David Beckham: Hollow Man?

[Amy Bass, Morphizm
So here’s what I said to Alexi Lalas after reading Grant Wahl’s book, The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America. When it becomes a major motion picture, a ginger-headed Russell Crowe would play him.

“Really?” he asked. “Russell Crowe plays me?” I nodded. He smiled. (And seriously, when Alexi Lalas smiles, all is briefly right with the world.) “Cool. That’s very, very cool.”

The response is typical of the colorful American soccer great, the man who witnessed and participated in Beckham’s coming-to-America drama from the front row of the front office as the LA Galaxy’s president and general manager. Indeed, that was one of the things that stuck with me through Wahl’s well-told saga: It is a strange sports story when one starts to root for the guys in the front office. I mean, when do we ever root for the front office in American sports?

My conversation with Alexi took place at the Kicking and Screening Film Festival, where we –- along with soccer blogger Adam Spangler -– had a public chat before the Galaxy v. Red Bulls game, redubbed by most as The Return of Beckham. Wahl’s book had only been out a day or two, but the three of us had read it, meaning it had a bit of an impact on our conversation. Of course, Alexi had lived most of it.

The story Wahl details is, at best, a strange one. While In Touch magazine and Katie Holmes ensured that the Beckhams’ arrival in America was as photographed as just about anything else the paparazzi could get its hands on, the tale behind the bright lights in the West Coast’s version of a big city brought together the rules of celebrity (Beckham), sport (soccer), and big business (AEG) in ways that we likely will never see again. But to what conclusion?

What Wahl calls “the Beckham experiment” should, if current events serve any purpose, be ongoing, if not linear. After Beckham signed a ridiculously lucrative contract with the Galaxy, promising to change the face of soccer in America, he spent the majority of his time injured. A healthy Beckham then took leave of Los Angeles to go out “on loan” to AC Milan, a place where he claimed he would rather stay than return to the States. But he’s back, meaning that we have yet to see what –- if any -–impact he has made. Or have we?

In a recent conversation with Wahl, I told him I felt like the subtitle of his book read somewhat like a foregone conclusion. The experiment, like Beckham’s contract, should be far from over, but Wahl, for one, seems to have put the whole thing in the past tense.

“Is it over?” I asked him.

“It is on life support,” he answered. “Maybe that is the best way to put it.”

Beckham, Wahl emphasizes, is still with the team, but at best, he is and will continue be a part time player. And the effects of that? Will he still be able to advance soccer in America, as he initially promised?

“His window of opportunity for converting millions of new soccer fans in America has passed,” Wahl observes, “but that doesn’t mean he can’t still do good.”

The question for Wahl’s book, which has set off a bit of a firestorm within the ranks that already care about soccer in America, is whether or not it serves as halftime analysis or a postgame wrap-up. While it might seem like the book has come out in the middle of the so-called experiment, with a healthy Beckham back on the pitch in Los Angeles, it may be that the ending of the bigger story will remain the same, regardless of what takes place for the remainder of Major League Soccer season.

Minimally, Wahl agrees, there will need to be an afterword in the paperback. For him, the saga of Beckham and the Galaxy greatly impacted the very publication of the book. Originally slated for a 2008 release, the book had already been pushed back because of Beckham’s injuries. Then the “loan” happened. And then, Beckham made the announcement in February, 2009, that he wanted to stay in Milan. Everyone assumed he was done in Los Angeles.

“No one thought the Galaxy would play hardball and force him to come back,” Wahl says of the time, his publication date still up in the air. “At best, it was a very fluid situation. Then they reached a middle ground that allowed him to come back halfway through the MLS season.”

For Wahl, this meant his book could “come out in real-time. I sent the manuscript in on March 1st, the same week we learned that Beckham would be rejoining the Galaxy. We timed the book to come out before the return.”

It’s the kind of kismet every writer wishes for. Wahl’s book coincided with Beckham’s MLS re-debut on July 16. The game lived up to the hype. The Galaxy won and Beckham and teammate Landon Donovan, who heavily criticizes his teammate in Wahl’s pages, appeared to be collegial and effective on the field. But then: Beckham returned to play “at home.”

They booed him. His own (alleged) fans. And he got mad. Whether or not resentment aimed at Beckham was contained to the team’s notorious Riot Squad, one wonders if there is anything left for Beckham to do except go home. For Wahl, the spat between Beckham and fans in Los Angeles is an odd next chapter.

“I was surprised by his reaction, that he tried to confront the fans,” says Wahl. “He’s never tried to go into the stands or jump over a barrier to get at them. It was just fascinating to see Beckham get bothered by this.”

The problem, Wahl theorizes, is that Beckham seems to want gratitude for playing in this “podunk league,” but that he’d be better served “to realize that fans are savvy in this country -– he hasn’t earned his credibility on the field: they want to see the team win.”

Indeed. And for now, the team wins more when Beckham isn’t around. And, it is becoming clear, sells more tickets. So who is the victor? Well, Beckham, for one, but as Wahl sees it, only partially.

“He expanded his footprint,” Wahl observes. “He succeeds as a celebrity but that hasn’t necessarily converted into an interest in him on the soccer field –- that’s where it’s a big loss for soccer in America.”

But perhaps not a big loss for Beckham, whose priorities, if his desire to stay with Milan is any indication, seem to be about soccer again, rather than just celebrity. But still not soccer in America, where interest undeniably exists -– youth participation, World Cup audience, etc. -– but the viability of the MLS remains up in the air. That, says Wahl, is where the focus needs to lie.

“There are people who consider themselves soccer fans in America,” he says. “They need to be converted into MLS spectators, because right now, they see the MLS as inferior play.”

According to Wahl, the MLS is doing the right thing. It isn’t trying to convert people who have no interest in soccer whatsoever: The Beckham experiment was never about proselytizing to people who don’t like soccer. It was about turning soccer fans into MLS fans. Beckham was supposed to make that happen.

He is “a very unique situation,” says Wahl. “He and his handlers have been very smart in maximizing his appeal. He is the ultimate celebrity in the ultimate celebrity city, yet he is good enough to appeal to the hard core soccer demographic.”

But it hasn’t happened. And it doesn’t look like it is going to. When one thinks back to his Beatles-esque arrival in Los Angeles, his press extravaganza at the Home Depot Center, his “introduction” to America, his wife’s hot pink dress with matching Birkin bag, and the seemingly instant creation of PoshKat, there were cameras everywhere. It looked like this was it: America was going to officially watch soccer.

It happened. But now, perhaps, that glamorous bang has become a whimper.