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Is Beckham still hot enough to spark soccer in U.S.?

January 14, 2007|Jim Litke | Associated Press

People will read who's headed for Hollywood and assume they've seen this movie before.

Not "Bend It Like Beckham," of course, but the movie in which an aging soccer star relocates to America and tries to help the game take flight. Just because that one ended badly, all the soccer-haters want to believe this one will too.

Remember: 31-year-old David Beckham barely was born when the central events depicted in "Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos" took place during the 1970s. The past can be a dangerous place to live. Go rent "Once in a Lifetime," and you'll see why.

The terrific little documentary chronicles the rise and fall of the North American Soccer League -- this country's first real flirtation with the world's most popular game. During the 1970s, a few corporate moguls with influence and deep pockets spent lavishly to collect over-the-hill icons such as Pele, Johan Cruyff and Giorgio Chinaglia and tried to sell the sport from the top down.

After a heady few seasons marked by big crowds and rampant overspending, interest fell off, the bottom fell out and the NASL closed up shop in 1984. It was another 10 years before America's next flirtation with soccer, playing host to the 1994 World Cup, which gave rise to the NASL's successor, Major League Soccer.

This time around, despite bringing in Beckham to add polish and buzz, the guys in charge are watching every penny and committed to building from the bottom up -- no matter how long the haul. Nearly all of the reported $250-million package it took to bring Beckham across the Atlantic will come from his endorsers rather than the league.

"Everyone in MLS believes if there is a tipping point to come, it will come when we have a homegrown American player considered to be one of the top players in the world, or that combined with a great performance on the big stage, perhaps even winning a World Cup," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Thursday.

"That said, David can certainly take us to another level than where we are today, attention-wise. But this is as much a sporting move as an entertainment move. Pele was 34 when he arrived. David is the same age as Tiger [Woods], Peyton Manning and [Allen] Iverson," Garber added.

"Like them, he's a guy with a lot of years left. And in Los Angeles, mentoring a young guy like Landon Donovan is a bonus. So there's so much more to this than whether we get covered by the entertainment reporters."

Not that it will hurt business.

Neither Beckham's game nor his popularity is what it used to be, and he'll be used mainly to lure the curious inside the tent. What's changed is Garber and the money men backing him have a real plan to keep the interested coming back.

They're counting on the dollars pumped into the sport by Nike and Adidas to fuel development programs, which someday will turn up that homegrown star American soccer so desperately covets. Right now more kids in the United States play the game than any other -- more, in fact, than many of the world's traditional powers.

Of course, as a very savvy marketer once explained, if participation numbers translated into audience ratings, everybody in America would be playing touch football and watching bike racing on TV. Garber understands that too.

So what the MLS is doing in the meantime to build the business is propping up franchises in towns with a demonstrated fan base and working to build soccer-specific stadiums there. No matter how gradual, the more attractive the sport becomes, the better talent it attracts. The more money that pours in, the longer some of that talent will stick around, instead of peeling off for basketball, football and baseball.

"And by the way," Garber said, "we're not the one pushing to have this happen quickly. Not that we'd object to it happening quickly. It's just that we plan to be patient."

So think of Beckham and even his wife, the former Posh Spice, as a way for the MLS to buy time, add some credibility or even hold space. It's like putting down another marker for all those little soccer-playing kids, a cultural signpost along what Garber called "the path of establishing our own soccer nation."

Stranger things, after all, have happened.

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