Beckham writing own ending

GARETH WHEELER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:29 AM ET

Could Sunday be the end for David Beckham in Major League Soccer?

Almost three years, 1046 days, 44 Galaxy games, eight goals and 14 assists later, Beckham has the chance to silence his critics while going a long way to ultimately justify his move to MLS: Becoming a champion.

The Beckham experiment has been far from a smooth one. If Sunday's MLS Cup Final (Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake, GOL TV, 8:30 p.m.) is the finale to Beckham's North American adventure, a championship would be apropos.

Four months ago, Grant Wahl's book The Beckham Experiment, a scathing behind-the-scenes look at Beckham, the Galaxy and MLS, painted the "experiment" a complete failure.

The book questioned Beckham's professionalism and character. It questioned Beckham's representatives and the management from 19 Entertainment's meddling in the team. It questioned Galaxy ownership, and the antagonistic climate MLS created in its own league. Wahl's work was undeniably hard-hitting and well thought out, and conveniently hit bookshelves days before Beckham made his summer return with the Galaxy.

Let the Beckham bashing begin!

Beckham always has been an easy target for blurring the lines between celebrity and athlete. Bring in some backroom dealings and locker- room friction and you have yourself a best-seller. The problem with The Beckham Experiment was that the story was incomplete. The book came too soon, and it's not quite as sexy now.

Let's call this missing chapter: The Beckham Experiment Redux or Part Two.

In this chapter, Beckham has been successful on and off the field.

Thanks to Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena revamping his squad with 16 new players, Beckham helped take a well-rounded team to the next level upon his return from Italian Serie A. His influence has been undeniable and his teammates, including Landon Donovan, have kissed and made up.

He also will surely play a part at the World Cup for England next summer. And AC Milan is welcoming him back in January. Beckham also is talking about rejoining to the Galaxy after the World Cup, and his representatives are said to be talking extension with AEG.

Off the field, Beckham's sponsorships continue to grow. And with media outlets from around the world congregating in Seattle this week, all eyes are on MLS. The recipe is simple -- winning cures all. In the beginning, it was assumed everything on the field would take care of itself. That was wrong.

Regardless of winning or losing, MLS reaped the benefits, bringing credence to the last line in Wahl's book, "Would it ever be about the soccer?"

"Initially it was a one-man stimulus package -- his presence led to additional owners, more sponsors and expansion teams," said Dan Courtemanche, Senior Vice-President Marketing and Communications for MLS. "We don't view it as the Beckham experiment, but experience."

Tom Anselmi, Executive Vice President, COO at MLSE echoes those sentiments.

"The initial impact was about rolling with the tide. Obtaining Beckham sent a message of credibility that the league was taking the next step."

TFC IS BORN

Beckham's arrival coincided with Toronto FC's inaugural year, and when Beckham was announced to be coming, season ticket sales jumped from 7000 to 10,000 in a week.

Beckham always was going to impact the bottom-line positively. But MLS created unnecessary pomp and circumstance in his arrival, putting the often-maligned superstar in a difficult place.

Being labelled the $250-million US player and called the man who would take soccer to an unprecedented level in North America were detrimental. He would never be able to live up to the expectations.

While Beckham resonates in the mainstream because of his celebrity, MLS does not. Especially when MLS wasn't ready for Beckham to begin with.

When you bring in a player of that caliber and profile, the league has to have the infrastructure (including soccer specific stadiums) and a wage structure conducive to drawing players of the highest possible quality.

None was in place, and the climate became toxic. Beckham looked bad and understandably balked. That's the poisonous side to Brand Beckham. Business dictates that it is Beckham first.

The good side of Brand Beckham is that more eyes have been drawn to MLS. Tickets sales when Beckham comes to town spike by thousands. MLS made an additional 6,000 tickets available for the MLS Final.

But whether actual soccer fans have bought in is another story. The global recession has made it hard to gauge if MLS is better off going forward. Attendance was down across the league, but 2009 figures in sport need to be taken with a grain of salt. Television viewership is up and MLS has a long-term television deal with ESPN and Spanish language network, Univision.

The Beckham Rule, the introduction of the Designated Player will be part of his legacy. Courtemanche says the Designated Player rule is up for discussion, and it seems the idea is to add more designated player spots.

The problem with the Beckham Rule is that it is meant for Beckham. There is no other player who would have a similar impact.

"If you brought Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the two best players in the world to MLS, most people would acknowledge they wouldn't have the same impact as Beckham," Courtemanche said.

If water-cooler talk is what MLS wanted, that's what they got. A better argument is Beckham mobilized an already soccer crazed North American fan-base towards the MLS brand. The success of the U.S. men's national team also bodes well. That's where the long-term vision needs to be. MLS had to embrace the Beckham experiment/experience when they did.

Whether MLS was ready for Beckham, whether it was done for soccer reasons or marketing, and no matter the concessions made to Brand Beckham, it's all been all worth it.

GARETH.WHEELER@SUNTV.CANOE.CA


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