For those still not aware, the orange team playing the role of the Washington Generals in Saturday’s MLS Cup was the Houston Dynamo.
It was easy to miss, what with all the hype around a single player on the LA Galaxy who happened to be married to a former pop star. That player—David Beckham, for those living under that infamous rock where like-minded Luddites apparently reside—was playing his last game in MLS and the league didn’t even try to pretend that it cared about much else.
It’s funny. Despite being a league that preaches the value of balanced rosters and forces its clubs into collective meritocracy (MLS prefers to call it parity), MLS sure does fawn over celebrity.
Now, let’s be fair: Beckham was a decent player, especially when surrounded by some quality pieces. However, to suggest that he was the most important piece of the Galaxy, or the most important player in MLS in 2012, is disingenuous.
What he was, and what he’ll be when he takes his road show to Paris, Beijing, Sydney, South London or the Moon, is a marketing machine. This, of course, isn’t news to anyone that has walked the Earth at anytime over the past 20-years. And, unfortunately, it’s through that lens that you must view him and, by extension, the last six years of MLS.
So, the Dynamo—back-to-back Eastern Conference champions and two-time MLS Cup champions—didn’t matter. This was the crowing moment of a six-year odyssey and MLS needed the story to end with confetti falling down on the great Brit’s head.
Now that MLS can enjoy the outcome it was so desperately cheering for, it’s time to analyze whether the whole thing was worth it. MLS observers are collectively writing the sequel to Grant Wahl’s The Beckham Experiment.
The results are mixed.
Those that are prone to see the positive influence of Beckham will look at the massive expansion that has been a cornerstone of his time in the league. Starting with Toronto, MLS has gone into Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Montreal. They also went back into San Jose, after the previous club there was moved to the aforementioned Houston.
Those cities came into a league that had a ‘hook’ in David Beckham. And, to some degree, the success MLS enjoyed at the box office (if not in the TV ratings) had something to do with the profile he provided MLS.
In turn, that success allowed many of those cities to build stadiums, which, ultimately lead to the long-term viability of the league.
Beckham gets a lot of credit for stadium expansion in MLS. How much of that credit he deserves is debatable, of course, but it’s difficult to separate how much of the support you see in places like Seattle, Portland or Kansas City is a result of the awareness he provided and how much was already there at the grassroots level.
Both sides of the debate have merit. The Timber’s Army for example were out in numbers to watch Portland back when it was playing the Puerto Rico Islanders. It would not be remotely fair to associate their MLS support with any single player, no matter how famous he might have been. However, even in Portland, supporter’s groups are a small portion of the total attendance, and the club needs the casual sports fan to buy in to fill grounds. Even in Portland you’ll find fans that were there because of No 23.
So, Beckham was important to the league, and without him it may not have expanded much beyond the niche fan it always had.
At least indirectly, Beckham has made MLS something people want to go and see. Attendance is at an all-time high and enough of the people he helped bring into the stadiums for the first time have stuck around to become fans of their local side. As such, the league will be just fine without him in 2013.
What Beckham failed to do, however, was to convert enough of those single club fans into fans of the league as a whole. That indifference manifests itself most obviously in the league’s TV numbers, which continue to struggle.
The MLS Cup drew a terrible 0.7 share in the US. To put that into context, the Tour de France came in at a 0.8 this year in the post-Lance Armstrong, this-sport-is-dirty-beyond-repair era. The numbers are slightly better in Canada. TSN reported that 187,000 Canadians (in U.S. terminology that’s a 1.4 share) watched the final and 335,000 watched the Vancouver Whitecaps playoff game against L.A. (works out to a 2.5 share).
MLS soccer in the US is next to invisible in United States and even Beckham couldn’t move the dial. As the league enters the next phase of its history—the post-Beckham-era—improving TV viewership is the biggest challenge it faces. The question that should be keeping Don Garber up at night is: how can MLS convert local fans into league fans and get them on their couch watching games that don’t involve their hometown team?
If the league is to take another step forward and legitimately start to compete with the second tier leagues of Europe and South America, it is imperative it finds a plausible answer.