What's Major League Soccer Without Beckham?

Dec 11, 2011
Originally published on December 11, 2011 9:58 am

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

David Beckham - when you hear that name, you probably think of one of today's greatest soccer players.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Can he bend it? Beckham. It's in the net. Beckham is going to slide over the half-point line and he is going to (unintelligible) the net. What a goal for David Beckham.

Beckham has played for some of the world's biggest teams: Manchester United, Real Madrid and A.C. Milan. In 2007, he shocked the soccer world by signing a multiyear contract with Major League Soccer here in the U.S. The L.A. Galaxy signed the soccer hero for what was reported to be as much as $250 million. As that contract comes to an end and Beckham decides whether to stay or go, we wanted to talk about whether it was all worth it for the team, the fans, for Major League Soccer. Joining me now from our New York bureau David Henry Sterry. He is the co-author of the book, "The Glorious World Cup: A Fanatic's Guide." David, welcome to the program.

DAVID HENRY STERRY: Hi. It's great to be here, thank you.

CORNISH: So, just how big were the expectations for Beckham when he came to the U.S.?

STERRY: Well, basically, they thought he was Jesus and Moses and possibly Buddha rolled into one.

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STERRY: I doubt if anybody can live up to that. And the whole thing was so bizarre right from the beginning because there was this gigantic announcement: $250 million for David Beckham. And you saw it everywhere on the website, every time you opened up your computer: $250 million. That total was completely fabricated. But in fact, the contract was, I think, $32 million. And before they even announced he was on the team, they sold a quarter of a million copies of his uniform. So, they immediately started recouping that money. Beyond the money, it had enormous ramifications for Major League Soccer and soccer in America.

CORNISH: Well, let's talk about that a little bit more. First, say, Major League Soccer: how did this affect the credibility of the league or how it's perceived compared to five years ago?

STERRY: Well, it was a little bit like in the old NASL. You know, they've been trying to do this in America, to make soccer important for decades and decades.

CORNISH: And the NASL was the North American Soccer League...

STERRY: North American Soccer League.

CORNISH: ...in the 1970s.

STERRY: They brought in Pele.

CORNISH: They just brought over Pele.

STERRY: Yes, and Beckenbauer and the biggest - they had like an all-star team for the cosmos. But that lent an instant credibility to that league just as signing David Beckham did for the MLS. And then you saw Thierry Henry come in in New York. They just brought Robbie Keane, who's a phenomenal top-line player. I mean, these guys are all at the end of their career, as is David Beckham. But he brings something that very few other people in any sport bring. How many athletes have had a movie named after them - "Bend It like Beckham." I mean, that's sort of cultural cache. It's hard to even put a price value on that.

CORNISH: Well, OK, now we know what the L.A. Galaxy has gotten out of this and we know a little bit about what Beckham has gotten out of it. What about soccer fans?

STERRY: Yeah. It really made soccer kind of sexy in America, which it has never been. But Beckham and Posh Spice and all of the sudden he comes to America and he's hanging out with Will Smith and he's hanging out with Tom Cruise, and his movie star wife...

CORNISH: Right, because arguably - I want to just put in a word here for sexy soccer players, of which I think there are many - but you're talking about a dose of Hollywood.

STERRY: No, I'm not talking about the actual men with their rippling abs, no, which there are plenty of. And God love them. But I'm talking about the idea of soccer. It just has never really caught on. The last World Cup, there was gigantic interest in America and enormous amount of financial resources put behind that. But, still, the MLS is not the United States' soccer team. And the MLS has been growing slowly but surely. The teams now have dedicated stadiums. And it gave that league a gigantic boost, it really did. Recently, Major League Soccer passed the NBA and the NHL in average attendance.

CORNISH: So, what is the future for Major League Soccer in this country?

STERRY: I think it's in a fantastic position to sort of solidify what they have now. We have about two years 'til the next World Cup. And the World Cup and MSL sort of feed each other. And with the frenzy that's going to come with the next World Cup, which is in Brazil, I think it's going to really help the MLS sort of solidify themselves. But I think if they can get a couple more really big-name soccer players, it's going to be a tremendous spurt of growth for Major League Soccer and soccer in general in America.

CORNISH: David Henry Sterry. He's the co-author of "The Glorious World Cup: A Fanatic's Guide." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

STERRY: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.