By Pat Martin, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Major League Soccer and the Los Angeles Galaxy took a huge risk when they signed international icon David Beckham to a five-year, $250 million contract - including endorsements - to lure him away from the Spanish La Liga's Real Madrid this winter.
The plan was to add a world-class player and personality to the league to generate enough interest and exposure to increase revenues and put the game on the fast track to becoming a mainstream sport in the United States.
The plans seems to be working, because "the Beckham effect" is changing the way the public views MLS. Ticket sales are way up, and according to league commissioner Don Garber, merchandise sales for the entire league are up 300 percent. Galaxy sales alone are up 700 percent, and Beckham's is the No. 1 selling jersey in the Sports Authority sporting goods chain. At present, Beckham is selling more jerseys than any of the big names in the other major sports in America.
At halftime of the Galaxy's match in Toronto Sunday, Garber said, "There is more interest in our league, here and around the world, than at any other time probably in the history of the sport. Our games are broadcast in countries around the world; our jerseys are being sold out around the world and throughout the U.S. There is also more interest in expansion so that is all very positive."
But are the types of "fans" being attracted to MLS good for the league in the long run?
"The Beckham effect" is changing the way the public views MLS.
Since making his Galaxy debut against Chelsea FC on July 21, a token 16 minutes of action to keep the media and fans happy, Beckham has missed two SuperLiga fixtures as well as the league match in Toronto on Sunday because of a lingering left ankle injury he originally suffered while playing for the England national team in a EURO 08 qualifier. Beckham re-injured his ankle playing for Real Madrid, which he helped lead to the 2006-07 Spanish title, while reportedly getting numerous injections to numb the pain so he could play.
Now "fans" and American mainstream media are bashing Beckham for waiting until he is fully healed to step foot on the pitch again. Not only are they bashing him, "fans" are upset and demanding refunds when he doesn't play.
Before Beckham missed a SuperLiga group match in against FC Dallas in Frisco, TX, Hoops general manager Michael Hitchcock was forced to issue the following statement:
"(The July 31st) SuperLiga match against the L.A. Galaxy is one of the most important matches in our club?s history. A win would advance FC Dallas to the semifinals of the tournament, and put us one step closer to winning this inaugural North American title.
"While we understand that some fans may be disappointed that David Beckham?s injury has prevented him from playing in the match, we know that Los Angeles is still a very dangerous team and will also be looking to secure their place in the SuperLiga semifinals. We're looking forward to the support of a sold- out crowd at Pizza Hut Park."
After the match, a thrilling offensive display won by the Galaxy 6-5, Hitchcock announced that "fans" who bought tickets for the match will have the opportunity to receive one free ticket to a 2008 preseason charity game between the Galaxy and Dallas in early 2008. He did this in an attempt to stop the backlash from "fans" who wanted refunds because Beckham didn't play - as if 11 goals weren't enough to entertain them.
Before Sunday's match against Toronto FC, the Canadian club issued the following statement:
"Ticket buyers should be aware that the standard policy for sports and entertainment events as it pertains to scheduled appearances remains in effect. Consistent with all sporting events, we are not in a position to guarantee that any player will appear in a match. Those decisions are determined by the coaching staff with advice from their advisors at match time. As with any other player under contract with either club participating in the game, should Mr. Beckham be unable to play in the game no refunds will be issued for tickets purchased."
"Fans" and American mainstream media are bashing Beckham for waiting until he is fully healed to step foot on the pitch again.
Therein lies MLS's new problem.
How does it deal with these new "fans," who wouldn't know a corner kick from a goal kick, who just want to see Beckham play. They have no real interest in the league or the sport. How can you argue they care about soccer given their reaction after the Dallas match? Eleven goals were scored in the game, and they were still upset.
Refunds should not be issued, free tickets to charity matches should not be issued, and statements regarding Beckham-related ticket refund policies should not be issued. Whether Beckham makes his league debut in D.C. on Thursday, New England on Sunday, New York next weekend, or beyond, his impact will have a lasting effect on the league.
Is it the kind of effect the league and its true fan base wants to see?
Only time will tell. When and if the initial buzz surrounding Beckham dies down and the dust settles, the league will see what it has left.
Welcome to a brand new world MLS, you asked for it.