Image courtesy Bay Area Bias

Bend (Reality) Like Beckham

Saturday’s MLS Cup Final will be David Beckham’s last in a Galaxy shirt, capping five tumultuous seasons in the American league. According to MLS, importing the Englishman was intended to raise the profile of the league, entice “europhile” American soccer fans to support the clubs in their own cities, and show off the league as a destination for talented international players in their prime.

So, after five years and a lot of cash trading hands it seems fitting to ask, “Was it worth it?”

Asking the obvious

From Beckham’s perspective, the answer can only be a resounding “YES!” He’s managed to pocket $255M from his American adventure, as well as a potential ownership stake in the franchise of his choice. No player has ever successfully negotiated for a compensation package as rich as Beckham’s, which is all the more impressive given the fact that most footballers are long retired at 37.

According to the English press, David Beckham was a footballing Prometheus, bringing skill, money, people and credibility to a previously laughable league. That he has had a profound impact is accepted as a matter of course. The only debate seems to be about the extent and durability of that impact; and, of course, which leagues will now be vying for his Midas touch.

But what if there never was a Midas touch? What if the Beckham Experiment was really a failure? What if, in fact, American soccer was mugged by a slick marketing exercise and nobody wants to own up to it?

The more you read about the supposed Beckham effect, the more dubious and self-serving the claims seem to be. Fawning journalists, bloggers, and commenters tout increased attendance, a national TV deal, and Los Angeles’ success as proof of his impact. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence — evidence that is in short supply from the media — so I decided to do a little digging myself. Even I was surprised by what I found.

Claim #1: Beckham earned MLS its TV deal

This claim is the most blatant of the lot. According to their own press release, MLS penned its 8 year deal with ESPN/ABC in August 2006, long before Beckham began agitating for a contract extension with Real Madrid.

And while the league was busy telling the world that the United States was gripped with Beckham fever, ESPN was busy kicking MLS out of its own broadcast slot, citing low — and dropping — viewership during the first two years of the Beckham Experiment.

This is the first knock to the “Beckham brought the fans” argument, but will not be the last.

Claim #2: Beckham raised attendance figures

To verify this next claim, I spent a few seconds plotting values pulled straight from the league’s own attendance figures.

MLS Average Attendance 2006-2012

As is clear from the graph, LA Galaxy attendance did grow during the first two years of Beckhamania. The league-wide average declined over the same period, however, as crowds for Chicago, Dallas, New England, New York, and D.C. shrunk rapidly. This trend is almost certainly the result of the severe economic conditions over 2008 and 2009.

Okay, so the Beckham effect took awhile to “trickle down”, right? Not quite.

Another thing happened in 2007: Expansion. Toronto brought 20,000 new fans to the league. In fact, for each year since 2006, the league has added at least one expansion team, each of which (with the exception of a resurrected San Jose) brought a larger-than-league-average home crowd.

And this is where the Beckham narrative really begins to break down. See those big green spikes over the last 4 years? That’s Seattle, with attendance figures over twice the league average. That’s 40,000 fans who came to the beautiful game while David Beckham played in a Milan shirt.

If we remove the impact that those expansion clubs had on attendance numbers, a more sobering picture emerges.

MLS Average Attendance 2006-2012 (ignoring expansion)

Far from skyrocketing, the average attendance among established clubs is now only 1,300 fans more than it was in 2006. The mean average attendance from 2006-2012 was 15,940, only 430 more fans than 2006.

In other words, the league “invested” $6.5M per year on Beckham’s salary to increase the average attendance by a mere 430 people. At $15,000 per new fan per year, that’s terrible business, no matter how MLS spins it.

Claim #3: Beckham brought a higher level of skill to LA

Before we discuss how Beckham played, we should first examine if Beckham played. Much has been said in the United States about how little Beckham actually showed up for Los Angeles. A lot of numbers have been tossed around, but none seemed authoritative, so I summarized the results since Beckham’s first match on August 9, 2007.

Matches (%) Minutes (%) Points (avg)
With Beckham 126 (60.0%) 10451 (55.3%) 203 (1.61)
Without Beckham 84 (40.0%) 8449 (44.7%) 246 (2.93)
Total 210 18900 449 (2.14)

These are damning statistics.

David Beckham — the league’s first designated player, the face of the Los Angeles franchise, the cornerstone of the MLS marketing campaign — only managed to play in 60% of his team’s games. There aren’t many jobs out there that will pay you $32.5M to miss work 40% of the time.

Moreover, it’s puzzling how the man tasked with wowing a nation into loving the beautiful game could do so while playing just over half his available minutes. If Beckham is what people came to see, then they must have left the park disappointed 44.7% of the time.

But Beckham’s absenteeism, though scandalous, isn’t the biggest story here. It’s the team’s winning percentage. In the 84 matches that he did not feature in, Los Angeles boasted an unreal 2.93 points per game — near perfection. As soon as he joined the team, however, the PPG plummeted to a middling 1.61.

This is actually consistent with much of the criticism he received from individuals not toeing the MLS line. His movement is often static, his passing uncharacteristically poor, and he generally slowed down an otherwise swift and talented team when he was on the pitch. If quality is what he brought to the league, then it only rarely translated into success.

Claim #4: Beckham brought credibility to MLS

So he didn’t bring the television deal, the huge crowds, or an enlightened game. But a marketing force as powerful as Brand Beckham must have at least lent some degree of legitimacy to professional soccer in America, right?

As above, the evidence for this claim just doesn’t seem to be there. Only one major international news outlet, the Guardian, has decided to add MLS coverage to its sports rotation since Beckham joined, but that coverage was timed to coincide with the release of their US edition. The American sports blog editor for the Guardian confirmed the lack of European-based interest in MLS, noting that the new coverage caters primarily to American fans interested in European football, not the other way round.

Hmm…

Well what about Designated Players? Thanks to Beckham, clubs can now break the once-strict salary cap, splashing out huge sums on one or two big stars apiece. Surely this development has improved the standing of MLS in world football, making the league more accessible and attractive to foreign talents.

And, indeed, it could be argued that, to a degree, this is the case. With the advent of the Beckham Rule, very good — but not great — players can earn a decent wage in MLS. Sure, many of these players (such as Cahill, de Guzman, Montero, Tiffert, Rosales, Higuain, etc.) could — and some did — play in a top league for a larger salary, but they would not get to play as regularly, and they certainly wouldn’t be stars.

And this seems to be the subtle failure of the Beckham experiment. The plan was to bring in international stars, big names that sell shirts, pack the stands, and get the rest of the world’s attention. But that never really happened. Instead, the DP rule was exploited to make an end-run around the salary cap in a way that was more sustainable, integrative and substance-based than the flashy marketing approach.

As confirmation, we need look no further than Thierry Henry. Viewers around the world are not tuning in to see Henry tiptoe past American defenses. New York attendance has remained flat since his signing. The Red Bulls (and Los Angeles) finished behind Kansas City, San Jose and D.C., clubs without superstars. Simply put, New York appears to be getting a poor return on his $5.6M annual salary.

Just as Los Angeles did.

The real culprits

So if Beckham didn’t enrich the league, why has it grown over the last five seasons? The answer, as with most trends, is subtle and unsexy.

Expansion

The most obvious source of growth in money and fans has undoubtedly come from expansion. By granting franchises to cities with an already-established soccer tradition, MLS tapped into passionate fan bases and regional rivalries. These are the type of supporters who will support a club even as it struggles, unlike the casual fans who were the target audience of the Beckham Experiment.

This effect is most obvious in the Pacific Northwest, where Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver have resurrected the hotly-contested Cascadia Cup and, in the process, drawn audiences that rival those in the largest European leagues in number and intensity. Philadelphia, Montreal, and Toronto have done their part, too, in bringing large groups of rabid supporters to each match.

Certainly, the roughly $200M in franchise fees hasn’t hurt the league’s bottom line, either.

Soccer-specific stadiums

Each club that has built its own facility has seen a correspondingly dramatic rise in attendance. But the stadiums don’t just draw bigger crowds. They also free the league from onerous lease agreements, granting each club an asset which it can leverage to diversify revenue. The net result is a better experience for fans, a better facility for players, and much healthier financials for the league.

Quality imports

As mentioned above, the ability to break the salary cap to bring in talented — but not necessarily well-known — foreign players has had a profoundly positive effect on the quality of play in the league.

As the quality of play has improved, calls for better refereeing and greater player protection have increased, leading the league to draw up tighter guidelines on rough play. This, in turn, has given the American game a more attacking angle in recent seasons. I think this is where the greater gains in viewership and player quality will come, as the league becomes more desirable to watch and play.

Quality exports

Just as important as who the league brings in is who the league exports. American players like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Stu Holden, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Landon Donovan, etc. have done considerably more to raise the profile of the US in the wider footballing world than over-the-hill players retiring Stateside.

If MLS is looking to build a bigger and better future, it could do (and has done) worse than to invest in youth development, invest in referee training and make soccer-specific stadiums a requirement for new franchises. As the Beckham Experiment has shown, these have a far greater return than aging superstars.