A Naysayer View of Pro Soccer

By Jim Paglia

Beckham is coming to America to lend his enormous global brand power to pro soccer, to underscore that the game has arrived here, and to help the former colonists grasp the gravity of the sport. Although I am a lifelong player and coach, and passionate about soccer, I believe "Beck's" arrival will have even less impact on the pro game than did Pele's in his era.

Beckham, while a great player in his own right, is clearly not the Pele of his generation except in his ability to generate publicity. I am thrilled to see that he has maintained his form, and his recent performances confirm there is lots of world-class game left in him. If he comes to America and outplays everyone on the field, what does that prove?

Like others, I agree he will create a huge impact in attendance his first time through the league. Each time he visits, the home team can expect huge crowds. That alone will not convert the curious to fans. I see his overall impact on pro soccer in the U.S. akin to his wife, Victoria, announcing she was resurrecting the Spice Girls in the hope of reviving the US recording industry. The late night TV shows are already having a field day with the topic - honoring the great player and celebrity, while mocking the sport.

In the U.S., soccer is a glorious game for participants. Millions of players can attest to that. In my view, it lacks the fundamental element of "speculation" required for U.S. spectator sports. Most soccer experts will tell you watching soccer does not lend itself to speculating with fellow spectators as you might in a baseball or NFL game. The ability to anticipate the next play, and share your predictions with others is the hallmark of the most popular outdoor spectator sports in America.

Great American outdoor spectator sports all share a common aspect of socialization and conversation that is not conducive to soccer. By its nature, soccer is an extemporaneous and improvisational sport.

American's appreciate those characteristics only in their indoor sports. For the same reasons the French and Spaniards will never embrace baseball, the cultural dynamics that dictate America's love of outdoor spectator sports do not translate to soccer.

Pro soccer, like pro softball, pro bowling, and pro skiing does not appeal to spectators in this country because the public would rather be playing it than watching someone else. All of the sports mentioned above continue to generate enormous sales in equipment and apparel.

I believe Beckham is coming to America more to establish a presence for his soccer academies around the country. Various prominent foreign soccer clubs, and business interests are flooding the U.S. with camps and academies in the belief that youth players and parents are just dying to align themselves with the teaching credentials of the world's elite soccer brands. The next thud you hear will be the collapse of most of those grand schemes. I predict Beckham's visibility will contribute his camps being one of the surviving competitors.

The secret to brand success is knowing your audience's true desires.

Soccer players are passionate about their sport, but watching is different from playing. David and Victoria are far more likely to make a dent in the entertainment industry because of their Hollywood good looks than he is in bringing financial security to Major League Soccer. While Beckham the player, celebrity and businessperson will certainly make his mark in America, it is more likely Beckham the MLS Messiah, will be seen by the public slightly ahead of the likes of Freddie Adu and Kyle Rote Jr. -- curiosities of their day that never quite caused the pro soccer revolution promised.

Jim Paglia is a nationally recognized brand strategist who lives outside Chicago. He has an extensive background in soccer ranging from the NASL, to NCAA Division I, to World Cup 1994, and 30 years of club administration and coaching.

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