Beckham adds no spice to U.S. fans' sports diet

The Baltimore Sun

He hasn't yet made his American debut, but David Beckham has already made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Five thousand fans showed up at the Home Depot Center last week - for a news conference. The paparazzi have abandoned our favorite food-deprived starlets to deliver us round-the-clock Beckham coverage.

We're still a couple of days away from Beckham suiting up for the Los Angeles Galaxy and already soccer's summertime sideshow has made it easy to overlook the actual game Beckham's supposed to be weaving into the American fabric. But did we really expect anything else?

"Say hello, America," beckons the ESPN commercial. "Beckham arrives Saturday." In that sense, Beckham feels more like a new Apple product or perhaps a storm front. As a pop culture phenomenon, he has certainly arrived.

However, as some soccer knight whose footwork and gamesmanship are supposed to convert us into believers, he'll be as welcomed as a door-to-door Bible salesman. We don't need to witness a second of action to once again note that just because the rest of the world might be selling, American sports fans aren't buying. Not only are they hawking the wrong product, but they've chosen the wrong pitchman.

From the fine folks who brought us warm beer and driving on the wrong side of the road comes this latest line of twisted logic: The world's most popular soccer player is charged with finally pushing the sport into the mainstream.

You aren't going to sway a nation that prefers football to futbol by simply sending over the most popular athlete you can muster. If we collectively think the sport is boring to watch, the solution is not to send us someone who's mastered the boredom. That's like a television network airing an hour-long reality show on paint drying - and encouraging you to watch because the broadcast features the nicest, shiniest paint in the world. American sports fans aren't fooled by dimples and hard abs and a Spice Girl on one arm - to us, it's still paint drying.

This isn't to suggest that Major League Soccer's venture won't garner attention. It most certainly will find some level of success. The Galaxy signing Beckham doesn't woo legions of new fans to the sport; instead, the new star is merely a vehicle for a fan base that's already had its soccer license for many years.

That's why since the Beckham signing was announced six months ago, you haven't visited the water cooler at work and heard the Dallas Cowboys fan chatting up the Chicago Bulls fan about soccer. Those most excited to see Beckham in MLS are those already familiar with MLS.

The prophecy is oft-repeated. Pele came to America in 1975, and while he sold some tickets and helped build the sport's identity here, three decades later we're still talking about some improbable day when every American newborn is handed a soccer ball on the way out of the delivery room.

Put simply: In America, soccer is a wonderful participatory sport. For a variety of reasons, it is a terrible spectator event. That doesn't change with one man. In fact, you could bring in the top dozen European players and it wouldn't change. If you want American sports fans to take an interest, put Ray Lewis in a D.C. United jersey. Or even better, put Victoria Beckham in a Galaxy jersey.

Like any niche sport, soccer's hard-core fans will revel in David Beckham's arrival. But even those who don't plan to catch more than a few minutes of an MLS game will find him difficult to ignore. We're a celebrity-infused culture, and Beckham no doubt intrigues us. But not as an athlete.

Just as with a long line of pretty faces, our interest will have nothing to do with his talents. No more than we care about Paris Hilton because of her handbag collection or Tara Reid because of her method acting. Beckham's audience is more TMZ.com than ESPN.com; Entertainment Tonight, not Baseball Tonight.

And only half of that interest is even attributed to Beckham. Among the Internet's top search subjects, Victoria Beckham was ranked No. 2 by Yahoo.com yesterday. And Mr. Posh Spice? He was No. 19. A safe guess is that those searches weren't all performed by newly converted soccerheads filling suburbia from Walla Walla, Wash., to Bangor, Maine.

Ultimately, Beckham's paycheck parade across American soil won't be about increasing the sport's popularity. Beckham's popularity, maybe. But not soccer's. Meantime, we'll be force-fed updates on the Beckhams' shopping habits and dining decisions. Occasionally we might get a soccer score or two, but for the American appetite, that will never be anything more than garnish on our sports plate.

It's not a point of pride, but in our glitter-obsessed culture, we care about who someone is, not what they do. In that sense, Beckham might make for a bland American sports star, but he's the perfect American celebrity.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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