‘The Beckham Experiment,’ the highly-anticipated book by Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl hit bookstores this week. It provides an in-depth look at David Beckham’s two-year stint with the LA Galaxy, recapping a tumultuous period for the player, his team and Major League Soccer.
Beckham was introduced by the Galaxy to much fanfare in 2007. The project was an experiment from the start and Wahl provides an inside view of some of the events that made it happen. How did the Beckham experiment fare? From a financial perspective, just fine. Record crowds flocked to Galaxy games (as long as Beckham was with the team, of course) and bought No. 23 Galaxy jerseys, resulting in a terrific monetary windfall for the team and the league. But from nearly every other perspective, the experiment was a disaster. The Galaxy were hopelessly mismanaged and ill-equipped to deal with a player (much less a “brand”) of Beckham’s star power. The team performed dismally on the field, failing to make the playoffs in both of Beckham’s seasons. More importantly, Beckham’s presence did not raise the profile of soccer in the U.S. Television ratings for MLS games remain downright microscopic (the Scrabble All-Star Championship had better ratings than Beckham’s MLS debut). Despite sell-out crowds in Toronto and Seattle (and next year, Philadelphia) average attendance at MLS games has trailed off. Mainstream media coverage is just as elusive as it was before Beckham, if not more so.
Of course, we do not need to read Wahl’s book to provide us this information. It is painfully obvious to anybody who follows the league. But ‘The Beckham Experiment’ tells us exactly where MLS went wrong. The book is not so much about Beckham or even the Galaxy, but about the preeminent professional soccer league in North America. In this, it appears to be the first of its kind. But what it tells us about the league should cause alarm bells at MLS headquarters.
MLS executives insisted that unlike its predecessor (the NASL) it was fully-equipped to handle Beckham and everything that came with him, figuratively and literally. Asked why the Beckham experiment would be more successful over the long term than Pele’s foray with the New York Cosmos, “the word you heard was infrastructure,” Wahl writes. But MLS, with its “single entity business model”, was so obsessed to not repeat the mistakes of its predecessor, that by the time of Beckham’s arrival it had essentially micromanaged itself into near oblivion. Infrastructure or not, the LA Galaxy simply did not have the resources to integrate Beckham. This was partly due to managerial dysfunction (Alexi Lalas and Tim Leiweke took turns feuding with Beckham’s management company and with each other), poor coaching (Frank Yallop and, more egregiously, Ruud Gullit) but largely due to league rules. With the most recognizable athlete on the planet in tow, the team was forced to fly coach and stay in crummy hotels. Due to a strict salary cap, it was not permitted to sign any players that might improve the squad. MLS’ refusal to honor FIFA international dates meant the Galaxy were without Beckham and Donovan (their two best players, by far) for key games.
The league’s salary cap also took its toll on team morale. With Beckham and Donovan earning seven-figures and most role players earning in the low fives, it created a culture that Wahl compares to a third world social economy (tiny upper class, sizeable lower class, no middle class to speak of). Many players with the Galaxy and elsewhere in MLS are essentially semi-pros, forced to hold down second jobs and keep roommates. Integrating them with the likes of David Beckham into a cohesive unit would likely be beyond the means of just about anybody, least of all Frank Yallop or Ruud Gullit (or Alexi Lalas).
Then there were other bush league aspects of MLS that may not have been the result of its salary cap but cast doubt on all the talk about infrastructure. When Beckham entered the league in 2007, five of MLS’ 13 teams had fake grass fields, a situation one member of the Galaxy compared to “Eric Clapton showing up and playing a Fisher Price guitar.” MLS officiating was–and still is–atrocious and quickly became the scapegoat for Beckham’s pent up frustrations. (Wahl recounts one particularly out-of-character episode from a game at RFK Stadium).
Worse, the Galaxy’s schedule was stretched to the breaking point by a myriad of exhibition games that were put on to showcase its biggest star and further pad its coffers. Without the adequate roster depth (due again to the salary cap) its players faced burnout or injury.
Further dooming the Beckham experiment was its namesake being recalled into the English national team by new coach Fabio Capello. Wahl does not mention this in the book, but the Galaxy signed Beckham believing his national team days to be behind him. The travel quickly became overbearing and by the end of the 2008 season, Beckham had let himself get out of shape.
No surprise then that Beckham soon began to seek an exit from MLS, though the Englishman also played a sizable role in The Experiment’s failure. Wahl recounts his by now well-publicized falling out with Donovan, but also shows Becks to be surprisingly tone deaf and ineffectual as a leader and captain. So much for being an ambassador of the sport.
For hardcore U.S. soccer fans, this stuff is catnip. But casual fans of the game, to say nothing of fans of Beckham the pop culture icon, will be disappointed with ‘The Beckham Experiment.’ For them, the book breaks no new ground, offering up at best a few footnotes to Beckham’s legend.
But its greatest service is to MLS. The book demonstrates how, far from having the proper “infrastructure,” the league was unprepared and ill-equipped for his Beckness. It forged ahead anyway, because as Galaxy owner Philip Anschutz says in the book, “We need to do this for the league, because if we’re ever going to expand our ratings and our audience and get credibility in our country, we’re going to need star to break through.”
Wrong, and wrong. MLS doesn’t need a “star” like Beckham. It needs a quality product that the country’s existing base of soccer fans can take seriously. It has handcuffed its clubs, preventing them from building the type of professional environment the sport needs and deserves. Only if it removes the shackles and allows full professionalism to take hold, will it develop the credibility it so desperately seeks. Then and only then can a star like Beckham bring it to the next level. But that interim step is a big one. And the league needs to let it happen.
Surely, Don Garber and the other suits at MLS headquarters will read the book if they haven’t already. But will they get its message?