Public Relations Tactics

Coming to America: Exploring the PR implications of David Beckham’s presence on Major League Soccer

February 22, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Chris Cobb

The following article appears in the March issue of PR Tactics.

Celebrity can almost always be counted on to infuse excitement and attract attention to an otherwise neglected PR campaign. Just ask Dan Courtemanche, senior vice president of communications and marketing for Major League Soccer (MLS), whose working life was recently jolted with the announcement that David Beckham would be joining the Los Angeles Galaxy.

“We’ve received our share of media coverage through the years,” Courtemanche tells Tactics, “but Beckham has enabled us to reach the mainstream and transcend sport. It’s not every day that Major League Soccer players are featured on ‘Access Hollywood’ or that Jay Leno is talking about one of our athletes in his monologue.”

New York-based Courtemanche says the media attention Beckham, who he considers a global icon who TV producers and newspaper and magazine editors deem newsworthy, has showered on MLS even before kicking a ball for Los Angeles Galaxy demanded a different PR approach. “It required very strategic management of the demand. We had ‘60 Minutes,’ ‘Good Morning, America’ and ‘Larry King Live,’ etc., calling us and asking for David Beckham,” he says.

Five days before Beckham signed his $250-million, five-year Galaxy contract in January, the MLS communications team began holding twice-daily conference calls with Beckham and Galaxy representatives. The aim was to get maximum exposure for the Galaxy investment.

“We knew David had a limited amount of time, so we had to focus on a strategic way to unveil the story,” says Courtemanche.

They decided on what Courtemanche describes as a “controlled release.”  Beckham would record a video press release on Jan. 11 for worldwide distribution. The league followed up later that day with a conference call featuring Galaxy owners and MLS commissioner Don Garber.

The next day, Beckham gave exclusive interviews to ABC’s “Good Morning, America” and ESPN from his home in Madrid. (Disney-owned ESPN and ABC have exclusive rights to televise MLS games.)

“They have been partners with us since we began in 1996, so we felt they deserved the exclusive,” Courtemanche explains.

The strategy worked, with Beckham pictured and quoted on front pages and major newscasts in North America and across the globe — all on the basis of one video news release and two interviews.

Beckham won’t be talking to North American media again until July, shortly before he becomes a Galaxy player, but that hasn’t stopped the major network shows from calling Courtemanche — some on a daily basis.

The Beckham announcement has resulted in increased season ticket sales across the league — 3,000 alone sold in the first week by the expansion Toronto F.C. in Canada. L.A. Galaxy is apparently changing colors and redesigning its team shirts for Becks (as he is known by his European soccer colleagues).

MLS will get another publicity boost when Beckham arrives this summer, but after that, the hard work begins.

A high-profile PR coup
Nobody doubts his celebrity power will sell plenty of Galaxy shirts and other merchandise and doubtless prove a worthwhile, short-term investment. The big question is: What legacy will Beckham leave behind? Can Beckham take the most played game in North America and finally grant it a long-term professional status to rival baseball, basketball and hockey?

“We have more kids playing soccer than some countries have people,” says John A. Koskinen, U.S. Soccer Foundation president and a 30-year veteran of the North American professional soccer scene.

He predicts that Beckham will be a great asset to professional soccer in North America and a catalyst who will bring in more high-caliber players. These players, in turn, will improve the quality of the North American game.

“The size of Beckham’s contract sends a signal that soccer is building a bigger base than many people realize,” he says. “He won’t dominate games because it’s not his style of play and he’s playing with and against some good players, not college kids. So there is a risk that untutored fans expecting to see a one-man band may leave a little disappointed.”

While one of the world’s most recognized sportsmen, following years of success on the field, the 31-year-old Beckham’s recent performance has been less than stellar. Following England’s defeat at the 2006 World Cup, Beckham stepped down as captain.Derek Aframe, vice president with the Connecticut-based sports marketing agency Octagon, agrees that signing Beckham is a huge PR coup.

“David Beckham coming to MLS provides the league with an athlete capable of raising awareness and interest in soccer in the United States to the next level,” he said. “Beckham has the cache to further legitimize MLS in the eyes of potential fans, investors and sponsors.  When American children dream of sports success, those who play soccer will now have a hero to emulate who attained fame, wealth and success on par with the great heroes of other popular U.S. sports.
 “Major League Soccer has never been in a better position to take advantage of Beckham coming here,” adds Aframe, noting that most clubs are financially healthy because they already own — or will own — their own custom-built stadiums. This allows them to reap all the revenue from ticket sales, merchandise, food and drink and TV rights.

Addie Mattei-Iaia, president of the Long Island Junior Soccer League (LIJSL) — America’s largest youth soccer organization that oversees 75,000 children between the ages of 8 and 18 in 100 community-based clubs — says soccer-loving kids need a role model.

“They need heroes and someone to look up to. I just hope he follows through and provides a good image. I don’t have to tell you about some other athletes who aren’t very good role models,” she adds.

Still, Mattei-Iaia is more skeptical of his impact on the sport. Beckham may be a PR achievement for professional soccer, but recruiting high-profile professionals in the twilight of their careers — notably Pelé before the North American Soccer League folded in 1984 — has been tried before.

“He’ll have an impact, but only time will tell how much of an impact,” she says.  “I’ve been around since the old New York Cosmos-Pelé days, and we thought that was going to be the great breakthrough.”

The Hispanic appeal
Meanwhile, MLS has a fan base that comprises the fastest-growing minority group in the United States — Hispanics. In fact, Hispanics make up one-third of MLS ticket buyers, which bodes well for the organization’s efforts to build their audience no matter how Beckham performs. Of course, the better Beckham plays, the more interest the Galaxy can build for their games.

Hector Orcí, chairman and co-founder of La Agencia de Orcí, the largest Hispanic advertising agency in Los Angeles, says Latino soccer fans have an allegiance to top-class soccer. Typically, they are both passionate and knowledgeable about the game.

“My sense is there will be a lot of curiosity and sampling of whatever Beckham brings to the Galaxy,” he says. “If he is up to his game, it will add appeal and increase attendance — not just among Latinos but among other ethnicities who have been away from the game. Tiger Woods changed the way golf is perceived and played. Beckham could do the same for soccer.”

But Beckham’s celebrity “will be good for about half a game” among knowledgeable fans, Orcí says with a laugh.

“They’ll be very impressed if he can make some goals,” he says, “but they will not be impressed if he can’t do that and attends great parties with lots of Hollywood stars.”

Author and journalist Chris Cobb is a senior writer at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in Canada’s capital where he specializes in reporting on media and government communication.

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