Last night was a peculiar experience for me. Driving home from work, I got to listen to Buck & Kincaid discuss...soccer? (The Stews were not discussing Beckham, but I'll forgive them for that because they're still fighting over whether Barbaro should be put down.) I got to hear the Pride of Valdosta and Lindsey Scott's biggest fan Buck Belue state that "Beckham rarely beats other players for pace." I got to hear a caller with a real-life Cockney accent. Predictably, I also got to hear some tortured reasoning for why soccer isn't a huge spectator sport in America. Kincaid claimed it's popular in the rest of the world because it can be played in poor countries, unlike other sports. Gee, I was unaware that England, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and Japan are impoverished nations where the populace can't afford to buy balls for their kids. This sort of thing used to bother me because the knee-jerk "soccer is boring and for girls" impacted my ability to enjoy the sport. The backlash against soccer created an atmosphere that depressed popularity and kept games off the tube. Now, in an internet and digital cable world, I can watch as much European soccer as I want, subject to the threat of divorce and a "you never cared about me" speech from my son in 20 years. I can read the English papers online and blogs about most foreign leagues. I can pick a favorite team - FC Barcelona - and become a reasonably educated fan based on the amount of information about them online and the number of Blaugrana games on GolTV and ESPN2. Now, I couldn't care less that Joe Blowhard on the radio thinks that soccer is for pinkos. It doesn't affect my life one iota.
Where was I? Oh, I was discussing Beckham. If you want some solid takes on his potential impact in the U.S., Grant Wahl's article is a good one. For the English perspective, I recommend Richard Williams. Personally, I don't expect Beckham to have a dramatic long-term impact. In the short term, he is going to generate a tremendous amount of revenue for MLS and his sponsors. Beckham is the most popular athlete in the world, so MLS will receive far more attention (and thus far more sponsorship revenue) than it has ever received before. MLS is also getting Beckham not far from his prime, so there won't be a prevailing empty sense that Beckham's Q-rating is totally divorced from his ability on the pitch. Soccer fans in the know appreciate the fact that Beckham was starting for the English National Team this summer in Germany (and was pretty much their sole source of offense, which is more a commentary on the fact that their other players are overrated and/or Sven Goran Eriksson blundered badly) and that he's leaving a Real Madrid side in total disarray, so that departure isn't a comment on his playing ability. As long as Beckham is confined to his proper role - a right-sided midfielder who whips in perfect crosses and scores fairly frequently on free kicks - then he'll be a great addition to MLS and will show the sort of skill that casual fans can appreciate.
Long term, I'm too much of a critic of the "Great Man" theory of history to think that Beckham himself will launch MLS into a much higher profile. Aside from the fact that there is no team in Atlanta, MLS doesn't capture a fan like me because the level of play isn't outstanding and the games don't have the atmosphere that European games do. The appeal of watching an English Premier League game is the high quality play and the fans singing about Victoria Beckham's sexual preferences for 90 minutes. (On a related note, my one disappointment about GolTV is that they don't have nearly enough crowd noise in the audio feed.) MLS is getting closer on the fan intensity front as its teams build smaller, soccer-specific facilities that are more conducive to atmosphere, but it isn't there yet. The level of play has gotten better, but there's still a major difference between the speed of an EPL game or the skill on the ball of a Spanish Primera game on the one hand and the MLS on the other. Beckham is going to increase ratings in the short term in the matches he's playing and hopefully, that will suck people into becoming casual fans, but in the long term, MLS is going to have to improve its overall product so that when Becks is gone in five years or so, the league is better off.
Two other notes:
1. Although Ronaldo is a big name player, he's exactly the wrong kind of player for MLS to bring over. Casual fans are going to take one look at the chubby striker formerly known as El Fenómeno and recognize that they're seeing a player on the wrong side of his prime who's looking for a big paycheck without having to work hard or pass on seconds and thirds at the local churrascaria. Zinedine Zidane would be a far better option, even though he's older than Ronaldo and pretty inconsistent, because his Q-rating is as high after the headbutt this summer and he doesn't look like he's eaten Madrid's tapas bars out of house and home. Zidane might not be an option if he's truly serious about retirement, but if he could be brought over with a fistful of dollars, it would be worth the investment.
2. For those of you who are unaware of Beckham's Tyson-esque speaking voice, here's the famous "Ali G interviews David and Posh Beckham" clip: