Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Major League Soccer's Big Bet on Beckham

Major League Soccer has high hopes that superstar David Beckham will bring in more fans to American soccer. But if sports history is any guide, boosters will be disappointed.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's go from the bright lights of Louisiana to Los Angeles, where soccer star David Beckham will take his place with the L.A. Galaxy later this year. Promoters say Beckham will be a big boost for professional soccer here in the U.S., and he'd better, considering what they're paying for him. Commentator Frank Deford is not so sure.

FRANK DEFORD: David Beckham is a very fine soccer player, but with apologies to "Macbeth", nothing in his life becomes him like the leaving. My, but the man knows how to make an exit. As a player, he's most famous for getting kicked out of the World Cup in 1998. He departure from Manchester United in 2003 was so sensational that British television covered his medical exam live.

And now as he departs for America, once again his leave taking is the big story. This would worry me if I were Major League Soccer. Becks is a lovely guy to have show up and hang around for a bit to rattle the pots and pans. But I'm not so sure he leaves any footprints. Now, yes, absolutely, where he goes he is noticed.

When he visited Nelson Mandela some years ago, a British newspaper covered the summit of the two gods in this fashion: one is an icon of his generation, adored by millions across the globe, who has brought hope to his nation where once there was despair. The other is Nelson Mandela.

But then history tells us that when a sport believes it can use one great star to boost it - a surge, if you will - it's only a momentary lift. And when the star fades, the sporting enterprise itself is back to the same old oil in the same old limps. Red Grange signed a huge contract to play in the NFL as soon as his storied college career ended in 1925. Crowds thronged to see the galloping ghost. Alas, it was another 30 years before the NFL was accepted.

Bill Tilden turned pro. He toured the land, selling out arenas. But he did nothing for pro tennis. Just for Big Bill. Rick Barry jumped to the American Basketball Association. It would go the same way as the United States Football League went after it attached its wagon to Herschel Walker.

Pele was a sensational draw when he signed with the North American Soccer League. The day he left, the league was a ghost in short pants. This is not to say that Major League Soccer made an unwise decision in signing on Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy. But the boast of MLS Commissioner Dan Garber in which he declared that Beckham's arrival might be seen as perhaps one of the most crucial events in the history of professional sport is an hysterical athletic overstatement.

But, yes, this too: from Chris Evert to Anna Kournikova, Billie Jean King always had the wisdom to say, OK, if men come to check out the beauty, they might find then like the action. Becks will be like the circus come to town. Maybe the strangers in the soccer tent will notice what's in the other two rings and actually come back and pay to watch when the Kansas City Wizards or the Colorado Rapids come to play a game.

In the meantime, may we hope that some other country of the world with a struggling baseball league will decide that the way to make it work is to take Barry Bonds off our hands.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Frank Deford is a franchise player at "Sports Illustrated." He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford