Thursday, January 11, 2007

The New Pele? David Beckham is Coming to America! Becks, as he is known to his English countrymen, is hardly another Pele. He doesn't have Pele's pace or power, or anything like Pele's unparalleled skills. No one could compare with Pele's ability on the ball -- able to generate space with his matchless, extraordinary dribbling, and his fantastic creativity and scoring touch. But, Major League Soccer hopes that David Beckham will be to the MLS what Pele was for the North American Soccer League and the New York Cosmos. What has been rumored for months now seems to be true: David Beckham will join the Los Angeles Galaxy when his contract with Real Madrid expires in June.

So what's the fuss all about? Even if he doesn't have all of Pele's ability to astound on the field, David Beckham does have incredible control with the ball. There is no finer passer, and no better taker of free kicks. Moreover, he has star quality. The cover boy, who married one of the Spice Girls, is a media magnet. He is the most recognized soccer player in the world -- indeed, he is the most recognized athlete.

The MLS doesn't have the money for the transfer fee that Beckham would command, but the Galaxy are able to take advantage of the fact that Beckham's contract is about to expire. It's still stunning that the Galaxy is able to come up with $250 million to pay Beckham. This is a league, where the highest paid player, Freddie Adu makes no more than half a million. It's hard to imagine how the finances of the league could ever justify this enormous contract. Beckham was never the world's best player -- just the most popular -- so, he's not getting the richest contract in sports history, because of his abilities on the field. Signing Beckham is about publicity -- the attention he can bring to this second-tier league.

Pele transformed the NASL -- the Cosmos went from playing in front of hundreds of people to playing to regular crowds of 45,000 or more -- even the largest crowds ever for games in Giants Stadium, with 77,000 turning out for playoff games. He was a great attraction on the road, as well. And, his signing probably generated much more in profits for the Cosmos' owners.

On the other hand, Pele's signing set off a great spending spree by the Cosmos, who put together an international all-star team. This caused other NASL teams to bring in top international players to try and remain competitive on the field. The glory years of the NASL was stunningly brief. The league expanded greatly, only to see most teams fold just as quickly, and the league soon followed into oblivion. Will MLS make similar mistakes following on the Beckham signing?

A couple of months ago, the league announced what has become known as the "Beckham rule" ever since the announcement. This rule allows each team to go outside of its salary cap to bring in one star player. It would have been ironic if the so-called Beckham rule had not been successful in bringing Beckham here. The danger is that the league's reach may exceed its grasp -- that teams will sign contracts they simply cannot maintain. The designated player exception is meant to to rein in a possible spending spree.

The question for the MLS is whether the timing is right to make such an extraordinary investment. The Galaxy will not bring in the revenues to make the Beckham signing profitable. It's inconceivable that they would. Will Beckham can fill the stadiums around the league, and be the vanguard of an invasion of international stars that will fill the stands every week across the country? If so, then the investment will be worth it, because it will finally transform the MLS into a truly major player on the American sports scene. If the MLS does become a truly major league, the signing of David Beckham today will be the day it all started.

I hate to throw water on that grand vision, but David Beckham isn't Pele, and he isn't really David Beckham anymore. In the last six months, not only has he resigned as England's captain, he's no longer even included in the team. Also, Beckham's been losing his regular starting position with his club team, Real Madrid. When has been in the line-up, Real hasn't had very good results.

The change of scenery may be a good thing for Beckham, but I have to question whether Beckham still has the international drawing power to attract other notable players to our shores. We cannot expect players at the top of their game to be willing to come here, given the level of play in the MLS. Fading stars like Beckham are the best we can hope for, at this time. If others follow him, that will be good enough, for now. We'll just have to wait and see if that happens.

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