Vend it like Beckham

Martin Rogers

TORONTO – David Beckham has said he wants to get out on the field and start earning the enormous salary he receives from the Los Angeles Galaxy. Maybe he shouldn't worry.

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber revealed Sunday that, despite the England midfielder having spent just 16 minutes of playing time in a Galaxy jersey, his replica shirt had already become the hottest-selling item in the United States with The Sports Authority (the sporting goods chain promoted on the day of Beckham's L.A. "presentation" as the place to buy Galaxy gear).

That remarkable revelation highlights the immense pulling power Beckham has, whether he plays or not. At BMO Field on Sunday, he was again restricted to being a spectator as his teammates under-performed in a 0-0 draw with Toronto FC, yet there was still only one show in town.

America, it seems, is buying into "Brand Beckham." Sure, the NFL just began training camp and the NBA is in its offseason, but for a foreigner who plays a sport outside the big three and outsells the likes of LeBron James, Alex Rodriguez and Peyton Manning in any timeframe is quite astonishing.

Obviously, the Galaxy, MLS and the player himself are all keen to see Beckham recover swiftly from ankle problems, but in the battle to win over public opinion, the early signs are good – and lucrative.

"The No. 1 selling item in Sports Authority in the United States is the David Beckham jersey," Garber said. "Not a basketball or a football shirt but a David Beckham jersey. That is pretty cool.

"Merchandise sales for the whole league are up 300 percent. Galaxy sales are up 700 percent. We did not expect that when we signed David Beckham."

Betting on Beckham from a financial perspective is a no-brainer. Real Madrid threw millions at Manchester United to sign him, ripped up their own player image rights stipulations to accommodate him, threw more millions into his contract and still came out way, way on top, generating an estimated $600 million in revenue over his four-year stint in Spain.

The man is a walking (or hobbling, at least until a couple of days ago), money-making machine, to which Garber and his organization are suddenly plugged directly.

It is not just about the shirts or the ticket sales or the newspaper headlines. The broadcast rights for MLS games are now worth infinitely more than 12 months ago and will only increase once the product is on the map internationally.

In England, cable stations splash up to $2 billion for Premier League packages and Garber knows that even a fraction of that would send his product into a whole new stratosphere.

"There is more interest in our league, here and around the world, than at any other time probably in the history of the sport," Garber said. "Our games are broadcast in countries around the world; our jerseys are being sold throughout the world and throughout the U.S. There is also more interest in expansion so that is all very positive."

Beckham seems to take it all in stride. And for all his exhortations that he wants to be treated as "just another player," he fully accepts and embraces the role of soccer ambassador.

Any Englishman will churn out the old saying that "No man is bigger than the sport." Maybe so, but Beckham is as close as it gets to such a dominating figure and he certainly has the force of personality to carry the game on his shoulders.

"I want to be part of something, and that is why I decided to take a challenge of moving to the U.S.," he said.

"We can raise it to a level where people are starting to take notice, which we have done so far. It has been a success since we arrived; there are parts of the world that are talking about the MLS that had probably never heard of the MLS or the Galaxy. That is (what) we have succeeded in. We want to carry on taking it further."

Teams around MLS and the league itself could be on the verge of big things, with everyone benefiting from the Beckham factor. However, the Galaxy themselves must be careful to ensure they are not the only fall guys.

Coach Frank Yallop knows full well that the match every MLS team looks toward is the one against the Galaxy. That "big team syndrome" is something his players must be prepared for, and deal with, if they hope to compete for a playoff spot.

"I said it to our guys today, every player on the other team wants to show David they are a good player," Yallop said Sunday. "He has that effect and it is not going to get any easier. Once he is on the field, it will maybe be even worse. We have just got to try to prepare, we have got to get mentally tough and get ready to meet any challenges we have."