Channeling the ‘Beckham Effect’ on the MLS’ big picture


David Beckham smiles while looking at the Staples Center scoreboard screen while sitting courtside at Tuesday’s Lakers-Pacers game. Those expected to see him play in his final Galaxy game Saturday include the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

If we’re trying to measure this from a media standpoint, what kind of impact did the Galaxy’s David Beckham make during his six-year stay in L.A., in so far as bending more viewers to check in on Major League Soccer?

The raw data makes it look somewhat minimal.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

ESPN/ESPN2 has maintained a consistent 0.2 rating each year since it began paying rights fees to the league in 1996. It did have its best overall viewership in 2012, up 6.5 percent, but mostly because it moved games from ESPN2 to ESPN.

A June 24 game between Portland and Seattle was the most-watched at 888,000 — still far below what happened on July 21, 2007, when Beckham made his Galaxy debut, a friendly against Chelsea FC when he actually sat most of the way with a bad ankle but was coaxed into playing the final 16 minutes so that 1.4 million viewers (947,000 TV homes) could see him. And that is only generating a 0.9 rating — yet it was the most-watched game involving an MLS team to date on the network.

ESPN had the Galaxy on 14 times this season, drawing 352,000 average viewers, which was well ahead of the 276,000 average for all 29 matches (regular season and playoffs) that it had in 2012.

NBC Sports Network, in the first year of its MLS coverage, had seven regular-season and one playoff game for the Galaxy, averaging 160,000 viewers – a bump from 31 percent over its regular-season average. Two of the top three MLS games on NBCSN involved the Galaxy. NBC Sports Network carried 40 MLS games and did almost 80 pecent better in ratings than when the MLS was part of Fox’s Soccer Channel deal a year earlier. NBCSN’s top game wasn’t involving the Galaxy — it was Dallas-Portland on Aug. 5, which drew 405,000 viewers.

And for those who report that the MLS had no rights fees at the time and was paying to have their games on TV, ESPN had been on board from before Beckham’s arrival, an $8.5 million deal that was from 2007-2014 and included U.S. men’s and women’s national teams and FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Alexi Lalas, the Galaxy’s GM at the time of Beckham’s arrival, says you have to look past that data to understand the full Beckham as he plays in his final game in Saturday’s MLS Cup against Houston (ESPN, 1:30 p.m.)

“Yes, he pushed the needle in some ways, but his impact was not so much more than TV-wise — it’s more of measuring the arrival of players to the MLS, making the league relevant around the world, building new stadiums here … there’s a correlation there,” said Lalas, who played on the Galaxy’s first MLS championship team 10 years ago and will be part of ESPN’s studio crew covering the final.

“I don’t think anyone in their right mind will argue that Beckham has helped both the Galaxy and the MLS. Did he make the league? No, but he made it better. When you look back at the talk of him helping to create a ‘superclub’ — which I still get pinned on me to this day — I feel some sense of pride seeing what the Galaxy has become. They are a team that’s talked about not just domestically but internationally when anyone thinks of the MLS. They have as many fans who dislike them as like them, which is the definition of a superclub. It’s been fun to watch this whole vision come together, under a coach like Bruce Arenas.

“There’s only one Beckham and certainly we talked about from Day 1 the unique situation of what he was able to bring,” said Lalas. “We could have signed a (Lionel) Messi (from Argentina) and increased interest from the soccer fan, but Beckham went beyond all those niches and was able to create an incredible reach. No body else does that.

“It’ll be hard, if not impossible, to find another Beckham.”

Lalas says ESPN will be careful not to focus too much attention the Beckham sideshow — especially when you consider how the network covered his initial Galaxy appearance by calling one camera the “Beckham Cam” as it followed him everywhere.

“ESPN will be careful not to bury the lead here,” said Lalas. “Yes, he’s a huge story, but it would be a huge disservice to not recognize everything else involved in this game. We won’t do it in a patronizing way.

“Saturday will be a big party, no doubt. This final has probably not been scripted any better from a branding or marketing standpoint — to have the last game for Beckham be in the MLS Cup, at Home Depot Center. But I think the rest of it will work out OK, too.”

Adrian Healey and Taylor Twellman will be on the ESPN call of the MLS Cup between the Galaxy and Houston (Saturday, 1:30 p.m.), with Monica Gonzales on the sidelines. Max Bretos is the on-site studio host, joined by Lalas and Kasey Keller. Guest analyst will be Alejandro Moreno, the leading striker for Chivas USA.

TWC SportsNet replays the game Saturday at 6 and 10 p.m.

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