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Bigger impact on U.S. soccer growth: David Beckham or Pele?

May 16, 2013, 10:55 AM EDT

2011 MLS Cup - Houston Dynamo v Los Angeles Galaxy Getty Images

Pele and David Beckham splashed themselves across a willing U.S. Soccer scene at wildly different times in the game’s development here.

And yet their legacies look quite similar, both measurably significant in soccer’s growth and larger acceptance here.  Both men cultivated greater awareness for the country’s top professional league, although in very different ways, moving the needle forward in very different places along the cultural awareness continuum.

Is it lame to call this one a draw?

Pele was here as the pro game was barely out of infancy, still more “novelty” than “national footprint” on the domestic sports map.

Beckham arrived with the game at a far higher level of awareness and cultural acceptance, but when it had definitely arrived at a certain plateau. He pushed it past a sticking point.

To use an American football analogy, Pele moved the ball off the goal line, gaining a couple of important first downs. Beckham, who retired from soccer on Thursday at age 38, helped move the ball past the 50-yard line, into scoring position in the opponent’s end.

I think we can all agree that all forward movement is important. Pele’s contribution was to stamp legitimacy on a league that was still full of carnival tricks, still overly dependent on gimmicks to draw the crowds. And he put far more eyes on the North American Soccer League, which was not yet into its second decade when he arrived in 1975.

(MORE: PHOTOS –The life and times of David Beckham)

Major League Soccer was barely into its second decade when the Beckham tsunami landed with force on Major League Soccer shores. His goal in the bigger picture was always about increasing TV rights, creating buzz across a greater spectrum and ginning up general awareness.

It all started on the cold January day in 2007 when news that soccer’s illustrious global icon would be joining MLS, which was easily the most significant league announcement since Alan Rothenberg and other architects first revealed details ahead of the 1996 launch.

Going forward, sellouts were the norm in his first two or three seasons, so his impact at the gate was significant. (And gate receipts in MLS make up a far, far greater portion of revenue than in other U.S. sports, so that was a boon.) The real victory was in general market awareness (i.e., outside the soccer niche audience) and in enhanced TV contracts.

Long story short, Brand Beckham was always a circus – but don’t we all like to watch the circus? He did make more Americans watch MLS.

By the way, there were always better players, in both cases. Still, both men helped to validate their competitive value with championships in their final years, adding muscle to the argument that they were more than a brand and a pretty face on all this. Pele helped guide the Cosmos to the 1977 NASL championship in his third and final season with the club. Beckham won MLS Cup titles in 2011 and 2012, his final pair of LA Galaxy seasons.

  1. mazblast - May 16, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    Pele by a large margin. Pele came to play and to teach Americans the joy of the game (such as it is); Beckham came to collect paychecks and have his picture taken.

    • witchrunner - May 16, 2013 at 9:43 PM

      Have to agree, easily it is Pele. He was far and away the best player of his era. He was charismatic without the overblown ego. And he could do things no other player could do. In a word, he was a great ambassador of the game. Beckham is more a prima dona. Pele was all class.

  2. djjeffhall - May 16, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    Beckham has a far greater impact.

    I remember Pele beating my hapless Washington Diplomats amid empty stadiums and national indifference. Beckham led to sell outs and a league promising stability for years to come. Pele was one name among many (Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and Gordon Banks are a few of the greats filling out NASL rosters.) Beckham did it alone.

    • thecloudancer - May 16, 2013 at 7:40 PM

      Maybe the real question is “would there have been a MLS for Beckham to join if it had not been for Pele blazing the trail???” What would have happened if the NASL had failed to develop?

    • ronnydevane - May 17, 2013 at 9:11 AM

      If The US Men Team would make it to a World Cup Finals, it would do the trick. Soccer has a lot to do with patriotism and we love to win….

  3. midtec2005 - May 16, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    Hard to say… Beckham took MLS from a failing league to one of the top 5 leagues in the country.

    But without Pele would there have been an MLS for Beckham to save?

    • jebva - May 16, 2013 at 7:41 PM

      LOL there are actually FIVE kickball leagues in the USA? Wow ho would have known, well except for fans of the game of professional kickball!

      • midtec2005 - May 16, 2013 at 10:56 PM

        You’re so smart. Where in my comment did I say soccer leagues?

        I was talking about other sports.

    • gunner1970 - May 16, 2013 at 11:29 PM

      Top 5?

      1. Bigger than MLB…No

      2. Bigger than the NFL…No

      3. Bigger than the NBA…No

      4. Bigger then the NHL…No

      Bigger then NASCAR…No

      Ok. Let’s skip the League’s even tho NASCAR isn’t one of them.

      Bigger then College Basketball…No

      Bigger then College Football…No


      • midtec2005 - May 17, 2013 at 1:15 PM

        College sports are not professional leagues, they can’t even be considered. Not mention college basketball is only big for a very short period of time (March).

        I thought about NASCAR, but I’m not sure I’d put that in the same category.

        MLS is now bigger than the NHL.

        One could argue it’s bigger than the MLB also due to average attendance numbers… but MLB has a lot more games.

        So yes, it’s top 5. The only reason MLS doesn’t get the press it deserves is because ESPN isn’t invested heavily in it.

        Then you can look at just the sports as a whole, soccer is huge and growing fast. Especially among younger people… As a sport, soccer is probably only behind football and basketball…. MAYBE baseball, but I doubt it.

  4. buckyball77 - May 16, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    We may wince a little, but the celebrity driven society we are in paid a lot more attention to soccer when Becks and Posh began doing the American celebrity circuit. He gave it the cachet of coolness.

    As @djjeffhall says, even with the novelty of a Muhammed Ali level, world athlete such as Pele; when he wasn’t visiting your city with the Cosmos there was profound indifference (or hostility) to soccer in 1970’s America. [I know this first hand. I was in a NASL city.]

  5. charliej11 - May 16, 2013 at 2:59 PM

    Started watching soccer in mid 70s.

    Pele was huge coming here, but it really was a fake progress. 60k NY fans showing up to see the circus didn’t translate into any RedBulls fans, because they were there to see their team win every game, which they did.

    On the other hand, Beckham too. Do any of the guys going to see Beckham still go ? I doubt many.

    Pele, but close. And neither really progressed the game in the US, the game progressed the game for the real fans.

  6. nothanksimdriving123 - May 16, 2013 at 5:52 PM

    Sorry, but it’s neither. Mia Hamm and perhaps even more, Brandi Chastain when she booted in the Women’s World Cup winning goal in 1999 and then whipped off her jersey and made newspaper front pages and magazine covers nationwide. They may have brought more US kids to the game than either of the gents.

    • ihcone - May 16, 2013 at 10:03 PM

      Thank you, nothanksimdriving123. You are correct. No one person made more of an impact on American soccer than that 1999 team…those women were legendary.

    • midtec2005 - May 16, 2013 at 11:02 PM

      That’s a really good answer actually, you just might be right…

  7. samsjmail - May 16, 2013 at 6:07 PM

    Soccer. Is that a sport?

    Who is Pele Beckham?

    Seriously. Who cares? It’s Ice hockey without any fights to make it interesting.

    • nothanksimdriving123 - May 16, 2013 at 6:37 PM

      Perhaps more importantly, why does PST not have thumbs up and down like PHT and HBT?

      • midtec2005 - May 16, 2013 at 6:54 PM

        Because most people postng in the PST section are more intelligent than this guy

    • asimonetti88 - May 16, 2013 at 7:58 PM

      Says the guy on the soccer blog

  8. 24thesho - May 16, 2013 at 6:48 PM

    PELE! Next question. Beckhan is or was really, really good, but, that’s on some “blond, white man’s” marketing bullsh*t.
    Really, it’s a leading question…, iif you are a white man who knows soccer, who would you say is? Actually, in Argentina, most people would tell you Really, it’s a leading question…, iif you are a white man who knows soccer. Actually, in Argentina, most people would tell you Diego Maradonna, but that’s another discussion for another day.

    • midtec2005 - May 16, 2013 at 6:56 PM

      Don’t be silly, everyone knows Pele is better than Beckham. No one is arguing that and race has nothing to do with it. You missed the entire point of the question.

      The question was impact on the sports popularity, and since Beckham is an international megastar it’s a good question.

      Reading is useful.

      • pbrown1700 - May 16, 2013 at 7:46 PM

        Pele. Before him little white kids didn’t play soccer. Now every kid plays and knows the rules.

      • 24thesho - May 28, 2013 at 7:59 AM

        Historical evidence with personal experience, along with reading is useful, too! Get at me with something more original. The tenor of your comment alone, reeks of condescension and in some ways has proven my point.

  9. eltex - May 16, 2013 at 7:06 PM

    I agree with ‘samsjmail ‘, soccer still doesn’t matter, at least not in the US. Just like US football won’t ever be big in the EU, Soccer won’t ever be big here. Sure, you might get an extra 1000 people to a stadium some years, but the only way a sport is successful in the US is via TV revenue, and that won’t ever happen to US soccer.

    • midtec2005 - May 16, 2013 at 10:59 PM

      It will and is. In the process ESPN will lose a ton of money for ignoring it, for no obvious reason.

    • mvktr2 - May 19, 2013 at 6:03 AM

      Not so fast my friend!

      Care to name the #1 sport in the US at 20 year intervals since the late 1800s? If you do you’ll find boxing, college football, pro baseball, and pro football ruling the proverbial roost. Sports landscapes are eternally moving shifting and changing. In 30 years MLS may be #1 or #2, it may have disappeared from existence. The only certainty is uncertainty. The NFL will one day be knocked from it’s pedestal. Don’t believe it, look at MLB. View the rise of the NBA and contrast it to where boxing was circa 1915, ie king of sports in the US, and where it is today.

  10. jebva - May 16, 2013 at 7:40 PM

    LOL its only professional kickball, not even a sport. Who cares who has played it. Gee lets see you have to be able to 1) run and 2) kick a round ball! Big deal…

    • mvktr2 - May 19, 2013 at 5:58 AM

      Wouldn’t such ‘logic’ apply to all sports when they’re reduced to their simplest base activity. Wow gotta be able to throw a ball … catch a ball … hit a ball … kick a ball, it’s all relatively the same in such an elementary disjointed sense.

  11. cesarbarroso - May 16, 2013 at 8:14 PM

    I feel uncomfortable to see any comparison between Pele and Beckham. This Beckham is a dandy, Pelé was a real soccer player. I do not have an answer for which of the two had a bigger impact in U.S. soccer. All I can say is that those who saw Pelé play were blessed. u

  12. gunner1970 - May 16, 2013 at 11:30 PM

    Womens Olympic Soccer did more for the sport then Beckham

  13. greg2geez - May 17, 2013 at 12:16 AM

    “There were better players, in both cases”?? Um no. It’s not even right to say Pele was the Michael Jordan of soccer. In fact Michael Jordan was the Pele of basketball. And don’t waste my time with idiot jingo American rugby in plastic hats, football is played with your feet.

    • mvktr2 - May 19, 2013 at 6:05 AM

      Blasting other sports does nothing for one’s argument for soccer or any sport (see examples of ‘kickball’ haters above).

  14. namriverrat69 - May 17, 2013 at 12:35 AM

    Pele – hands down

  15. nothanksimdriving123 - May 17, 2013 at 1:26 AM

    Amazing how many people appeared to think the question was who was the better player, when it was actually asking who had the bigger impact on increasing the US fan base for soccer. Alas, reading comprehension.

    • midtec2005 - May 17, 2013 at 1:17 PM

      Wheres the like button??

  16. jimeejohnson - May 19, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    While Beckham has had a huge impact, Pele planted the seeds that made soccer grow from a seedling. Beckham watered the plant and it grew more. Those who know realize just being mentioned in the same sentence with Pele is huge in and of itself.

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