Soccer's status woe
More Beckham – Josh Peter: Is Becks worth the trouble?
The mere fact that an American – billionaire Philip Anschutz – is willing to invest as much as $250 million in a soccer player, to play in the United States no less, is the biggest thing to happen to the sport in this country perhaps ever.
Not that David Beckham is bigger or better than Pele, who tried this back in the 1970s. And not that getting a single player, even one with global star power, is as important as staging the World Cup, which the U.S. did in 1994.
But after neither Pele nor the most popular sporting event in the world managed to make soccer even close to a major, mainstream sport, the fact that someone is still trying anyway is telling.
The odds that professional soccer ever goes big-time in the States remain long, but not as long as they were before Beckham, his world-renowned game, movie-star looks, pop star wife and international fan base decided to give the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer (and Anschutz's direct deposit) a chance.
A quarter-billion for a soccer player? In America?
If Beckham is going to be worth it, then he must deliver for the MLS on every imaginable level, and his soccer skill, slowly diminishing yet still formidable at age 31, may be the least of it.
Pro soccer is never going to be a major sport in this country unless it becomes fundamentally more entertaining. This will certainly drive the soccernistas (the elitist, overbearing fan) nuts, but the reason America hasn't taken to the so-called "beautiful game" is not a lack of sophistication, but a wealth of superior and noisier entertainment options.
Americans know enough about soccer to consider it the "boring game," and you can pretend otherwise all you want but it's not like this is new. The vast majority of Americans under the age of 45 have played soccer, mostly in the countless youth leagues across the country. Nearly everyone has seen it either live or on television.
It has just never taken. Pele played in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s, sold out the Meadowlands, captivated the New York media and the league still folded. The U.S. has hosted men's and women's World Cups. Our women have won it all. Our men finished eighth in 2002.
Yet the sport remains of a niche pursuit, something kids play and adults ignore. The soccernistas have been waiting for youth players to translate into lifelong fans for decades, but it never will on a significant scale. Kids play ping pong, too, but despite it being one of the most popular sports in the world (China loves it), when was the last time you watched that on TV?
The soccernistas want to believe that a well-played game will win over America, but that's naive to the way sports and entertainment work. Athletic excellence is all well and good, but it pales in comparison to colorful characters, rich rivalries, wild feuds and other assorted mayhem.
Scoff if you wish, but that's how NASCAR and mixed martial arts have gotten big, that's why boxing and tennis have faded and that's how the NFL, NBA and MLB have remained on top. It isn't just the quality of the game (although that doesn't hurt); it is the intensity of the entertainment.
Consider the NHL, which today boasts superior skill and skating from its 1970s and '80s heyday and without question boasts its sport's best players in the world – something the MLS never will.
But the NHL has been brought to its knees by commissioner Gary Bettman's decisions to both overexpand and curb fighting, a combination that has diluted rivalries and cut down on white hat/black hat characters fans relate to.
Soccer can be a fine, if small, part of our grand sports landscape. But it won't get big until it attracts world class athletes and showmen. It is noteworthy that as Beckham arrives, America's most charismatic homegrown player, Clint Dempsey, is taking his Maradona-inspired game and flamboyant celebrations to the English Premier League.
The MLS has zero mainstream stars that inspire anyone outside of the suburban, orange-slice set. Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu are about as interesting as growing grass. In a sports and entertainment world awash with charismatic icons and daily soap operas, soccer doesn't stand a chance.
To make the average sports fan care, to make the MLS truly "major," requires dozens of flashy players, wild crowds, impassioned rivals, outrageous antics and over-the-top news coverage. This is America; subtle doesn't sell here.
Beckham is anything but subtle, so he gives the MLS a face, a tabloid headline, a famous spouse capable of mischief. That's why he is important and that's why he just may be worth the million-a-week gamble.
But even if he banana-curves free kicks all over the country, all he can really do is help shine a little light on a league that, whether it wants to admit it or not, needs to get more WWE if it wants a following like pro leagues in UEFA.
Because not even Becks and Posh can make soccer a beautiful enough game to thrive in this country.