Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Go Home, Our Son

This post, which I half-finished, was going to be a lengthy open letter to Beckham. I think I should choose a new literary device for delivering this stuff, however. Like maybe succinct, direct arguments.

Yeah, that.

Anyway, yesterday B and I had a 10 minute or so chat about the EPL (that's English Premier League for all you skeezoids), and it was nice because I really don't have any other American friends that share my love, however late-forming, of the beautiful game. I watch Fox Soccer Channel a lot these days, even though the lineup of games is usually a little less than stunning (I can count on one hand the number of Roma, Inter or Milan games that have been shown as one of the choices in the twice-weekly "Italian Soccer" offerings). Every so often, though, there's something like Sunday's tilt between Manchester United and Arsenal, in the Gunners' gleaming new stadium where they have yet to lose, and you don't move from the couch for two hours except to take one piss, grab five beers, and almost leap over the coffee table to try and strangle Rosicky through the TV because he just won't take a fucking open shot and then jump off the couch when Henry puts home a header in the final minute of extra time after the announcers have spent the entire game criticizing him for not being "good in the air." I won't ever lecture someone for not liking soccer -- less than three years ago, I was firmly in that camp -- but I will say that I feel kind of bad for any sports fan who, after watching the Colts mount an incredible comeback against their hated rival on Sunday didn't watch a storyline almost disquietingly similar unfold that night (well, it was at night for me, since I DVRed it).

So much for succinct.

To summarize: I think soccer is awesome. I watch it a lot. Arsenal-Man U spat hot fire.

That said, I don't have a particular hankering for the MLS to take off. I'm not against it, per se, but I don't see much of a need, either. I'm quite convinced, also, that the best American athletes will no more become soccer players down the road than they will baseball players; pretty much anyone that's super-athletic (with rare exceptions) is going to be toting the rock for the Sooners, not working out at some Nike Soccer camp in hopes of landing a $600,000 contract from Real Salt Lake. That might change down the road, depending on what level of popularity and/or financial success the MLS achieves. Which, I suppose, is why Beckham's arrival in the States is so welcome by those who wish the MLS to become a legitimate, popular sports league.

Only thing is, I don't think it's going to work. Even worse, I think the Beckham stunt (and, let's be honest, that's what it is) is going to de-legitimize the league in the eyes of many.

Americans, I contest, are on the whole an extremely vapid group of people. I take no pleasure in stating that, and I wish it weren't the case. But, at least when it comes to entertainment, it appears that most Americans believe debasement -- of themselves, of the characters and/or people they watch on TV, of art and entertainment in general -- is the optimal outcome of any viewing experience.

However, there seems to be one exception: Sports fans hate being patronized. They steadfastly refuse to watch or follow any league that attempts to non-organically grow its popularity, whether it's through guilt trips (the WNBA), condescending packaging (the XFL) or an attempt to piggyback 15 legitimate minutes of fame (whatever the names of the women's soccer and softball leagues were/are). I realize that the presence of three women's leagues as evidence weakens my argument somewhat, but bear with me.

Beckham is still a pretty good soccer player, though he's clearly not what he used to be in terms of foot speed (which was never a strength of his) and endurance (which used to be his calling card as a live-action player). His renowned crossing and free kick abilities are still intact, but even that wasn't enough to justify his starting on Real Madrid, or any of the top-level EPL/La Liga teams (Italians don't like him because he doesn't get back on D, so Serie A's out). In terms of the actual product, I doubt highly that Beckham will be able to have a momentous impact on the pitch, unless the Galaxy move him to the middle instead of the flank, which would be a disaster. But that doesn't really matter to anyone, so what's the point in talking about it?

No, what matters is that people think Beckham will create enough of a stir to allow the MLS to become a bonafide sports league in America, one that competes for advertising dollars and fan interest. Four-fifths of Beckham's "$250 million salary" will come from revenue sharing; the league is so confident in Beckham's drawing power that they decided to cut him in on the action, and Beckham's so confident in it that he left guaranteed money on the table to come to the States. And, right on cue, the stir arose. The Galaxy sold 5,000 season tickets within 48 hours of the announcement, 1/6 of the team's home stadium capacity. Beckham jerseys are already flying off the shelves (and they're ugly as sin). Groupies are spontaneously orgasming in Valencia; Katie Holmes will name her next child "Bed-Stuy." Shit is getting crazy.

For now.

And then, after a season has passed and Beckham is coming off a season with three goals and five assists, people are going to realize two things:

1) Beckham's presence on the field does not make soccer a more attractive game to people who don't like it already;

2) Beckham's presence in the MLS will not raise the level of play to a point where fans of the European game will consider the American league to be a legitimate source of entertainment;

3) The people who have been with the MLS since day one -- many of them families with kids who are soccer crazy or live in non-sports-saturated cities like Salt Lake City -- and would ultimately have laid down the foundation for generations of hard-core MLS fans, will either not be effected at all (best-case scenario) or will be turned off by the spectacle, prices, and lack of street cred (worst-case scenario).

The MLS had a read shot to, within the next decade, make it's mark in the sports arena here because soccer is the most popular youth sport by leaps and bounds. Sure, most of the best athletes will move on to other sports when they grow up, but that doesn't mean they'll lose interest in soccer completely. The MLS has that market cornered already; it was just a matter of waiting for it to grow up and begin breeding another generation. The game would have been grown organically, at no point losing the "small-league" feel that usually comes with low ticket prices, fan- and family-friendly atmospheres and a willingness to sit through some shitty soccer.

Now, the league runs the risk of turning itself into an ego-trip sideshow for some British dude, in the process insulting an already finicky fanbase for sports in general, and disenfranchising the hardcore fans who don't want to be party to Beckham's "step-down" coronation. Implicit in the entire discussion is that everyone -- including Beckham -- acknowledges that American soccer, both in terms of talent and popularity, pales in comparison to its European counterparts. It's like Sammy Sosa going to play in Japan after being out of the Majors for a couple of years; anyone else get the impression that the Japanese didn't appreciate the connotation of Sosa's interest in their league?

I doubt the MLS would have ever made me a fan, just like the CFL couldn't ever make me a fan. But whatever chance existed that I might change my mind evaporated the second the league admitted that it wanted to be judged on its ability to attract a "name," as opposed to its merits as a soccer league.


Bryan Rosenbaum said...

Well put, Doyle. Although I don't agree with you 100%, I see a lot of reasons why you would take this stance. I suppose there are some major ifs regarding Beckham playing in MLS, but I don’t think it’s his playing ability.

He’s not the player he once was, but was he ever? I was never blown away by Beckham, aside from his crossing and free kicks, but for a sport that’s a game of decimeters, this is pretty important stuff. In this last World Cup, he accounted for most of England’s goals and was one of its top players, stepping up where more heralded players like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard wiltered. Was his time up? Probably, but he still delivered the goods.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with David Beckham coming to play in MLS. He's always said he wanted to, and his personality and playing style, not to mention a trail of endorsers with open chequebooks (dig), have people following him in admiration wherever he goes. He's getting his money, but I doubt he was entirely motivated by it. He has nothing left to gain in European soccer, nothing left to prove. What would be the point of him returning to England? Why is he blamed at Real Madrid when others were let off the hook? It’s easy to take shots at Beckham because he is who he is and is married to a Spice Girl, but you can’t ever question his effort. This effort and desire to prove himself on and off the field gives him the opportunity to be a legacy in a way nobody has ever been to the sport here. I'm guessing the idea of being the next Babe Ruth or Tiger Woods is pretty attractive.

MLS is often derided for having poor technical quality when compared to other leagues. Given that MLS is 11 years old and spotted every other country in the world 100 years, this isn't terrible or unexpected. What does a product that isn't as crisp as it could be need? Signing the best passer in the game doesn't hurt. His crosses and free kicks will get on SportsCenter. They will also have an impact on the average MLS player, not to mention hundreds of little kids in the stands who have never had such an idol to look up to and say, "I want to do that!" and hopefully the quality of the game, and experience, goes up.

Regarding your point on why soccer here won’t be any more popular here this time next year has its points, but I doubt anybody will be turned off by the celebrity feel Beckham will bring to the league. Besides, this is the audience (ie People that spend money) MLS hopes to attract. It’s existing fan base, dedicated and loyal they may be, doesn’t have the numbers or spending power to do that. As for appealing to Europeans or fans of the European game, this country has long prided itself on not giving two shits about what Europe thinks, and soccer isn’t any different. Of course it’s a better game over there, but it’s also less interesting — the same teams always win, the best players always go to the same teams and Europeans are starting to feel less and less close to their local teams. This also applies to their own national teams, which feature ‘foreigners’ who otherwise wouldn’t be fit to wash water closets if they couldn’t play football (in their minds).

If MLS can succeed with Beckham, the idea is that more players like him would follow. I hope this isn’t the case, because the last thing MLS needs to be is a place where players collect one final paycheck. I hope they appeal to the Hispanic fan and bring in Argentinians like Juan Roman Riquelme, players who can help create an identifiable style to the league that severely needs one. You want to talk about true fans that have been thrown down the toilet? That’s Hispanic fans. But then again, money walks, bullshit talks, and we’re all trying to get a piece of that American Idol audience. That’s why Beckham’s here and hopefully it won’t be a disaster.

I could go on for hours, but I’ll call it a night and see you here tomorrow.


Bryan Rosenbaum said...

that should be 'money talks, bullshit walks' in that second to last sentence, obviously