THE BECKHAM EXPERIMENT
In the summer of 2005, on a gorgeous morning in Marina del Rey, California, I bumped into an old acquaintance in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. In almost any other city in any other country, David Beckham would never have dared to tempt the paparazzi and swarming fans who track his every move. But here he was, hands in his pockets, comfortable, unbothered, just like any other bloke. It had been two years since our last meeting, a long and candid interview in New York City just before Beckham’s move from Manchester United to Real Madrid–the world’s biggest sports story of 2003. Now Real was in town for a preseason exhibition game against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Beckham and I said hello, caught up with each other, and (not for the first time) talked about his desire to play in America someday. He sounded earnest, but I figured that day was six or seven years away, when Beckham would be a spent force on the European scene.
Less than two years later, in May 2007, I found myself sitting across from Beckham in Madrid, just the two of us in a quiet makeup room for an hour. On a rainy day in the Spanish capital, he had arrived at the studio by himself, an entourage of one in an outfit bearing no logos. In his
plain white V-neck T-shirt, ordinary blue jeans, and five-year-old brown work boots, he could have passed for a cattle hand in Kalispell. In his only interview with a U.S. sports journalist before he joined the Galaxy that July, Beckham explained why he had shocked the sports world four months earlier by signing at age thirty-one with a team in Major League Soccer, the eleven-year-old U.S. soccer circuit.
“When I’d spoken to you before, the U.S. always interested me on the soccer side more than anything, and at some point I always thought I would play in America,” Beckham told me. “But it came earlier maybe than I actually expected. A decision had to be made, and I’ve always gone on a sort of gut instinct: Is it the right time? I believe it’s the right time. I’ve spent four good years in Madrid playing with some of the best players in the world. I’ve played in Europe for almost fifteen years at the highest level and won just about everything I possibly could. And then this was offered to me: Do I want to be an ambassador for the MLS?”
It’s not often that the world’s most famous athlete decides to leave the comfort and security of the environment in which he became a global icon and embark on a new and risky adventure in one of the few countries where he isn’t a household name. Yet that is exactly what David Beckham was doing by leaving Europe to join the Galaxy on a five-year contract. He certainly didn’t need the money after earning an estimated $150 million in the five years before his move to America. Nor did he need the fame after marrying Victoria Adams (aka Posh Spice of the British pop group the Spice Girls), winning seven league championships in England and Spain, serving as captain of England for five years, and establishing himself as an undeniable global marketing force from Europe to Asia. Nor did Beckham need to drop down to MLS’s lower standard after proving with Real Madrid and England in the first half of 2007 that he could still thrive at the sport’s highest levels.
But to hear Beckham make the case, the decision to relocate his wife and three young sons to Los Angeles was an easy one. “It didn’t take me long to think about, to be honest,” he said. “Moving the family to the U.S. was probably one of the easier decisions, just because the lifestyle was going to suit the children and me and Victoria. And on the playing side, I had to look at everything. I’ve always known the level is not as high as it is everywhere else in the world. But if I can make a difference and make people more aware and make kids realize that you can actually go into higher levels and make a great living playing soccer, that’s what I’m going over there to do. I’m not silly enough to think I’m going to change the whole culture, because it’s not going to happen. But I do have a belief that it can go to a different level, and I’d love to be part of that.”
Beckham knew he was bringing a raft of expectations with him, many of which he was already trying to dispel. He was not coming to become a Hollywood actor, not then, not ever. (“Acting is never some- thing I’ve been interested in,” he said.) He was not coming to score three goals a game. (“That’s one thing I’m worried about, because people probably do think they’re going to see me turn out and we’ll win our first game ten-nil.”) And he was not coming simply to be a marketing tool (though his signature cologne, Instinct, was available in many fine drugstores). “I’m moving to America because of the soccer,” Beckham insisted. “I didn’t want to make it into a big sort of hoo-ha where it was more about other things than the soccer. It’s not a big brand thing.”
Yet the task facing Beckham–to make soccer matter on a regular basis in the U.S.–would be enormous. The greatest player of all time, Pelé, couldn’t turn soccer into the daily religion that it is nearly everywhere else in the world when he played with the New York Cosmos in the late 1970s. (His league, the NASL, folded a few years after he retired.) Nor did the U.S.’s hosting of the 1994 World Cup. Since its inception in 1996, Major League Soccer had gained stability and produced competent young American players, but it was still losing money and had yet to advance beyond niche status. There were plenty of Americans who considered themselves occasional soccer watchers–the U.S. television audience for the 2006 World Cup final (16.9 million) beat out the average audiences for that year’s NBA Finals (12.9 million) and World Series (15.8 million)–but they followed only the sport’s biggest events, and the few hard-core American soccer fans preferred the European Champions League and the superior leagues in England, Spain, and Mexico to MLS.
Despite the challenges, the man who created American Idol was convinced that Beckham could pull it off. Simon Fuller, Beckham’s manager and the chief executive of 19 Entertainment, acknowledged that making soccer really matter in the U.S. would be a “far greater”challenge than his previous successes, which included turning Idol into America’s most popular television program and conquering the U.S. market with the Spice Girls in the 1990s. But that hadn’t stopped this mastermind of the music world from hatching a “grand vision” (Fuller’s words) for the next chapter of his most famous sports client’s career. “There seems to be a real foundation now for soccer” in America, said Fuller. “David is the most iconic of footballers, and he’s achieved pretty much everything you can achieve in Europe, apart from maybe winning a big tournament with England. He’s still in his early thirties, still playing remarkably well, and you have to start thinking: What’s the next adventure? The States is the last frontier in terms of soccer. Everywhere else on earth, soccer is huge. It’s the sport. And while many people have tried before, no one has seemed to have cracked America.”
The last frontier. A grand vision. An adventure. There was something quintessentially American about what these Brits were trying to achieve. Beckham vowed that he was in this New World Adventure–the Beckham Experiment–for the long haul. Otherwise, why would he have signed a five-year deal? “If you have most things you want in life, you can take it easy, you can retire, you can continue to take money off a team in Europe,” Fuller said. “But together with David our ambition is bigger than that. Shoot for the stars, and if you don’t hit them, then it was fun trying.
“If you do hit them, then you’ve made history.”
Having covered the U.S. soccer scene for ten years at Sports Illustrated, I knew that the Beckham Experiment would be one of the most audacious projects in recent sports history, not least because the chances for failure were so high and the personalities involved were so big.
The next two years would perhaps be the most rollicking stretch of Beckham’s storied career. There would be plenty of surprises, good ones and bad ones. There would be lost-in-translation frustrations and unintentional comedy. There would be full stadiums, media hype galore, and the enormous ego clashes that result whenever you mix money, sports, and Hollywood. The most compelling aspect of the Beckham Experiment was this: Nobody knew how it was going to turn out. Even if Beckham and the Galaxy were successful on the field, would mainstream America respond? Would Beckham’s undeniable charm win over the Yanks? Or would he be just another Robbie Williams, joining the ranks of Brits whose worldwide appeal failed to translate on these shores?
If there was ever a book about American soccer that demanded to be written, this was the one, in large part because it was about not just the sport but so much more: the engineering of American celebrity, the powerful seeking more power, the clash of cultures and American exceptionalism. For years, too, I had craved the chance to chronicle the ongoing inside story of a team, to do more than just parachute into town for a couple days for a snapshot magazine story. It was one thing to interview Beckham in Madrid on the eve of his American arrival, when optimism reigned and he had as much buzz as any Hollywood blockbuster. But it would be quite another to interview him underneath the stands in Columbus, Ohio, on Buck-a-Brat night after a Galaxy loss in October.
And so, in the summer of 2007, I began a sixteen-month journey following Beckham and the Galaxy across America, a pursuit that continued until the global saga leading up to his scheduled return to the Galaxy from Italian giant AC Milan in July 2009. I went to the games, of course, but I also visited the offices, homes, and hotels of the players, the coaches, the moneymen, and the message shapers. I had meals with them in their houses, in Los Angeles—area diners and dive bars, and in fancy New York City sushi restaurants. Along the way I developed an even greater appreciation for American soccer players, who tend to be smarter and more insightful than their counterparts overseas and in other sports, owing to their college educations, their need to find other jobs during and after their playing days, and the humility that comes with earthbound incomes (as little as $12,900 a year) and soccer’s place in the pecking order of American sports.
For years, whenever anyone has learned that I cover soccer for an American sports magazine, I am invariably asked when the sport will “make it” in the United States. My answer is always the same: Hell if I know. I am not a soccer proselytizer, and I don’t know if soccer will ever be one of the top three spectator sports in the United States. But I do love this game, and I find it fascinating that so many wealthy investors– wildly successful billionaires, in fact–continue to sink so many dollars into the proposition that soccer can indeed “make it” here as a viable enterprise.
Ultimately, the purpose of the Beckham Experiment was to try to change soccer’s position in the hierarchy of U.S. spectator sports. By the time it was over, Beckham’s American adventure would be regarded as the moment soccer finally reached a tipping point in the United States–or as the moment the American consumer proved impervious to the machinations of a star-making expert like Simon Fuller. David Beckham may have been desperate to crack America, but so too was soccer itself. Whether or not they succeeded, it was going to be one memorable journey.