Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. It’s official: World No. 3 Colombia to face USMNT in London on Nov. 14

    Oct 22, 2014, 7:23 PM EDT

    James Rodriguez AP

    “So overall, it’s a squad with a lot of experience playing at the highest level, and this will be another great benchmark for us,” Klinsmann said.

  2. Brendan Rodgers remarks on Balotelli and Pepe’s halftime shirt swap

    Oct 22, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT

    Britain Soccer Champions League AP

    Of course many are claiming this “is the beginning of end” for Balotelli on Merseyside. That seems a bit much.

  3. VIDEO: Top 10 goals of the MLS season (heading into the final weekend)

    Oct 22, 2014, 5:40 PM EDT

    Erik Hurtado AP

    Here’s the bar, Week 33 of Major League Soccer: Please feel free to raise it.

  4. UEFA Champions League roundup: Madrid clubs, Borussia Dortmund roll

    Oct 22, 2014, 4:47 PM EDT

    Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, AP

    We are at the halfway point in Groups A-D, and some English clubs are concerned about their fortunes to be sure.

  5. Three things we learned as Real Madrid rout Liverpool

    Oct 22, 2014, 4:41 PM EDT

    It was a night to forget for the home side, as Real ruled at Anfield. Here’s what we learned.

  6. Arsenal’s Podolski, Gibbs break Belgian hearts in left-for-late win

    Oct 22, 2014, 4:36 PM EDT

    Belgium Soccer Champions League AP

    The 21-year-old Honduran international did what a dangerous Alexis Sanchez couldn’t, but Arsenal was rescued late.

  7. Michel Platini denies making ebola comments which angered African Confederation

    Oct 22, 2014, 2:54 PM EDT

    Platini Getty Images

    The CAF claimed Platini said something he didn’t, and it hurt his feelings.

  8. Setting the scene at Anfield, as Liverpool host Real Madrid in UEFA Champions League

    Oct 22, 2014, 2:14 PM EDT

    FBL-EUR-C1-LIVERPOOL-REALMADRID FBL-EUR-C1-LIVERPOOL-REALMADRID

    Here’s what it’s like at Anfield, as Liverpool host Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League.

  9. FOLLOW LIVE – Champions League returns for Wednesday slate

    Oct 22, 2014, 1:58 PM EDT

    Ronaldo Getty Images

    With yesterday’s goal frenzy, will today give us the same excitement?

  10. Robinho being investigated for sexually assaulting teenager

    Oct 22, 2014, 1:34 PM EDT

    Robinho Getty Images

    This is the second time Robinho is under investigation for such an alleged incident.

  11. David Villa’s time in Australia could be up already

    Oct 22, 2014, 12:17 PM EDT

    Villa Getty Images

    NYCFC’s first Designated Player will be returning to the United States to fulfill commercial and marketing obligations, and it’s unclear whether he will make his way back to Australia to finish out his loan.

  12. WATCH: Geoff Cameron says he’s fighting for a central position

    Oct 22, 2014, 11:36 AM EDT

    Cameron Getty Images

    Now that he’s back from a hernia problem, the American told Stoke’s YouTube channel that he is no longer a right-back and the club is aware of where he wants to play.

  13. Men in Blazers podcast: Whiplash from QPR-Liverpool, Klinsmann-Garber, plus Josh Lambo

    Oct 22, 2014, 10:51 AM EDT

    meninblazers

    Rog and Davo gain whiplash from QPR-Liverpool, and the Jurgen Klinsmann-Don Garber saga.

  14. Portland Timbers out of CONCACAF CL after loss in Honduras

    Oct 22, 2014, 9:20 AM EDT

    TimbersOlimpia Getty Images

    The MLS side was eliminated from group stage play on an away goals tiebreaker as Honduran side Olimpia goes through.

  15. FA investigating racial abuse in Championship match

    Oct 22, 2014, 8:42 AM EDT

    BellusciJerome Getty Images

    Norwich striker Cameron Jerome complained to Mark Clattenburg that a Leeds player was racially abusing him, and the matter is being investigated.

  16. Podolski to speak to Wenger, Arsenal about his future

    Oct 22, 2014, 7:46 AM EDT

    Podolski Getty Images

    Arsenal’s energetic German winger loves the club, but admitted he can’t sit on the bench forever.

  17. QPR chairman releases statement on Redknapp-Taarabt feud

    Oct 21, 2014, 11:10 PM EDT

    Tony Fernandes looks on at Loftus Road during a QPR match this season. Getty Images

    “On behalf of the club, I would like to apologise to the QPR supporters for the embarrassment this has caused,” Fernandes wrote.

  18. Tuesday’s Top 5 Champions League Goals: Which was the best?

    Oct 21, 2014, 10:15 PM EDT

    Edinson Cavani AP

    Who scored the best goal in Tuesday’s Champions League action?

Featured video

PST Extra: Can United beat Chelsea?