By Hillel Aron
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YOU COULD BE FORGIVEN, in this town, for thinking David Beckham is just some English bloke who plays a sport most Americans don’t follow. You could also be forgiven for thinking that the five-year, $250 million package that will bring him to Los Angeles to play for Major League Soccer’s Galaxy this summer is completely loopy. After all, an entire Major League Baseball team can be operated with that kind of money — a sport that, unlike soccer, people here actually go to see.
But here’s the thing: It’s not about the soccer. Beckham may have only an incidental profile in California, including Los Angeles. He is, at 31, past his prime as a player. But in the world as a whole he is bigger than the pope, President Bush or any number of A-list Hollywood stars. Grown men and women scream at him anytime he walks in or out of an international airport. He’s a permanent fixture in international gossip columns, tabloids and the sports pages.
For four years he’s been a monster money-spinner for Real Madrid, the Spanish club he is now leaving — whether he has occupied center stage on the field or whether, as in the past few months, he’s been left dangling on the bench.
He’s now widely expected to generate further monster profits — a whole new industry, really — in L.A. and the United States.
A few years ago, Beckham was in Japan — where professional soccer has existed barely longer than in the U.S. — and one of his sponsors, Adidas, invited him on a private tour of its Tokyo flagship store. Adidas promised to keep the visit secret, and the store closed for an hour so that Beckham could have the run of the place. Shortly after he arrived, though, someone spotted him through a window. In 20 minutes, a crowd of 20,000 had spontaneously crushed together on the sidewalks, refusing to budge for five hours and leaving Beckham a virtual prisoner inside.
He is, in sports-marketing terms, John, Paul, George and Ringo rolled into one. When Beckham left his signature English club, Manchester United, for Real Madrid in 2003, jersey sales at the Spanish club jumped from 900,000 per year to more than 3 million. His team members were not unknowns. Beckham’s fellow players included Ronaldo, the Brazilian superstar, and Zinedine Zidane of France — arguably the two best soccer practitioners on the planet. But in marketing terms, neither of them could touch him.
On the first day the number-23 Beckham jersey was in stores, Real Madrid did about $1 million in business. The jerseys became almost an economic bellwether of the other cash Beckham generated — multimillion-dollar sponsorships from Adidas, Siemens, Pepsi and others, increased ticket receipts and increased revenue from television rights.
“What he did was boost the brand and the visibility of the club,” says John Carlin, author of White Angels, which chronicles the Beckham phenomenon in Spain. “Manchester United failed to get the point, which is why they let him go. They based their decision on their evaluation of him as a football player. But that wasn’t the point at all.”
The same may prove true in Los Angeles. Within days of announcing its acquisition of Beckham, Galaxy sold 5,000 season tickets — twice as many as it has sold in any past season. The American Youth Soccer Organization and other youth leagues consist of 22 million kids, and it’s a fair bet that a hefty percentage will want a Beckham jersey sooner or later. Adidas, which has been associated with Beckham for years, is into the third year of a 10-year, $150 million sponsorship deal with Major League Soccer — a price that looked awfully steep in 2004, but doesn’t look so steep now. Recently, three television networks — ESPN, Fox and Univision — acquired the broadcasting rights to Major League Soccer for a total of $20 million annually.
According to Jeff Bliss, a sports-marketing consultant who spearheaded marketing of the World Cup when it was hosted by the U.S. in 1994, the very announcement of the Beckham deal in January put Major League Soccer on the global map. He says a deal on global television rights is now much more likely — for highlights, if not for entire games — as are the prospects of luring other big-name players to the U.S.
“If you look at Beckham as just a soccer player, then they’re paying way too much. That’s absolutely correct,” Bliss says. “But he’s much more than a soccer player. He is a Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus type of athlete who doesn’t just transcend his own sport. He transcends sport itself. He’s going to attract a whole new demographic of casual sports fans — and of women and girls in particular. Even people who don’t care much about soccer. If he goes into the movies, the likelihood of success is very high.”
Yet the Manchester United executive who let Beckham go in 2003, Peter Kenyon, looked at his prowess on the field and figured 25 million euros up front ($32 million) was a good price to let Beckham go to Real Madrid. José Angel Sánchez, the Real Madrid marketing manager who was the first to see Beckham’s full commercial potential, couldn’t believe his luck. As he told Carlin, he and Real Madrid’s president calculated that Beckham was worth 500 million euros to them. Twenty-five million was cacahuetes— peanuts.