Over four years have passed since David Beckham crossed the Atlantic with a mission to share his love of the beautiful game with those who dismissed it merely as ‘soccer’, and with the former England captain’s lucrative five year deal with Los Angeles Galaxy now drawing to a close, it seems an appropriate time to assess how much, if at all, the venture can be deemed a success.
In a recent interview ‘Goldenballs’ made a case for viewing his time Stateside as mission accomplished, citing increased attendance figures, new franchises and grass roots development as evidence that a sport loved almost everywhere else on the planet is now gaining enhanced appreciation in the US.
On the surface this seems like a reasonable conclusion; indeed the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers have ensured that Major League Soccer now comprises 18 teams across its two conferences. Couple that with the arrival of several additional marquee players (think Henry, Marquez and, most recently, Robbie Keane) and the case is strengthened. New stadia has also been muted as evidence that the sport is growing – demand for greater facilities stemming from more impassioned fans. In a nutshell, this was Beckham’s aim: to make sure that more US sports fans were soccer fans.
But has Beckham really made a difference? In terms of attendances the latest figures show that average league match attendance is 17,410 fans per game. When contrasted with the inaugural 1996 figures of 17,406 per game the increase seems unimpressive, but then the opening season had some glamour matches that bolstered numbers, which had not been so high pre-Beckham. To put this in perspective, if we look at the average attendances of the Championship in this country, according to ESPN, the current average is 17,353. So the figures out of the US are even more impressive as the Championship was classified by Deloitte in the 2004–05 season as ‘the wealthiest non-top flight football division in the world, and the sixth richest division in Europe’. Also bear in mind that when North American Soccer League (NASL) started back in the late 60’s attendances tended to be a mere 50 people.
The statistic that stadiums are 73% full week-in, week out shows that the sport is drawing fans in and in this instance the Beckham factor cannot be ignored. A 6.3 per cent rise in fan numbers between July 2010 and July 2011 can also be attributed, at least in part, to Beckham. This increase coincides with Beckham returning from an Achilles injury and playing at a high level, something which may well have enticed disinterested 2010 fans to attend stadiums this season.
These numbers appear to be linked to new stadiums. Since Beckham put pen to paper in January 2007, Toronto FC, 2007, Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union and Portland Timbers have all built new, soccer-specific stadiums. While this may be linked partially to the successful Columbus Crew construction of 2003, there is no denying that seeing Beckham in the league will have encouraged owners to turn their bucks into mortar.
One area Beckham has undoubtedly had influence is the arrival of other big name players from Europe. Since his explosive signing and we have seen Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez, Torsten Frings, Freddie Ljungberg and Robbie Keane all leave major European clubs to join fledgling MLS outfits. Would they have made the bold journey had one so prolific not already decided it to be a worthwhile one? And perhaps more would have come if Becks had not insisted on popping over to Milan for two consecutive years in an attempt to show his international worth.
So all of the above largely suggests that Beckham has had a positive impact and that football is growing in the United States. Yet, what Becks will ultimately be judged on – his legacy, if you like – will be who plays the game when he is gone. Surprisingly, US Youth Soccer membership figures have remained stagnant at around the three million mark since Beckham joined the Galaxy in 2007. While better facilities and developed youth academies are a step in the right direction, the overall quantity of players needs to increase first, to provide a sufficient base from which the best can spring forth from.
And it is this particular statistic that reminds us of the vastness of the task Beckham took when he showed up all bleached-blond and pearly whites four summers ago. American’s play basketball, baseball, their version of ‘football’, ice hockey to name but a few, and the Beckham effect was never going to sweep kids away from the Kobe Bryant’s and Brett Favre’s who are so naturally their heroes. And that is ultimately what the challenge is. In contrast to the UK, where football is seen as a way off the streets and has roots as a ‘working –class’ sport played by the masses, football in the US is seen as a ‘middle-class’ alternative to the supposed rougher and tougher sports named above, the game needs to start connecting with the masses to continue to grow.
So, what Beckham has done is create buzz, create interest, and when his contract expires in November he will leave the MLS a lot better off than when it started. Yet, if the MLS is ever going to be a powerhouse league it needs to worry less about the marquee signings and focus more on ensuring its youth are enchanted by the game rather than its stars. In this regard, there is only so much Beckham can do.
Impressive debut by RoJo – you can follow him on Twitter @rojo_tweets