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Beckham in the U.S.

Justin Tardiff | Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the term “MLS”?

The acronym for a medieval language studies program? An abbreviation for miles? Hopefully, last week’s signing of David Beckham by the Los Angeles Galaxy for the sum of $250 million over five years will enlighten the average American that “MLS” in fact stands for Major League Soccer.

Yes, the U.S. has its own professional soccer league, and it has been doing quite all right for itself without spending the GDP of some countries on a global superstar. Expansion, soccer specific stadiums or stadium deals for eight of the league’s 13 franchises and a new $100 million advertising deal with Adidas all point toward an economically stable and growing sporting league. But these signs are not nearly enough to indicate that MLS will ever become relevant in the overcrowded American sporting market.

Enter Beckham.

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning. Signing David Beckham will not instantly turn MLS into a mainstream American sport competing with the likes of MLB, the NBA or the NFL. Nor will it unleash a migration of top European footballing talent towards America. Beckham will, however, give MLS the type of publicity boost it has never previously enjoyed.

Perhaps the most recognizable athlete in the world, Beckham garners a trail of headlines wherever he goes. After the Beckham signing was announced last Thursday, it became the headline story on ESPN.com in addition to a top story discussed on prominent shows such as Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption. Even CNN felt compelled to cover the story, conducting a live interview with Beckham from Madrid.

The attention created by the Beckham signing will manifest itself in many ways, including increased attendance, corporate investment, merchandise sales, TV ratings and an international following. For a man who has reportedly been asked by Brad Pitt to give his son soccer lessons, Galaxy games may even become an A-list event. The most crucial effect of Beckham’s signing, however, will be the increased interest in MLS of the common American sporting fan.

There is a market for soccer in America. This past summer, the World Cup between the U.S. and Italy drew a 5.2 overnight rating. To put that in perspective, the NHL finals averaged around 1.5 while the NBA finals averaged an 8.0 rating. The problem is that the current American soccer market demands top class soccer, and MLS’s product is by no means first-rate.

The increased interest of the common American sporting fan, like every other effect of the Beckham signing, will be short term, and if MLS plans to truly capitalize on the Beckham signing – to make itself relevant in the American sporting world – it must parlay the Beckham signing into a consistent improvement of MLS’s on-field product.

What Beckham has given MLS is an opportunity – a chance for soccer to finally become relevant in America.

And MLS has 250 million reasons not to mess this up.