Commentary: Beckham’s foray into Major League Soccer signals changing cultural winds

Miami could in time provide Israeli soccer professionals the haven which until now has been denied them in New York.

David Beckham in Miami (photo credit: REUTERS)
David Beckham in Miami
(photo credit: REUTERS)
David Beckham’s arrival in Miami was heralded as a messianic age for the soccer starved fans of the region, who have been deprived of a team of their own since the MLS franchise known as the Fusion folded because of poor fan support in 2001.
The international soccer megastar and fashion scion proclaimed in a press conference held earlier this month his mission to lead the new Miami team to a position of global prominence. Flanked by MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez, he exuded faith and optimism as he pointed to the support of wealthy investors like entertainment mogul Simon Fuller and sports power broker Marcello Claure while stating his resolve to avoid the pitfalls of the original Miami club, which was located in the yuppie stronghold of Fort Lauderdale.
Garber echoed Beckham’s sentiments as he reflected that Ft. Lauderdale was a misguided venue for the failed club, and that the downtown Miami soccer facility was clearly a superior choice for the proposed new stadium, citing the demographics of Miami and its huge mix of Hispanics and their deeply ingrained soccer culture. He also projected that by 2022 the MLS will rank alongside the top soccer leagues of Europe.
Beckham’s charisma clearly transcends ethnic barriers and national boundaries, as witnessed by the fact that following the press conference, he was mobbed by thousands of youngsters and their parents at a nearby soccer pitch. However, whether he can transfer his immense popularity to the new franchise which he will head remains to be seen, and his (and Garber’s) optimism regarding the Miami venture and its envisioned role in propelling the MLS into the select circle of the elite European leagues must be viewed with skepticism.
While it’s a given that the league has already achieved parity with second tier leagues like Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden and even Holland or Portugal, it would take a gargantuan leap to reach the level of the superior leagues of England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, which are dubbed as the Big Five of European soccer.
The reasons for that guarded prognosis are readily apparent.
First, MLS stadiums have been primarily built to accommodate between 20,000 and 30,000 fans, which amount to less than 50% of the average capacity of the stadiums of the Big Five. Further, the TV ratings of the various games pale in comparison to those yielded by the clubs of the English Premier League or Serie A. As a result, the revenues generated by MLS clubs would not be able to muster a budget which will enable them to engage the cream of the available talent in sufficient numbers to climb to the level of the clubs of the Big Five.
The basic reality which Beckham and his supporters must confront is that the vast majority of Americans have not embraced soccer as a sport of their own. To be sure, there are sizable minorities in the USA, topped by the Latino (Hispanic) sector, first generation European immigrants, and many soccer moms and their youngsters who actively participate in youth soccer programs.
This equation is not likely to alter anytime soon, since many youthful participants turn their attention to more remunerative American sports like baseball and American football.
The inevitable result is that their families as well will shift their primary allegiance to other sports while their interest in soccer wanes. Moreover, second generation Europeans, and even Latinos, also gravitate away from soccer and move towards other sports, including basketball and hockey, which will siphon their financial support from soccer.
An even bigger challenge for Beckham is making a sizable inroad among the large number of Cuban émigrés in the Miami area, most of whom are rabid baseball fans but do not relate to soccer. However, heavy reliance upon the support of Hispanic residents of a given venue by packing a team with Hispanic players has proven to be a failed formula in several MLS cities.
Several months ago, the owner of the Chicago Fire dismissed his Sports Director Javier Leon, whose obsession with Hispanic players failed to produce results either on the pitch or at the gate. Leon, whose player selection bordered on xenophobic, vetoed a deal I struck with former coach Frank Klopas involving the Argentina born and bred Roberto Colautti, explaining that in his view Roberto did not qualify as a bona fide Hispanic following his move to Israel where he received citizenship. The Leon lesson appears to have been lost on dominant sports directors like Paul Bravo of the Colorado Rapids and Fernando Clavijo of FCD Dallas, who continue to stack their foreign player allotment with Hispanic imports in an effort to woo the local Hispanic soccer fans. Those clubs have for the most part produced mediocre results on the pitch as well as at the gate.
MLS rules provide that each club can sign eight foreign players in assembling their roster. It is estimated that 75% of the foreign players hail from Latin America (Mexico, Central & South America) or the Caribbean countries. This has produced counterproductive results which have alienated non-Hispanic soccer fans who prefer a more eclectic mix on their teams. MLS clubs have failed to take into account that because of socioeconomic constraints of America’s Hispanic inhabitants, they are not likely to gobble up season tickets in great numbers, nor are they likely to attend more than a handful of games each season.
The demographics in a given venue should be examined with greater care if club owners are to turn their investments to a point of consistent profitability. Miami, as an example, is home to 150,000 Israeli expatriates and more than 500,000 Jewish residents. Accordingly, Beckham would do well to engage Israeli legends like player Yossi Benayoun and coach Avram Grant. His close ties to Simon Fuller and other Jewish luminaries bode well for the prospect of Israeli hopefuls joining the new franchise.
Miami could in time provide Israeli soccer professionals the haven which until now has been denied them in New York.
The Red Bulls have consistently blunted my efforts to bring in Grant, who longs to coach in New York. On one occasion, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz fired the genial sporting director Markus Egger as Sports Director of Red Bull International while Egger and I were in the process of negotiating a deal to bring Avram to the Red Bulls. More recently, the new franchise in New York (NYCFC) has been awarded to a consortium headed by the Abu Dhabi oil magnate Al Mubarak. Quite predictably, my bid to land Grant in the new franchise was summarily rejected by NYCFC’s newly appointed Sports Director, Claudio Reyna.
The saga of the two New York franchises in the MLS is filled with irony, for New York is inhabited by an estimated half a million Israeli ex-pats and nearly three million Jews. Further, it features more Jewish billionaires than the next 10 cities or countries combined.
The visceral gut reaction is to question how the MLS and its Jewish commissioner (Garber) permit their valued franchises to fall into the hands of those who fail to recognize such simple facts. Beckham appears likely to bring an end to the dry spell and feeling of frustration which has blighted the New York franchises and to provide his new club with a great impetus towards financial success and social justice.
Don Barnett is an IFA Player’s agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US where he practiced law and mediation. He also coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and has written a sports column for several Jewish publications.