Thursday, January 11, 2007

Red Devil

Major League Soccer (MLS) has built itself a fairly comfortable niche in the sports landscape. The have built up a 12 team league that includes the major media centers of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas. They have a contract with ESPN for regular season games and their championship game is broadcast on ABC. Some of the teams play in new soccer-only stadiums that seat between 15,000-25,000. They have a very comfortable place in the spectrum of American sports. The best thing about the league was that it seemed to be managed by people who understood that soccer was not going to be able to compete with the established pro sports in the US right away. They understood that it would be better to take more of a grass roots approach to the sport. They were patient in waiting for all those suburban soccer playing kids to grow up and become able to buy their own tickets to the games. They courted the growing Hispanic population by importing the Chivas team name from Mexico and Real team name from Spain. They seemed to be doing everything right. Until yesterday.

The Los Angeles Galaxy agreed to pay David Beckham $250 million to play for them for five years starting in 2008. There is one word that comes to mind. How can they be so f**king stupid? OK, that's seven, but you get my drift. MLS as a whole isn't worth the $50 million a year that they are supposedly going to pay Beckham for his services. MLS hasn't even generated a profit for most of it's clubs at this point. Do you think the NY/NJ Red Bulls, who play in front of 12,000 people a night in the cavernous Giants Stadium, generate a profit? The MLS agreed to pay the richest contract in sports history to a 32 year old midfielder who is clearly on the downside of his career. Beckham was recently cut loose by the English national team. He doesn't even start the majority of games of Real Madrid, the team for which he currently plays. And even when he does play, Beckham is not the kind of dynamic performer that would make casual sports fans want to watch the sport. Beckham is not Pele. He may be the most famous soccer player in the world, but that has more to do with marketing than his skills on the pitch.

When the Texas Rangers agreed to pay Alex Rodriquez $250 over ten years, it sent shock waves through the sports world. It was the largest contract ever signed by an athlete in the history of North American sports. Of course Arod was only 25 at the time and was widely considered the best player in baseball. Beckham, as I stated earlier, will be 32 by the time he starts fulfilling his contract and will be at least six or seven years removed from being even considered one of the best soccer players in the world. This signing reminds of the then staggering $40 million deal that Steve Young signed with the USFL after leaving BYU. He signed with the LA Express and played one year with the team before the league folded. I have no idea how much of that money he actually saw, but it was probably a lot less than $40 million.

Beckham's deal has to be tied to the future of the league. There is no way that one team in the league would be allowed to spend 50 times more than the next highest paid player makes without it being a league wide decision. The deal as announced is probably unworkable. More than likely Beckham's potential future earnings will be tied to the growth of the league in the long run. Beckham, in agreeing to come to the MLS, probably became the biggest shareholder in it's future. The league will now live or die based on this deal and Beckham's $250 million jackpot is wholly tied into the league not only surviving, but thriving.

This a bold move by the MLS. It could signal a big future push to attract more star players to the US and bigger crowds to the stadiums. This could be the beginning of a soccer revolution here in the US! Nah, I'm not buying it either. If Pele couldn't make soccer stick in this country, I'm pretty sure that David Beckham isn't going to be able to. I fear this is the beginning of the end for major league soccer. The NASL tried this tactic and failed. The dollars spent to bring stars over from Europe just didn't match the money coming in from the fans. At least the Cosmos used to attract 70,000 back in the days of Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer. The MLS doesn't even have that to hang it's hat on.

This is just another example of a league reaching too far too soon, just like the USFL did. The USFL was doing OK playing football in the summer. Sure they had smaller crowds, but they had just started and it takes time to build a loyal audience. America is football crazy and I have no doubt that if Donald Trump had just been a little more patient, the USFL's legacy would have been much different that it is today. But Trump couldn't wait and he sued the NFL for unfair labor practices. His goal was really to force the NFL to merge some of the USFL's franchises into the NFL (namely his own NY Generals). This way he could get a NFL franchise for the fraction of the cost of actually buying one. They won their lawsuit, but the damages awarded were only ceremonial. I believe it was one dollar. They won the suit, but they lost the league. They reached for the brass ring and failed.

Perhaps under the current scheme, the MLS would remain a minor player forever. Perhaps the owners saw a chance to take a big leap forward and decided that they couldn't pass up on this opportunity. However, they have leveraged the entire of future of professional soccer in America on one aging mid fielder, who isn't even good enough to play on his own national team anymore. That is the truth of the matter, because if the MLS goes under, it's going to be a long time before anyone else is going to try this again. It took 20 years after the NASL went under before we got pro soccer in the US again. How many years will it be this time before the US has professional soccer after the MLS goes under? Because given this contract, it's not a matter of if they're going under, but when.



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