$250 Million for Kicks
In 1931—in the middle of the Great Depression—New York Yankees slugger, Babe Ruth, demanded a salary of $80,000.
When Yankee management pointed out that this was more money than Herbert Hoover, the President of the United States, was making ($75,000), Ruth retorted, “I had a better year than he did.”
In my opinion, great athletes deserve great paychecks for two reasons: (1) They fill stadiums and produce giant TV ratings, and (2) Their peak earning power lasts only a few years.
I was never really aware of British-born European football (soccer) player David Beckham until last week, even though he’s the most recognized sports star in the world.
While soccer is huge in Latin America and Europe—except for blips on the U.S. sports radar screen, it has been a big ho-hum.
Beckham’s pay package of $50 million a year to play for the L.A. Galaxy, eclipses the salary of every other team athlete in the United States and perhaps the world. For example, the highest paid athlete in 2005 was Kobe Bryant of the L.A. Lakers whose salary was $31 million.
What makes the Beckham deal fascinating is that he’s not only being paid these vast sums to play soccer, but also to make America fall in love with a sport.
In direct marketing, this is called changing behavior.
Rome v. Argentina
In the fall of 1954, I got a taste of Europe’s passion for soccer. The scene was a game in Rome’s Foro Italico, the sprawling 1930’s Facista sports complex designed by Benito Mussolini. Rome was playing the Argentine. The stadium was filled to capacity and the roar of the crowd and raw emotion were palpable.
Late in the game, it was growing dark and Rome scored the winning goal. Everyone had brought a small pile of newspapers to sit on. As the final seconds ticked on the clock, a fan on the far side of the stadium rolled up his newspaper seating pad, lighted the top of it with a match and held it as high as a torch.
Others followed suit, and soon the entire eerily modernistic and sterile white stadium was ablaze with newspaper torches. When the game was over, the folks on the opposite side of the field started screaming, and the victorious Rome team ran over and accepted the kudos of the wildly enthusiastic crowd.
This was repeated in the other three quadrants, at which point, the torches began to burn down too low to hold and were extinguished, leaving a pall of smoke drifting upward into the darkening sky as the giddy crowds departed.
My companion, a Roman, related that the torches were a throwback to early Christianity where attendees to events at the Coliseum would light torches to show their approval of the show.
The whole experience was unforgettable.
Fast Forward Twenty Years
In the 1970s, the great Brazilian athlete, Pelé—playing for the New York Cosmos—spearheaded an abortive attempt to bring soccer to the United States via the North American Soccer League. Pelé and other international stars drew huge crowds, but the game never caught on and the league collapsed in 1984.
In 1999, women’s soccer made a splash when the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team—led by the charismatic Mia Hamm—made it to the World Cup finals. In that championship game, Brandi Chastain scored with a penalty kick against China to win the title, and in a moment of youthful exuberance, ripped off her shirt. The photograph of the exultant, young woman in a black sports bra, fists clenched and screaming with delight, sent an electric jolt around the world and wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But soon, the country lost interest in soccer, and the Women’s United Soccer League folded in 2003.
Manchester United at the Linc
I have lousy eyesight and do not enjoy games that have a small object of play—baseball and hockey. I grew up on Long Island in a house overlooking the second fairway of a golf course. I tried golf just once and discovered that with my poor vision, that every ball was a lost ball. I haven’t played since.
But in August 2003, our goddaughter called to say that she and her husband and baby were coming to Philadelphia to see Manchester United play Barcelona at Lincoln Financial Field (the Linc). When the match was announced, the 68,396 seats sold out in just 46 minutes—faster than Bruce Springsteen. Our goddaughter did not want to go and I was invited to use her ticket.
I did not care much for soccer, but this was to be the first event held at the Linc—the stadium that had just been completed for the Philadelphia Eagles NFL team—and I was anxious to see the new facility.
Even though our seats were in the nosebleed section—the absolute top row of the stadium—I had a clear view of the entire field and was able to follow the action because the ball was so large.
I did not care for soccer. It was an afternoon of watching ant-sized figures in constant motion to the point where I wished somebody would pick up the ball and start running with it. The whole thing seemed like a football game where all the players were wearing handcuffs. And I absolutely couldn’t figure out what was going on when officials in short pants would run onto the field waving red or yellow cards.
Will Soccer Make it in the United States?
David Beckham’s task of converting Americans into soccer aficionados is monumental.
True, more than 3 million kids are playing the game and the American team is ranked fifth in the world. Currently, Major League Soccer has two conferences—Eastern and Western—with six teams each. The attendance is the poorest by far of any major North American team sport. For example:
Summer Sport. The soccer season runs from April to November, roughly parallel to baseball. For sports fans who want constant action (as in football, hockey and basketball), soccer is an antidote to the cerebral game of baseball. For example, someone once ran a stopwatch during a series of baseball games and discovered that the 2-1/2 hour game yielded an average of just nine minutes of action.
Conditioning. A soccer game is made up of two, 45-minute halves. With no unlimited substitution, soccer players only get to rest during the intermission. Otherwise, they’re running full tilt the entire hour-and-a-half. No other athletic endeavor requires this degree of conditioning, with the possible exception of the marathon.
Size of the Ball. Soccer may be the easiest ball game to follow, because the size 5 ball—which has a circumference of 27-28 inches and weighs roughly one pound—is on the ground and in plain sight at all times.
Danger. Unlike football or hockey, soccer players wear no padding—shirts, shorts and shoes. Yet they can crash into each other or be tripped up, resulting in nasty falls and potential injury. Danger is sexy to sports fans.
Empty Stadiums. That 2006 Eastern Conference Championship game was held in Washington’s 56,000-seat RFK Stadium. Attendance: 19,552, which means the stadium was two-thirds empty. Depressing!
World Cup. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup is held only every four years. Can you imagine a Stanley Cup, Super Bowl or World Series held only once in four years?
No Hands. Soccer is a game of kicking. Only the goalie can use his hands. Virtually every other team sport in the world depends on excellent hand-eye coordination.
Backward Kicks. Writing for pubclub.com, The Bartender summed up one real problem with soccer for Americans:
They pass the ball backward too much. That’s it in a nutshell. “Experts” can argue about a lack of scoring but the real issue is the lack of an attempt to score. Americans are used to going forward in sports, to attack the basket or go for the end zone. Even Woody Hayes’ old “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense was designed to move the ball forward.
In soccer, it’s a pass backward here, another pass backward there, then another, and so on. “Boring!” Americans say. In three games in World Cup ‘06, Team USA had exactly one goal and only two shots on goal. Think about that for a second—two shots on goal in 4-1/2 hours of play.
No Substitutions. Another deal that’s killer for sports fans is found in Law 3 of soccer’s official rules:
* from that moment, the substitute becomes a player and the player he has replaced ceases to be a player
* a player who has been replaced takes no further part in the match
The only major league team sport that does not allow unlimited substitution is baseball. But every half-inning, baseball players are relaxing in the dugout. On the soccer field of play, athletes are continually on the run, which turns the game into an endurance contest. In the last minutes of the game, fans can hardly expect a bunch of whipped dogs to play with the same pyrotechnics they exhibited in the opening half.
Enter David Beckham
The announcement that Timothy J. Leiweke, CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, offered David “Becks” Beckham $250 million to leave the Real Madrid team for the L.A. Galaxy has Los Angeles in a tizzy. Behind the move is the 89th richest man in the world with a net worth of $6.4 billion—the reclusive Denver mogul, Philip Anschutz, 66. From the March 9, 2006 Forbes story, “The World’s Billionaires:”
Father owned contract drilling company. Phil bought dad out 1961, struck big in Wyoming, Utah. Moved into stocks, real estate, railroads. Laid fiber along rail lines, took public as Qwest Communications. Now runs wide-ranging empire in telecom, sports, entertainment. Biggest holding: theater chain Regal Cinemas. Also owns LA’s Staples Center, stakes in pro basketball’s LA Lakers, hockey’s Kings. Promotes family-values agenda through various motion picture projects. Latest hit: “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which racked up more than $650 million at the box office.
On a par with the biggest deal in sports history is the hoopla caused by the arrival in Lalaland of Mrs. David Beckham. She is the former Victoria Caroline Adams, one of the Spice Girls—a.k.a. Posh Spice—singer, designer of the Rock and Republic line of clothes and a bud of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. She flew into LAX on Saturday, January 13, wearing a gray cap and sunglasses where she was greeted by mobs of paparazzi and gawking Los Angelenos. She took no questions and was whisked through the crowds to a black sport utility vehicle.
The Ultimate Question: Can David Beckham and Posh Spice Put U.S. Soccer on the Map?
Time will tell.
My bet is no.