Actual vs. Perceived – What really was the impact of David Beckham on MLS?

I have started writing this blog post a couple of times since David Beckham left the LA Galaxy, and with his announced retirement from football, a lot of people are calming a lot of things, and I just don’t buy a lot of it. Now to be honest I am happy MLS brought David Beckham over, I am glad they did it in the way that they did by creating the DP role.  I probably would have been just as happy as a fan if they had brought Ronaldo over to New York Red Bulls as the league was talking about before Beckham.  I am happy that it eventually ended some players being excluded from the Salary Cap, Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, Carlos Ruiz, and that the DP rule allowed every team the chance to sign a player to a higher salary without destroying their roster.

I am happy that Beckham was able to be on Oprah and made the late night TV rounds, I am happy that ESPN seemed to care a bit more when Beckham played.   I am happy that he brought more fans out to the Home Depot Center, and for several years to every stadium he played in.   I am happy that he sold a lot of jerseys, that the MLS marketing department could pimp him out like one of those cute little dogs that the celebs carry in their purses.  I don’t believe for a second that David Beckham hurt MLS at all, but when I look beyond the hype, beyond the generalities, I don’t see anywhere near the impact that some do.  So I thought maybe it was time to look at some key things and how David Beckham impacted them, of course like a lot of things it is hard to draw a direct causation between one person and particular results.  I think too often people take a correlation and try to play it as causation, so let’s start by looking at what they mean:

“an action or occurrence can cause another (such as smoking causes lung cancer), or it can correlate with another (such as smoking is correlated with alcoholism). If one action causes another, then they are most certainly correlated. But just because two things occur together does not mean that one caused the other, even if it seems to make sense.”

So there are a few key areas that I think we can blow out of the water fairly quickly:

  1. David Beckham was a key to getting more SSS’s (Soccer Specific Stadiums) built – now that might sound nice, and heck in the case of Real Salt Lake it might be true (but that was more with Real Madrid than MLS), but beyond that this is one of those correlations that has no facts attached to it.  Let’s look at SSS’s which opened since Beckham signed with MLS (13 July 2007):
    1. Rio Tinto Stadium – Real Salt Lake – Beckham’s role with Real Madrid may have played a role
    2. PPL Park – Philadelphia Union – No connection to Beckham planned before his arrival
    3. Red Bull Arena – NY Red Bulls – No connection to Beckham planned before his arrival
    4. Sporting Park – Sporting KC – No connection to Beckham, part of move from Arrowhead
    5. BBVA Compass Stadium – Houston Dynamo – No connection to Beckham, reason team moved from San Jose
  2. David Beckham helped MLS TV coverage – Yes a couple of matches got a pop from featuring David Beckham but there has been no long term rise in MLS TV ratings or revenue as a result of his signing.  Remember MLS took less money from NBC Sports to get in more households than Fox Soccer Channel, but overall numbers are fairly stagnant.
    1. ESPN/2 numbers show an initial Beckham bump in 2007, and then back down to lower numbers than the 2 seasons before his arrival:
      MLS TV Ratings
      so while we might have seen a few more highlights from time to time, the reality is that there has been no real impact on the National TV market or ratings as a result of the David Beckham signing.  No matter how much people want to believe otherwise
    2. LA Galaxy – Now here is where his impact has been huge.  At the end of the 2011 season the LA Galaxy signed a 10 year $55 million dollar local TV deal with the local Time Warner regional sports network.  So for the Galaxy there has been a huge impact but that simply never materialized with our National TV partners or in most other local TV markets.
  3. David Beckham helped MLS attendance – This one is interesting, as the league wide average numbers have increased since 2007, but I believe that growth is in a much larger part due to expansion rather than Beckham?
    1. In 2006 the league had an average attendance of 15,504 and in 2007 it was 16,770, but 2007 also saw Toronto FC enter the league with an average of over 19,000 per match.  So total MLS attendance in 2006 was 2,976,787 and in 2007 it was 3,270,210, which is a bump of 293,423. So TFC played 15 matches at home, with an average of 19,089 paid tickets that is 297,135, and more than covers the overall ticket bump of 2007 and then some.
    2. 2008 actually saw the league average go down from 16,770 to 16,460, but the overall number jumped as San Jose rejoined the league.  Overall attendance was 3,456,641, but again no bump from Beckham, just a bump from a new team joining the league.
    3. 2009 saw the average go down yet again to 16,040 despite the Sounders joining the league with huge numbers of about 30K per match.  A big part was the economic issues, but still trying to claim that there was a positive influence on attendance by Beckham, I just see no proof of a league wide impact.
    4. I don’t have year by year numbers of overall attendance for the LA Galaxy but I have no doubt that there was a Beckham bounce for them. However there are some interesting numbers that I do know, in 2007 there were 9,765 season ticket holders for the LA Galaxy that number was down to under 6,000 in both 2009 and 2010.  So while there may have been some great walk up crowds, not even in LA was all the news good.
  4. Advertising, Sponsors, Merchandise sales – Here is where I have little doubt that David Beckham and MLS’s pimping of him paid off, but these are things that MLS never really releases any quantitative data for.  Heck the rarely release any numbers of any sort.  I have little doubt that these numbers are probably fairly impressive, but again is this a case that we can prove causation, or was the overall addition of new markets or the fact that SUM became a bigger part of how the league and sport were marketed?  In 2011 Nielsen released their Year in Sport report, which used a stat called the “N-Score” it was a stat used to look at a sports figures overall endorsement potential, David Beckham was given a 95, which puts him in the top 20% of sports figures in the US, but far behind people like Peyton Manning (249), Wayne Gretzkey (203), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (217), and LeBron James (131).  Still he made an impact, it is just hard to quantify it in this area.
  5. MLS’s Image and Awareness – This is where I think David Beckham made the greatest impact, and to be honest I think most of it probably took place outside of the United States.  MLS went from a irrelevant league of unknown players, to where global superstar David Beckham played. He didn’t return to the EPL, he didn’t go to Italy or France, he came to the United States and forced soccer fans around the world to pay attention.

There is little doubt that most people consider David Beckham’s time in MLS to be important, I would agree with that, but for me it was taking what was things like owners forcing the DP rule and not just a one-time exception to the salary cap.  It was the impact on league awareness (which may or may not actually pay off for the league in a tangible way), and helping to usher in the new era of MLS which started with the expansion of 2005 and is continuing today.  No I don’t believe a single stadium was built because Beckham was here, no I don’t believe a single new franchise was formed because of Beckham, and anyone who claims those things, needs to come up with some type of proof, before making such claims.

I put it on twitter earlier today, but thought I would share it with you all here.  My favorite David Beckham memory was from the 2009 MLS Cup, and probably not one that most Galaxy or Beckham fans will like.  Shortly after Robbie Russell converted the winning PK shootout goal to give Real Salt Lake the Cup, I looked over and saw a very sad, on the verge of tears David Beckham.  Here was a guy who gave it his all and by no fault of his, was a loser on this day.  Still he was classy and yes he came in to congratulate the RSL players after the match, yet on that day it was RSL lifting the trophy that is my greatest MLS memory, and the other side of it just happened to be David Beckham.  He brought a level of class, dignity, and professionalism to MLS and for that as a fan I will forever be in his debt.

That’s How I See It

One comment

  1. Matt Swift says:

    Great article! I’m a huge Beckham fan and about to write a huge piece on him for my website. Before I did I wanted to get a broader perspective of what he did for MLS and how others perceived his time in MLS. Though I’m not sure if I 100% agree with you on all your points, it was a great article with valid points. Thanks for sharing.

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