Pelé v Beckham
Which of the icons had the greater impact on football in the USA?
David Beckham's decision to spurn Paris Saint-Germain's offer to pay him a reported $1 million a month for a year and a half prompted much scratching of heads. His choice, apparently, was based on the fact his family is happy in Los Angeles, but staying in the US will also give Beckham the opportunity to realise the unfulfilled promise made in 2007 by Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy.
"David Beckham will have a greater impact on soccer in America than any athlete has ever had on a sport globally," Leiweke said before Beckham arrived. "David is truly the only individual that can build the 'bridge' between soccer in America and the rest of the world."
It hasn't happened, largely because that bridge had already been built in the 1970s by an even bigger football icon: Pelé.
Ron Newman has done just about everything when it comes to football in the United States. Following a career in England that included stops at Portsmouth and Gillingham, Newman came to the US in 1967, played and managed in the North American Soccer League (NASL), coached the indoor team in San Diego to 10 championships and was at the helm of Sporting Kansas City (then called "the Wiz") when thry began to play in Major League Soccer.
On one occasion, he even served as a goal post.
In the early days of the NASL, soccer wasn't part of the American landscape. Recognising the need to introduce the game to children, Newman started football leagues in each city he lived in. At that time, football equipment was difficult to find in the US and so Newman was forced to improvise during one of his son's games in the early 1970s. "Someone crashed into the goal," Newman recalled. "It wasn't as well-made as they are now, and it broke. So to keep the game going, I went out and stood there with the crossbar on my head and stood where the goalpost was."
Because baseball and American football dominated the sports scene at the time, very few US children grew up playing soccer. There were only about 100,000 youth football participants in the United States in the mid-seventies, while the professional league barely registered on the general consciousness. In 1974, the NASL was floundering, with 11 of the 15 franchises drawing fewer than 10,000 spectators per game. The league was mostly ignored by the media and its games were rarely televised. Even the 1974 World Cup final broadcast in the United States was a BBC feed.
In addition to his leagues, Newman would visit schools to spread the gospel of football. He recalled one particular trip in Georgia. "The principal greeted me warmly and said she was so excited about the visit, telling me the kids couldn't wait to see the things that I could do," he said. "I was feeling good about the trip when she added, 'I've always admired you people. I just don't know how you manage to stand up on those skates!'"
It was against that backdrop that Pelé arrived in the United States in 1975. Signing a three-year, $4.7 million deal (an enormous amount at the time), with the New York Cosmos, Pelé brought instant attention to the league and the sport.
Football moved front and centre as Pelé's first game was broadcast live on national television. While the average attendance for the NASL in 1974 was 7,825 per game, huge crowds turned out to see Pelé, including a then-record 35,620 for the Cosmos's game in Washington.
Burgeoning crowds forced the Cosmos to move their games from the dilapidated Downing Stadium to baseball's Yankee Stadium and eventually to the 78,000-seat Giants Stadium. Meanwhile, the team was fêted in nightclubs around New York and Pelé even visited the White House. Before long, football fever swept the country.
Andy Northern grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and remembers the hoopla for a sport that few knew much about. "The first time I saw Pelé play was his first game against Dallas in 1975," said Northern. "I was surprised the local TV station showed the game. Next I was watching his farewell game broadcast on ABC in 1977. [By then] I was more interested because I had been playing for a couple of seasons. This was also around the time the NASL announced the expansion team for Memphis. More people in this area became aware of Pelé because of the expansion and, as a way to educate the masses, the local newspapers and TV stations always used him as the face of soccer. I can't count the number of times they showed the footage of Pelé scoring with a bicycle kick."
Pelé played his last match in 1977, helping the Cosmos win the NASL championship. By the next year, the NASL had ballooned to 24 teams with franchises starting in the country's mid-section, places like Memphis and Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the new teams, Philadelphia, was partly owned by Rick Wakeman and Paul Simon.
Investors were keen to buy into the NASL and they lured other big-name footballers, such as Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore, Eusébio, Gordon Banks, Johan Cryuff and Carlos Alberto Torres. But while the Cosmos had the financial backing of Warner Brothers, the other owners struggled to meet the cost of bringing other high-profile players to America. Attendances fell, and the league never found a television network for its games, a huge factor in its demise.
Still, by the time the NASL folded in 1984, football had taken root. Youth leagues were commonplace in the United States and, by 1990, the number of children playing the sport had soared to 2 million. That year, the United States played in the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.
The United States hosted the World Cup four years later — thanks in large part to Pelé's decision to endorse the US bid over that of his native Brazil. A new outdoor league, Major League Soccer, started in 1996 and a year later European football began to be televised regularly on Fox Sports World. It changed its name to Fox Soccer Channel in 2005; within 12 months it was showing football exclusively. Gol TV, another football-only network, launched in 2003.
By 2004, national youth football registration was at 3.1 million, and it was inconceivable that anyone in the United States would not at least know something about the sport, whether or not they were a football fan. Certainly no one by then would have confused football with ice hockey.
While Beckham completed his five-year contract with the Galaxy this year, it's clear that he never had a chance to fulfil Lewieke's boast, although there was an initial flurry of attention. Early on, the tabloids gushed about the parties Beckham and his wife Victoria attended with Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise and Will Smith, while Victoria had her own TV special.
"Where the only player Americans knew was Pelé [in the 1970s], Beckham was of course better known because of his image and sponsoring of so many non-soccer items, plus his wife was also better known than Pelé's wife," said Newman. "In the late seventies, TV was non-existent but Pelé drew in the inquisitive sports media. Beckham drew in the paparazzi."
You'll still find the Beckhams in fashion magazines in the US, but there's scant coverage of the Galaxy or Major League Soccer in many daily newspapers. Most news organisations don't travel with teams and television ratings on the major sport network in the US, ESPN, remain flat, averaging about 200,000 households per MLS game, worse than the professional women's basketball league. Yet much like Pelé, Beckham is a draw, his Galaxy playing to above-average crowds.
By 2011, though, even fans outside of Los Angeles did not come out as they had in the first year. Beckham hasn't broken the hold of American football, baseball or basketball. Worse yet, he hasn't been able to turn some American soccer fans into fans of American soccer. The availability of the English Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A has crowded out MLS.
"I do remember the [MLS] commissioner telling me that it could be better if the foreign leagues did not have their games on TV as fans might compare it to the US game," said Newman. "I have heard people say they have no time to watch the MLS as the EPL and Champions League take all their attention."
But Beckham hasn't been a bust. While he hasn't helped football pierce the consciousness of the American sports fan, Beckham has helped expand Major League Soccer's influence in the unlikeliest of places: Europe.
While the NASL drew its fair share of big-name players from Europe, most signed on during their summer breaks from the European leagues, grabbed the Cosmos's big bucks or saw a chance to extend their playing careers by a few years. None took American soccer seriously. Even Beckenbauer talked of the unprecedented freedom he had of being in a country that didn't recognise a worldwide star such as himself.
But after Beckham, big names such as Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane have followed. "When David Beckham came and trained at Spurs recently," Keane told reporters shortly before his departure to Los Angeles, "he couldn't speak highly enough about the Galaxy, their fans and the league in general, so I can't wait to get over and get started."
And it's not just seasoned veterans coming to the States. This past season, the 23-year-old Simon Dawkins was on loan at San Jose from Tottenham, the 22-year-old Richard Eckersley was on loan at Toronto from Burnley, while John Rooney, the 20-year-old brother of Wayne Rooney, played with New York.
Going the other way across the Atlantic was Beckham's teammate in Los Angeles, Landon Donovan, who had a successful stint on loan with Everton in 2010 and returned in 2012. "We have a lot of connections with the MLS," said the Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew. "A lot of English players are now coming to this division. It's really, really good for English players. Obviously, we have two high-profile players in David Beckham and Thierry Henry. The league is definitely of significance now. We've started a scouting process here to make sure that we're covering this division. That marks it as one of the most important divisions if we are starting to target it as a scouting league for the English Premier League."
So England is paying more attention to football in America these days thanks to Beckham's time with the Galaxy.
As for Americans? Well, Leweike appears to have overstated Beckham's importance to the game in the United States — particularly after Pelé's influence in the 1970s.
"That," Newman said, "was not a clever statement."