Two years ago, David Beckham’s arrival in Los Angeles was hailed as a cultural watershed akin to the Beatles landing in New York in 1964.
Not only would he transform professional soccer in this country, we were told, but he and his wife, Victoria, would be a celebutainment bonanza.
To say it hasn’t worked out that way would be a polite understatement.
Now he’s bolting altogether – first to play out the rest of the Italian league season with AC Milan, where he's been enjoying himself as a loan player, and then, most likely, for good at the end of the 2009 season.
What happened to the revenue streams the couple was supposed to generate in the worlds of fashion, music, movies and maybe more?
Where was the giant marketing machine that was supposed to get behind Posh and Becks, turning them into a whole new entertainment mini-industry?
Beckham himself was set to earn $250 million over five years – a multi-dimensional contract unprecedented in the history of any sport.
Now reports are everywhere that if the team he is playing for on loan, AC Milan, can come up with enough money to buy out his contract with the LA Galaxy, he'll be gone this week.
The English midfielder has made little impact as a player. He has spent inordinate amounts of time injured. His team has done nothing but lose. And he and Victoria have made about as much impact on the L.A. scene as a bad Eddie Murphy movie.
All this is putting egg on the face of Phil Anschutz, the Denver-based media mogul who made the ultimate decision to bring Beckham over in the first place.
Back in 2007, sources close to his company, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, told me he agreed to a Beckham deal only because of the potential impact across all his business properties, which include Walden Media, Regal Entertainment, various music and music booking interests and the land on which Los Angeles’ main soccer stadium, the Home Depot Center, stands.
At the time, Anschutz’s chief executive, Tim Lieweke, described the Beckham contract as “the most progressive in the history of sports” and a “master plan for the development of the MLS brand.”
One soccer marketing expert lavishly hailed Beckham as a “Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus type of athlete who doesn’t just transcend his own sport; he transcends sport itself.”
Now, AEG and the other stakeholders in Major League Soccer are furiously spinning a different line – that Beckham has, in spite of everything, been a good marketing boost for the league, that he has increased attendance, spurred the construction of dedicated soccer stadiums around the country, focused media attention on the game and generated millions of dollars in revenue through jersey sales and other merchandising spinoffs.
All that seems to be true – statistics recently gathered by the Sports Business Journal show a definite boost in television ratings for games featuring Beckham, as well as modest increases in game attendance, sponsorship revenue, and so on.
But the broader impact on our culture that AEG and others so confidently predicted has not materialized. Just ask the paparazzi, who would have been the first to benefit from the emergence of a new, bona fide celebrity family.
“He’s been no good at all for business,” said Frank Griffin of the Bauer-Griffin photo agency. Outside of a gaggle of about 20 photographers serving the British tabloid press, he said, nobody has shown much interest. Shots of a young Hollywood heart-throb like Zac Efron fetch anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times as much as photographs of Beckham.
“Nobody gives a s--- about him, except when he was doing the Calvin Klein stuffing-your-package commercials. Posh was doing as much as she could to expose herself, but it was all a big yawn,” Griffin added. “It’s still only f---ing soccer, you know? It’s of no interest to people like us.”
Elizabeth Snead of the Los Angeles Times’ Dish Rag blog was equally dismissive. “They did sink rather fast,” she said. “We could not help but note how sad and lonely Posh looked at Elton's Oscar party.... Just a year, and she's already a has-been.”
From the moment Beckham took the field in an inauspicious – and utterly forgettable – appearance for the last 15 minutes or so of a friendly match against the visiting English team Chelsea in July 2007, the hype has been exploding right and left. Arguably, it started exploding long before that, with Victoria’s bomb of a reality show, “Coming to America.”
Now it is apparent that the $250 million contract figure – or $50 million a year -- was a gross exaggeration. Beckham has been earning $6.5 million a year in player salary, plus perhaps a few million more from the sale of all those jerseys.
On the field, even when healthy, he hasn’t made much tangible difference – he is a playmaker who relies on competent teammates to score the goals he sets up, and Galaxy hasn’t given him a whole lot of competent teammates. Off the field, he hasn’t starred in a movie with Tom Cruise, or rapped with Jay-Z, or done any of the other things we were told might come to pass.
MLS officials are tacitly contrite about the expectations they set up. “As a young league fighting for its profile, maybe we did get carried away,” one former team manager said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It took on a life of its own. Maybe it’s something we’ve all looked back on and learned from.”
Financially, Anschutz and his company shouldn’t lose out too badly. If they get the $10 million they are seeking from AC Milan they should more or less break even on their Beckham investment. The main reason is the licensing rights to his jersey, which they will retain until 2011.
One can argue, in fact, that the jersey licensing agreement always was the most important piece of the Beckham pie. Jeff Bliss, of the Javelin Group sports marketing consultancy, pointed out that Beckham jersey-mania has also led to MLS merchandising deals with Adidas and Target.
“Without his clothes,” Bliss said of Beckham, “he probably wouldn’t be worth much.”