Sunday, January 14, 2007

SportsOpinion: Over-The-Hill "Savior" Worth Every Cent

Meet David Beckham. The most famous athlete in the world. Not America. THE WORLD. He is also, at age 31, a has-been. Now don't get me wrong. Playing in the soccer equivalent to US minor league baseball, known as the MLS (catchy acronym for the product branded as "Major League Soccer", get it?), Beckham will probably be as successful as Barry Bonds batting clean-up in a beer league softball game.

Now relax. This article is NOT about sports. Or about "Becks and Posh" for that matter. That would be a story for "Gossip" or "Night Life" or Page 6 of the N.Y. Post. And it's definitely not about him playing for a team (the Los Angeles Galaxy) that isn't even the most popular team playing in it's own stadium (that would be Chivas USA but, mercifully, that's a story I'm never going to write).

And no, it's not even about one man getting paid over a quarter-of-a billion dollars to play in a league where most of the players don't make in a season what Beckham will make in a his first hour (that's right, one hour) in uniform.

So, if David Beckham isn't here to make American soccer better, or to champion for higher pay for pro athletes who earn less per year than a line cook at TGI Friday's, or to return a team to it's former glory (give me a break, this is minor league soccer, remember?), then what is he here for? The love of the game? To elevate soccer in the US to the place it already holds with the rest of the world? Probably not.

As they say, just follow the money.

According to the league's own website, investment in the MLS increased by over $1 billion in the last 18 months. This includes extensions of television contracts with ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel through 2014, as well as new contracts with NBA billionaire Mark Cuban's HD Net and Spanish language broadcasting giant Univision.

Last year Anschutz Entertainment Group, owner of the Galaxy (and at one time as many as 5 MLS franchises simultaneously), sold it's New York franchise to the Red Bull group for $100 million, and on January 8th of this year(three days before the signing of Beckham), sold off it's DC United franchise for $33 million, dropping it's current franchise ownership number to 3. Overall, the league's 13 teams are now owned by 9 investment groups with a net worth in excess of $10 billion between them.

And that was BEFORE the signing of The Savior.

So what is the reason?

Pure, short-term profit.

Of the $50 to $55 million annual income Beckham will receive, only around $10 million will be salary. The other forty-plus million will come in the form of already-existing sponsorship ($25 million from Motorola, Pepsi, Gillette, Volkswagen, etc.), shirt sales ($10 million), and revenue sharing (another $10 million from the profits of the Galaxy). Given that AEG has unloaded $133 million in dead weight in the last year, the signing David Beckham hasn't cost them a penny.

That's great! So now, on to the future.

In five years, when David Beckham is no more or two years after that, when the TV contracts expire, what then? Given that league attendance averages less than 15,000 per game (and many observers claim it's much less than that), where will the profit come from?

I have no idea.

Maybe by then there will be a whole new generation of billionaires with big piles of discretionary dollars cluttering numbered accounts in countries where soccer is still called football. Maybe they will invest whatever it takes to get the sport's next great has-been to come to America to introduce "The Beautiful Game" to a whole new generation of potential fans. Why not? History repeats itself all the time.

Yeah, and maybe next you'll tell me there will be another NFL franchise in this town before history repeats itself again, and again, and...

Never mind.

Copyright © 2007 Bill Friday