Brand Beckham Arriving, Do People Care?

It’s pretty hard to avoid David Beckham right now in the United States, and it’s not often (Mia Hamm in the 90s? Pele in the 70s?) we can say that about a soccer star in this country.

As this CNN article explains,

While Americans have had only brief flirtations with soccer in the past, they’ve had a long-time meaningful love affair with celebrities and media superstars.

And Beckham clearly qualifies as that, even among the 90 percent of fans here who can’t tell you the name of a single U.S.-born male soccer player.

The polling of Americans done by talent marketing agency Davie Brown Entertainment found that 51.9 percent of Americans know who Beckham is. That’s more than twice the 25 percent who know the best player on arguably the best team in U.S. sports right now, the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan.

The next best known soccer player is retired women’s player Mia Hamm at 48 percent. Landon Donovan, who will be Beckham’s teammate on the Galaxy, is known by only 9.1 percent of Americans, even though he’s been in the league six years and has played for the American team in two World Cups.

Given he’ll be appearing on ESPN’s Thursday night MLS broadcasts several times, it’s no surprise they’re pimping him too: he showed up recently in their bizarre “Who’s now” feature, a popularity contest “in which viewers will help ESPN determine the ultimate sports star by considering both on-field success and off-field buzz.”

The panel judging the (Association) football vs (American) football matchup of Beckham against LaDainian Tomlinson sided with Beckham, 2-1; the viewers, though, snubbed Becks by the wafer-thin margin of 50.8% – 49.2. Not really a bad result for a soccer star going up against perhaps the best gridiron player around.

David Beckham and Victoria

It would be wrong, though, to presume all American soccer fans – let alone American sports fans in general – are sitting around salivating at the prospect of the Becks roadshow hitting their town. Sure, most games featuring Beckham are sold-out, but if he can’t help sell-out a 20,000 seat stadium in Chicago (a metropolitan area of ten million people) for one game, soccer really would be in trouble. It will be more interesting to observe the Becks-effect next season and beyond.

I, for one, am actually quite excited to watch Beckham: but that doesn’t mean all MLS fans are. Many, I suspect, would rather see their team win than see Beckham play. On a Chicago Fire messageboard, the following exchange was reported by one fan about his brother being interviewed at last night’s game against Toronto FC:

BBC guy: What do you think about Beckham coming to MLS?
Brother: I don’t really give a shit.
BBC guy: Then why are you here?
Brother: (Resumes singing) FI-RE! FI-RE!

Beckham’s celebrity is useful if it gets people interested in and attending MLS matches; at the same time, the growth of MLS depends on greater numbers of people caring more about their team than a famous soccer player coming through town.

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