Did the “Beckham Experiment” work for the MLS?

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Galaxy won 1-0 in the Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup final over the Houston Dynamo.  The Galaxy are lead by U.S. international Landon Donovan, as well as England’s David Beckham and Ireland’s Robbie Keane.  Notably, the game is the last before Beckham’s 5 year contract ends with the MLS.  Now the MLS is a curious league, as it is operated as a single-entity organization where the league holds all the player contracts.  This was done to originally keep costs in check so as to not repeat the failures of the North American Soccer League (NASL).  The strict salary cap rules were relaxed to allow players like David Beckham come to play in the league, with each team given the same number of exceptions in regards to players who do not count under the salary cap.  This has allowed players such as David Beckham, Theirry Henry, Robbie Keane, and many others to come play in the MLS near the end of their career.

I don’t think there is any doubt that David Beckham has had a significant impact on the MLS, but the question is whether Beckham was worth the large salary he was paid by the league.  This exact question was the focus of a research paper in the International Journal of Sport Finance by Robert A. Lawson, Kathleen Sheehan, and E. Frank Stephenson in 2008, entitled “Vend it Like Beckham: Beckham’s Effect on MLS Ticket Sales” (volume 3, p. 189-195).  In this paper, the authors conclude that Beckham increased attendance at stadiums by around 55%, and that he was probably worth the investment.  While it seems likely that MLS recouped the salary they paid Beckham, I wonder if the MLS has really just boosted the popularity of soccer in America, and not necessarily the league.

I point again to Sunday, a day when Liverpool played Chelsea and the MLS Cup final was held.  Not only were fans able to watch Liverpool vs Chelsea live early in the morning, but they could also watch the replay on Fox in the earlier afternoon, at the same time as the NFL was playing its early games.  The day was filled with sports, finishing with the MLS Cup occurring the same time as Sunday Night Football.  The numbers show that the MLS didn’t do very well in terms of ratings, even with David Beckham and other big names playing in the game.  USA Today noted that the Liverpool vs Chelsea replay had double the viewers as the MLS Cup Final.

Fox’s taped Chelsea-Liverpool soccer game Sunday afternoon drew an overnight TV rating that nearly doubled the rating for ESPN’s primetime MLS Cup Sunday.

Fox’s soccer got a 1.5 overnight, which translates to 1.5% of households in the 56 urban TV markets measured for overnights. ESPN’s Los Angeles-Houston MLS title game, which included stars David Beckham and Landon Donovan, drew just 0.8% of households.

This is not a good sign for the MLS, though their timing and placement of the finals was probably not the best.  Scheduling during the same time as a prime-time game between the Giants and Eagles.

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