Saving American Soccer vs. Selling Brand Beckham: Yes, There Is a Conflict

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

Written by Laurie.

Question: What do soft-core photos, star-studded parties and a (probably) non-existent diamond-encrusted vibrator have to do with “saving” American soccer?

Answer: All are part of the complicated package that is Brand Beckham.

In case you missed it, David Beckham came to the LA Galaxy in the summer of 2007 to “save” American soccer. This must be true, because that’s what all of the world’s press told us at the time.

Of course, nobody ever really explained what this actually meant. Some vague “quality of play” thing, apparently, combined with bringing in new fans and dumping gazillions of dollars into the pockets of MLS (and, consequently, David Beckham.)

Now, several months in, how is this whole Beckham-saving-American-soccer thing working out?

The results are mixed.

First, there’s the minor issue of him spending most of the first season injured (and then re-injured) and unable to play the game. And I’m not sure a lot of new fans were created among the thousands of people who were sold “Beckham packs” of tickets — packs which forced them to attend multiple games in order get a ticket to see Beckham — only to have Beckham not show due to injury.

But that gazillions of dollars thing? Oh! Success! Hundreds of thousands of jerseys sold, most of them bearing Beckham’s name. And attendance is up! And MLS television rights are bringing in money like never before, and there have been some major new jersey sponsorships among the teams. And that could be just the beginning.

How much of this is due to Beckham? Conventional wisdom (and word from the mainstream media) says quite a bit. And truly, if we can turn this into a long-term thing, nobody in the universe can school America in the glories of spectacular excess and over-the-top self-promotion quite like Brand Beckham, both the Posh and Becks varieties.

And this is part of the problem that Beckham and MLS are now facing.

Please don’t get me wrong. I genuinely like David Beckham as a player. I don’t think he’s personally responsible for most of the Brand Beckham over-promotion. I believe he is 100% dedicated to the game. And I’m looking forward to the day when he’ll be fully fit and able to help my favorite MLS team, the LA Galaxy.

But until that day arrives, I am joining the rest of the American masses in learning about important Beckham-related things like diamond-encrusted vibrators — which the Beckhams, of course, do not own, nope, nuh-uh, never did, but more on that later — while running the risk of burning out on Brand Beckham before David has played even a handful of games.

In September, 2007, just two short months after their arrival in the US, David and Victoria were voted by Radar magazine to be the “Most Overrated” things in America. They beat out entities like Keira Knightley and Facebook.

Posh and Becks overrated? Just two months in? This was not supposed to happen. They’re hugely famous everywhere else in the world. Making them equally famous in the US was supposed to be a simple matter of plopping them down, giving them lots of exposure, and allowing their extravagant popularity to take root and flourish in the US.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. At least not yet. For a snapshot look at why this is, let’s revisit July of 2007, the month the Beckhams came to town.

The week before Beckham made his official entrance into the US, Grahame Jones, the soccer reporter for the LA Times, wrote a lengthy ode to the Beckhams’ lavish lifestyle, which seems to be an integral part of their mystique elsewhere in the world. Topics covered in the article included the $60,000 wine tab after the Real Madrid win; the Beckhams’ opulent home, Beckingham Palace; David’s fleet of expensive cars; their extravagant birthday celebrations complete with private jets; and, yes, that alleged “$1.8 million for a diamond-encrusted sex toy with matching 16-carat diamond necklace.”

(And did that “matching necklace” part give anybody else the giggles, or was it just me?)

Of course Victoria, when asked about the vibrator-and-necklace combo, denied everything.

“It isn’t true,” Victoria said, her voice calm and measured. “We do buy each other nice things,” she admitted, but some things get exaggerated. “I don’t have a diamond-encrusted vibrator.”

Uh…yes. Right, then. But before we travel on to our next topic, I’m hoping that somebody can explain something to me: How does one become erroneously linked to a diamond-encrusted vibrator? Seriously, I don’t get it.

Also in July, one of the main events in the Beckhams’ American debut was a photographic spread in W magazine. If you yourself are as fashion-impaired as I am, you may be asking “what is W magazine?” Well, I have researched this, (meaning I stumbled across a copy while I was waiting to get my hair cut), so allow me to enlighten you: It’s fashion, apparently. Although you couldn’t really tell it by looking at the Beckham photos, because fashion magazines are all about selling clothing, or so I’m told, and David and Victoria are not actually wearing a whole lot of clothing in these photos.

Because these photos are not about clothing. They’re completely, totally 100% about sex. When you look at every single one, you’re supposed to think that David and Victoria are either a) preparing to have sex, or b) have just finished having sex, and are getting ready to go on about their business. Which will, apparently, involve having sex again very soon.

Maybe if I were a longtime Beckham follower I would understand how the W spread relates to selling the game in America. As things stand, though, I can’t quite figure out the photos’ purpose. I suppose the point here was to be sure that Americans know that the Beckhams are dead sexy beasts. And I suppose that in some respects they have succeeded. Because the photos? In a slightly cheesy and very melodramatic way, they are sexy.

Or…um…so I’m told.

But isn’t this — desperately needing to be seen as dead sexy beasts — a rather odd goal for a married couple in their thirties with three children? And isn’t their oldest getting to the age where, very shortly, he’s going to know what photos like these represent? Think back to when you were eleven or twelve, and you’d just learned the facts of life, and you came to the horrifying realization that, yes, your parents had children, so that meant…


And I don’t care if your parents are dead sexy beasts. That’s not going to make it any better.

Also during this period, we were being deluged with press releases and internet video clips for Victoria’s reality TV show, Victoria Beckham: Coming to America.

This show had originally been planned as a six-episode series, but rumors of issues and problems kept surfacing in the press. As these rumors accelerated, the series was reported to have been moved from NBC, a major network, to Bravo, NBC’s poorer and less-watched sibling. And Victoria was reportedly less than happy with this turn of events.

And then David’s Real Madrid team had its triumphant resurgence in La Liga, and Victoria returned to Madrid “to support David,” and NBC cut the show to one hour and moved it back from Bravo to NBC, and everybody was happy. At least until they watched the show.

The TV critics were not kind.

Jemele Hill, writing for ESPN, had this to say:

“It’s just so hard to be this fabulous.”
Victoria Beckham, 2007
If you sacrificed a few brain cells and watched Victoria Beckham’s reality TV show on NBC, “Coming to America,” then you know she isn’t lying. …
Disastrous is too kind of a word. Who knew Posh could make Pam Anderson and Jessica Simpson seem like Mensa board members?

In the name of research, I tried to watch this show. Honestly, I did. I made it through five minutes. And then I realized, “This is five minutes of my life that I will never get back. If I sit here, I’ll expand that to a full hour.” And this was the end of my experiment in trying to watch, and like, Victoria Beckham.

In the interest of honesty, though, I have to say that a couple of people I know and respect — male soccer fans, even — did actually like the show. They thought Victoria was funny. This has left me wondering if I missed something. It’s possible. Of course, to find out for sure I’d have to seek out the reality show again and sit through the whole thing. I’m just not that desperate to know the truth.

In the months since July, we’ve also seen semi-clothed photos of David and Victoria in perfume ads, shirtless photos of David in cellphone ads, stories of Victoria’s upcoming cameo and vocal solo in Ugly Betty, and photos of multiple star-studded events attended by one or more Beckhams. What we haven’t seen much of, sadly, is David on the pitch, improving the quality of American soccer or helping the Galaxy dig themselves out of their hole in MLS.

Sadly for those of us who like David and US soccer, this has caused a lot of folks in the American popular press to proclaim that Beckham is a bust at everything but self-promotion.

So what have we learned here, American soccer fans?

In looking at the big picture, I believe it’s dangerous to try to transplant popularity. It needs to be grown from seed. Much of the rest of the world’s obsession with the Beckhams has long-standing roots that just aren’t present here in America. To try to plop Brand Beckham down in a new environment without giving the audience any context is dangerous.

Take those W photos. Are they serious? Are they tongue-in-cheek campy? Are they the unintentionally campy results of people who take themselves too seriously? Are they perhaps all of the above? I still have no clue. How are we — people who have followed Beckham only on the field or not at all — supposed to know? What Beckham’s promoters don’t seem to have taken into account is that in the absence of knowledge, a lot of people will assume the worst.

This might not have been a problem if David had shown up uninjured and able to make a difference in the American soccer landscape right away. Then his skills on the pitch could easily have balanced out at least some of the negative perceptions of the Beckham Brand of relentless self-promotion.

As things stand, people who are already MLS fans will probably forgive the distraction. But for those not-quite-fans that MLS is still trying to convert? When you add the Beckham over-promotion to the poor MLS managerial decisions like the “Beckham packs” of tickets, you end up with three words: Radar Magazine, and Overrated.

So what would I recommend for Beckham in his quest to promote (not “save”) American soccer? And perhaps in his quest to save Brand Beckham — at least in America — as well?

A novel thought here: How about a low profile for both of them, at least until he’s healthy? And a focus instead on the non-monetary things, like charity, that the Beckhams also claim to be interested in?

Yes, this might mean forgoing some promotional revenue for awhile. But isn’t that better than the alternative: Being so overexposed that nobody wants to buy what you’re selling?

I believe that “American soccer” would answer this question with a resounding Yes.

Editor’s Note: In case you’re interested, here’s the W magazine photo shoot.

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

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