British soccer star David Beckham announced this week that he was coming to the United States to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. His five-year contract is reportedly worth $250 million, though most of the money is likely tied to endorsement deals. Major League Soccer hopes that his arrival will help increase their fan base. MLS Commissioner Don Garber said: “His decision to continue his storied career in Major League Soccer is testament to the fact that America is rapidly becoming a true ‘Soccer Nation’ with Major League Soccer at the core.”
That, my friends, is what we call wishful thinking. While soccer remains the most popular participatory sport for kids, Americans have never embraced it as a spectator sport. Michael Mandelbaum, best-selling author of The Meaning of Sport, suggests a number of reasons for this. The biggest one? Americans already have other sports that they like to watch.
Even in as large and wealthy a country as the United States, where the national appetite for playing, and even more so for watching, games is enormous, the cultural, economic and psychological space available for sport is limited and that space is already taken. Baseball, American football and basketball have long since put down deep roots, claimed particular seasons of the year as their own (although they now overlap) and gained the allegiance of the sports-following public.
The idea of bringing soccer to center stage by importing a foreign star isn’t a new one. The New York Cosmos tried the same thing in 1975 when they signed Brazilian superstar Pelé. There was a brief surge in interest, but Pelé played just three seasons before retiring, and within a few years both the Cosmos and the North American Soccer League folded.
One difference between that case and this one is that Beckham speaks English. He’ll be much more accessible to the press, and he has a charisma that makes him a huge celebrity outside the world of soccer. Unfortunately, unlike Pelé, Beckham is no longer a great player. A day before the move was announced, Phil McNulty of BBC Sport offered this opinion:
[Beckham] in recent times gave the impression of a once outstanding player whose days at the top were done. And he did little at last summer’s World Cup to dispel that theory. Beckham appears to have made an intriguing choice about his future. It seems he has effectively admitted his serious career is finished and so has opted for a last slice of the showbiz lifestyle in the United States.