature, high salary players, MLS is trying to make the statement that it wants to become a bigger power on the international stage. But, is signing Beckham the best way to illustrate this?

Don’t doubt for a second that demand for tickets will skyrocket tremendously in the days, weeks and months leading up to Beckham’s debut in the yellow, green and white of the Galaxy—the Home Depot Center has sold out a few games, but with Beckham calling the tool shed home, it would be fair to say that every game will be at capacity. The news was all over ESPN (which has been trying to become more soccer savvy) but it was also featured on CNN—proof of the appeal and marketing pool that Beckham still has. While my girlfriend will probably be a bit dismayed to read this, MLS will undoubtedly tap into a market that has never graced its half-filled baseball stadiums and newly completed soccer specific stadiums—women (I am not saying that there aren't women who don't care about soccer, but women fans of soccer will come to games now because there is a player of Beckham's stature and ability, and women who adore Beckham's persona but who are not really into soccer will also now start coming to games) trek back to the stadiums in order to see, in the flesh, the man who helped Manchester United win the treble in 1999—and the man that captained England to World Cup quarterfinal berths. I’ve seen his crosses before and heard about it from people like Ben, who have seen Beckham live—but, very soon, I’ll be able to see it for myself. The instant exposure will be there, but will it pay back the massive amounts of money that it is going to take to pay Beckham’s extraordinarily large guarantee contract?

The press abroad is making quite a meal of the story—one Guardian writer wrote that it’s such a huge fall from grace “to go from captaining England and, one year later, be playing in a backwater league like the MLS”. Surely, signing Beckham is something that the MLS did to try and shed this sort of name-calling from going on. Will this happen, though? Does Beckham believe that he can help MLS, or does he see it as an opportunity to cash in one last big paycheck? It’s great that we can have one of the greats join MLS, but we must prevent it from become like the Saudi/Qatari leagues that sign big players at the end of their careers for exorbitant amounts of money (Luis Figo, anyone?). With that being said, I have a promise on the table to buy season tickets if Beckham, Figo and Ronaldo join the MLS—and one of these dominos has already fallen.

I’m worried about what this signing means for the MLS, though. I know that teams are allowed to sign only two big players at the most, but will small market teams (Kansas City) try to keep up with the Galaxy by signing their own big name players? Of course they will. And, these small teams may seem big temporary spikes in attendance, but what does Luis Figo mean to Joe Smith, who won’t want to come to the games when he realizes that the team built around Figo just is not very good and that the team can’t compete with solid teams like the Revolution and D.C. United? Small market teams may blow all of their money on one or two big players to try and get their attendance figures up, but when the team starts losing and the crowds stop showing up, how are the teams going to pay these salaries? They’re going to have to sacrifice paying for better players that go with their star players—essentially, they’ll have to sacrifice good TEAMS—in order to pay for their stars, who will probably be very unhappy with playing in front of empty stadiums with no chance of playing for the MLS Cup. One need look no further than the Leeds United team from a few years back who had quite a few stars but that did not win—the club went bankrupt, had to let the FA take control of the team, sold its stadium and got relegated as a result of points deduction from having to relinquish control of the club. The club is struggling at the bottom of the Championship and is still paying off the debts it acquired when it signed those players.

The salary cap that MLS has in place is to prevent a NASL type situation from happening again. But, the salary cup hurts teams from building good teams. A team like Arsenal can never be built in the MLS because of the salary cap. Arsenal, to the uninitiated, is not full of huge stars (save Thierry Henry), but full of solid, world-class youngsters. Their wage bill is low compared to many other teams who have met the same sort of success. I know that no team will be able to be Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid or Barca in the MLS because no team will attract the huge stars that these teams do—but why not have a more workable salary cap that allows teams to look like Arsenal? Why not allow teams to sign a handful of solid players—Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton sort of players—instead of having a very low salary cap and two high-level exceptions? The MLS must open up its eyes—having the exceptions and the salary cap does not create good teams, it creates teams like Southampton a few years back (with Peter Crouch as the star) who have one superstar and a terrible supporting cast. I know that no MLS team can have an all-star team like Chelsea, Real or Barcelona—but a solid team is better than one with a superstar and a horrible group of ragtag misfits.

The MLS just made it mandatory that each team has youth soccer academies and myriad of youth teams—creating a sort of youth minor league that all of the established soccer federations have across the globe. This is the right idea—the teams should be putting their money into these schools to develop players. Just like in any sport, soccer players are born with gifts but have to cultivate them in order to have them shine and become Ronaldinho. How about for every dollar that the MLS teams spend on the exception players, they have to match it with the exact same amount for their academy? This will prevent overspending and will force teams to pay realistic prices for their new stars, because they will realize that they will be paying double the amount for the player. While a dollar for dollar allotment may be steep, it is just an idea. Even a ten-percent “forced youth academy tax” will improve the clubs’ academies and will prevent them from paying exorbitant, Chelsea-like fees for transfers.

The biggest factor, obviously, is that Beckham has to sell the league. He has to believe in the league as much as he believes in his own product. He has to sell the league to MLS fans and to soccer fans in the US. He has to keep it attractive. But, he must also sell the league to his galactico friends abroad. He must tell them that the competition in the MLS is very good and that he enjoys seeing different parts of the US every week—most European teams bus to competitions and do not travel very far, while the MLS is a very spread out league. He must use his charm—we all know that he has it, as he has women across the globe swooning over him (remember, there is a gold statue built for the man in Thailand and women in Japan had their pubic hair shaved in the shape of his Mohawk that he wore during the 2002 World Cup to show their devotion to him). He must become an ambassador for the MLS the way he is an ambassador for his own image. If he truly believes in the league and plays in a fashion somewhere in the same ballpark that we know he is capable of, perhaps the world will stop laughing at the MLS and we can finally have it be a league that attracts a fair share of modest stars that put out a product more entertaining than the one we have now.

Perhaps Beckham is working faster than expected—there are talks that Edgar Davids is talking about joining FC Dallas. This is definitely the sort of thing that needs to happen to get the league where it says that it already is—and where the rest of us want it to be.