David Beckham's MLS Balance Sheet in the Red After 6 Seasons with Galaxy
Black or red? No, that's not a reference to his AC Milan jersey. It's a question of whether that balance sheet shows net gains or losses for the U.S. league that changed its rules and its salary structure to accommodate Beckham's 2007 arrival.
MLS commissioner Don Garber sees nothing but gains.
Citing league attendance and expansion, as well as Galaxy competitiveness, Garber said Beckham achieved every goal and then some. "Overdelivered," was the commissioner's exact characterization.
With all due respect to Garber, that statement is an overreach.
As the blogosphere eagerly awaits word on Beckham's next adventure, whether on the playing field or in an owner's box, let's establish some ground rules for this slideshow.
It is not about Beckham's quality of play or the degree to which his arrival in the States was over-hyped. Beckham was good enough to earn regular playing time for Manchester United and Real Madrid, but was not quite up to everything the 2007 hype machine was purporting.
He was never as great or complete a player as the American non-soccer fan could have assumed from all the fanfare. He was, even in his prime, an attack phase midfielder of questionable contributions during the other phases of play. He had average speed at best. But he could find beautiful crosses and hit lethal free kicks.
Used the right way, he could be and was effective at the highest levels of play.
That's not what these slides will discuss. Instead, these slides will put Garber's assertion to the test.
The following presentation will focus on five critical aspects of that Beckham balance sheet, assess each for gain or loss and determine whether he was an asset or liability for MLS.
MLS Financial Strength
Professional sports are a business. Fans know that, but sometimes allow themselves the luxury of believing sports are completely about sport.
Beckham is the MLS synonym for money.
The league changed its salary-cap structure to accommodate his arrival. The result was the designated-player rule, also known as the Beckham rule.
With the change, more money was on the table for both Beckham and anyone else MLS clubs wanted to sign.
And not just money for other aging, foreign stars. There was more sponsor and television money on the table as well. There was money for league expansion and the building of soccer-specific stadiums.
All of that seems to back Garber's point. Or does it?
As any business major knows, expansion and contraction are normal in business cycles. However, what is not normal is massive expansion from a one-time variable. There is always the danger of what happens when that variable is removed.
That's the question presumably facing MLS now. Beckham has not ruled out staying in MLS. He only ruled out staying with the Galaxy. But assuming he does leave MLS, will that impact on the league's financial stability?
There seems to be little danger that Beckham's departure will create a financial vacuum. It is possible, but not likely. It is hard to imagine a Seattle fan not attending games next year just because Beckham is no longer in Los Angeles.
The more realistic danger is sponsorship money going away, but that too seems unlikely.
However, there is little doubt Beckham did contribute to and facilitate the financial expansion. The more pressing financial threat is that expansion itself eventually proves too rapid and unsustainable.
MLS was financially viable, albeit on a smaller business model, before 2007. It now appears financially viable with its larger business model.
Balance sheet sub-total: Probable gain with some increased vulnerability; too early to assess fully.
MLS average attendance reached a league-high 18,801 this year. This was a point mentioned by Garber in his reading of the balance sheet.
The commissioner was noting the growth since 2006, the year before Beckham's arrival in Los Angeles, when average attendance was around 15,500.
Looking even deeper, we see that the North American Soccer League (NASL) had a 1980 average attendance of 14,400. This is not the current NASL. Instead it's a reference to the original NASL, which fell apart in 1984.
The U.S. population in 1980 was 226 million, or 36 percent lower than current U.S. population. Yet the average NASL attendance was only 32 percent lower than today's MLS attendance.
Despite Beckham or any other reason, including an absolute explosion of American youth soccer in the 1990s, attendance at the nation's highest professional soccer games has not even kept pace with population growth.
And that former league, with a higher attendance/population ratio than the current league, failed. No one should take MLS existence for granted.
That point aside, there is no direct evidence that Beckham has had any impact on league-wide attendance. He certainly had an impact on specific Los Angeles games that first season. Beyond that, the numbers suggest no impact whatsoever.
As for league expansion and slightly greater television exposure, any speculation of Beckham's role can be countered with equally unproven speculation of the role played by the earlier growth of youth soccer.
Soccer moms became a recognized political constituency more than 10 years before Beckham ever wore a Galaxy jersey. The children of those original soccer moms are now of ticket-buying age.
Balance sheet sub-total: No discernible gain/loss.
MLS Stature and Credibility
Beckham's arrival was more about celebrity than soccer.
This slide could end on that note alone, and true soccer fans would know the assessment that was coming: Soccer should be about soccer.
It would be interesting to see results of a poll asking how many Americans can name Beckham’s MLS team, compared with how many can name Beckham’s wife?
As far as I know, there has been no such poll.
Do most Americans know he plays for Los Angeles, or do they just assume the paparazzi pics of him in Southern California make sense because that is where people like Beckham and his wife hang out?
How many Americans could name his position? Probably less than could name a Spice Girls song or the flavor of spice Victoria Beckham played onstage.
The last six years have seemed flashy, even sexy, but also a little ridiculous.
To Beckham's credit, it could have been worse. If we're casting blame for all the ridiculousness, the hype machine was far more responsible than the player/celebrity/spice-spouse.
And Beckham, when confronted with the reality of a Los Angeles fanbase that had turned against him, did what he could to mend those ties in the following seasons. He won them back on the field.
Balance sheet sub-total: Initially a significant loss, with much of that deficit paid off over the last four years.
MLS Credibility Overseas
This is a can of worms. Boosting MLS credibility overseas was a Beckham-related goal, as recently stated by the MLS commissioner.
What metric can be employed to assess this?
With the designated-player rule, MLS was repeating what NASL had done before. It was opening itself up as the home for aging international stars. It became a place where the best and willing could enjoy a twilight tour and receive that last paycheck.
An argument could be made that the American league should be about young American players rather than old foreign players. However, a counterargument would then exist that the older would and do mentor the younger, thus making the Americans better players.
Even if the rest of the world is amused by the MLS Home for the Aging, isn't that better than the rest of the world ignoring MLS completely?
When an EPL team plays MLS All-Stars, British publications do cover the event. However, that coverage is often more mocking than serious in tone, as is the case in this Guardian article.
The designated-player rule put MLS on the map. The All-Star game, with its unique format of acknowledged humility, has done more to create overseas awareness of MLS. And it's a more positive awareness, too, specifically because of the acknowledged humility.
When Americans in midseason form invite preseason English and European opponents to play a friendly against the top MLS players, that's a heck of a concessionary statement about comparative league strengths.
Balance sheet sub-total: Slight loss.
Beyond MLS, Growth of Soccer Intelligence
Soccer is still a foreign game to many Americans. Increasing the nation's soccer intelligence will help to overcome that factor.
This is especially true among the nation's most inexperienced coaches. They often are parents of recreational players (as in the parents who don't duck fast enough when clubs go looking for new coaches in their youngest recreational age groups).
U.S. Soccer recognizes this and produces resources for parent-coaches, as well as more involved coaching manuals and certification courses for more serious and experienced coaches.
A quick glance through these resources of varying complexities demonstrates one common thread: U.S. Soccer stresses constant movement and a dynamic style of play.
U.S. Soccer makes no attempt to hide the inspirations behind this approach, and one of the more prominent inspirations is the Dutch youth model.
Anyone wanting to understand more about the Dutch approach to football could grab a copy of Brilliant Orange. Slog through the chapters of seemingly unrelated content, like the one on Dutch architecture. It ties together with other content to offer greater understanding of Dutch thinking about the game.
Throughout the pages of that book, the reader cannot help but notice a sense of Dutch amusement at what they see as English non-tactics.
In many Dutch eyes, according to the book, the English play the exact opposite of dynamic football.
It is a stop-and-go brand of soccer in which keepers collect, and then wave players up field for the punt. Midfielders primarily look to feed attackers. Attackers look for shots. When shots don't materialize, they hope for whistles that stop play and allow dangerous set pieces.
It also is a brand of soccer that was and is played in the States, and one that U.S. Soccer intends to replace with something more free-flowing and creative.
With Beckham at the Galaxy, MLS had a player known globally as a set-piece artist. It had a celebrated player who was not dynamic off the ball and not much help in the transitional or defensive phases.
In short, it had a player who, in his prime, was a perfect fit for EPL, or the one EPL-like team in Spain.
Beckham represents the brand of play that U.S. Soccer strives to move beyond.
The problem is popularity.
Beckham had it, while many of those parent-coaches might not understand the first thing about what U.S. Soccer is and does.
Balance sheet sub-total: Loss.
We have one potential gain, a net-neutral and three losses of varying shades of red ink.
By any credible accounting measure, this adds toward a bottom-line conclusion that Beckham has been more of a liability to MLS and American soccer in general than he was an asset.
Commissioner Garber is free to express the alternative opinion he has, but if players were public equities, fundamental investors would be well advised to invest their capital elsewhere.