20 July 2007

"Soccer Has Overtaken Hockey" - Mike Wilbon Codifies the Conventional Wisdom

Look, you may be annoyed at the mainstream coverage of MLS and US Soccer as anyone, but you have to accept certain misunderstandings. By now, we must realize that the David Beckham story is a story that's really about the LA Galaxy and not MLS as a whole. It's a big LA Galaxy story, don't get me wrong, but it really speaks to what's happening in LA more than what's happening in the other cities. On World Soccer Daily yesterday, there was an interesting exchange where Grant Wahl (I think it was) described the difference between Tim Leiweke and the philosophy of Don Garber regarding youth players and how to build the league. The simplified argument was the Leiweke believes that foreign talent is the key to building MLS, and Garber believes in domestic talent. So Beckham is really not indicative of the league as a whole, only LA's philosophy.

Still, given that the issue is confused, there is an interesting argument advanced in Mike Wilbon's column today in the Post (emphasis added):

Beckham's appearance here, Aug. 9 against D.C. United, could easily sell out. But will it change anything fundamentally? Soccer has already surpassed hockey on the American sports landscape. But bringing a past-his-prime star to lure casual fans not only isn't new, it failed miserably 22 years ago when the NASL went belly-up.

Say what you will about Wilbon, he is a reliable gauge of where the conventional sports media's mindset will be or is at a given moment. We know that this isn't the same as the NASL. We know that Beckham isn't here to save soccer. But even Wilbon concedes that the imprint of soccer is more significant, even without Beckham, than it was a few years ago. Now, his statement that soccer has overtaken hockey must be viewed in a larger context: Hockey has self-destructed to some degree by pursuing a gawdawful TV deal and with the lockout of a few years ago. And Wilbon may be unconsciously biased by the fact that MLS (and Champions League) is an ESPN property while hockey is not. Certainly I imagine this guy (or perhaps even this guy, and certainly this guy here [/THEISMAN]) would disagree with Wilbon's characterization. So let's not pat ourselves on the back yet. Still, for all the complaints about the mainstream media, it is changing. Take heart, the wisdom will move slowly in our direction. We know that the concerns are overblown and wrong, and since that is the case as those questions are answered, we'll see more movement after that. Hope, not fear, my friends.

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At 20 July, 2007 12:17, Blogger Brian said...

I tend to like Wilbon as he is a good writer and seems like one of the least vitriolic when it comes to the standard talking head bashing soccer community. But I was really disappointed that he pushes the lazy and hardly true argument of "Beckham is over the hill and the NASL tried this." Wilbon should be better than that. Leave that to Rome.

At 20 July, 2007 13:14, Blogger I-66 said...

Many soccer fans in this country have argued this for a little while, but it's nice to see someone in the media who hasn't exactly been a soccer proponent say it. Yeah, Wilbon has some respect for the game, but as shown his suggestion that soccer needs to be saved, it's not as much respect as he should have.

At 20 July, 2007 13:20, Blogger Kinney said...

Wilbon is actually writing from experience when he talks about NASL. He was the Goff of the Dips for at least a year. And I think he does have a point. We aren't there now, but we could get there really quickly. If Beckham becomes a huge monetary success for AEG, I think that other teams would attempt to copy them. However, Beckham is a rare case, a world class soccer player whose media presence is larger than his skill would indicate. Can you name another player for whom this is the case in the United States?

If too many teams try to bring in Raul's, Ronaldo's, etc. after their prime it will not work as well as Beckham. They just don't have the pop culture footprint that he does. Plus, most of those players will probably be futher into their swan song than David. Other than Beckham, whose media hype is worth it even if he wasn't a very good player, MLS needs to target the Angel's of the world. I am afraid that with Beckham's success too many teams will try to sign people for publicity instead of talent. That could lead to a very NASL like scenario.

For now, slow and stead with an infusion of DP talent is the way to go. When the players union agreement comes up in 2010 a lot of issues are going to be on the table. We will see then what state the league is in and how quickly it wants to move forward.

At 20 July, 2007 15:06, Anonymous JoshC said...

I'd say ESPN's bias toward a sport whose rights it owns, and against one whose rights it doesn't own, is quite explicit.

That said, ESPN shapes the conventional wisdom. Soccer fans are reaping the benefits of this right now, but ten years ago hockey fans had ESPN's favor too. Be careful what you wish for.

At 20 July, 2007 15:13, Anonymous Skippy said...

This is a little off the topic, but all these "over-the-hill" "has-been" references to Beckham may be premature. Its certainly true that he's getting older and his performance in Germany and even before that were disappointing. And he doesn't have the speed that he used to.
When I first heard he was coming to LA, I kind of rolled my eyes and said, "Meh" thinking that the MLS really doesn't want become the place where Europeans and Brazilians come to die (that is, the Florida of international soccer). I think England and Real Madrid reacted the same way.
But more recently, he became a force the English national side and for Real Madrid and the reaction changed. The Brit press started printing stories about how he wanted to back out and was too good for the MLS.
I guess my long-winded point is, Beckham may not be "finished." He won't be the same player he was in his youth, but that doesn't mean he can't be as effective. We could have viewed Zidane the same way before last World Cup and we would have been wrong to do so, headbutt notwithstanding.
Or it could be that I've been caught up in the hype.

At 20 July, 2007 15:43, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to joshc-- true ESPN has that bias against sports it doesn't cover and true that ESPN shapes the conventional wisdom. However, the conventional wisdom can have a lot of momentum. ESPN still regularly shows all of the goals in the previous night's hockey match and none or (this year) few soccer highlights. I firmly believe that if ESPN were to regularly show soccer highlights it would make a tremendous difference in the popularity of the sport. It would suddenly become more cool for the general sports fan to follow.
On a broader note, does ESPN showing hot-dog eating contests and poker have parallels to when MTV stopped showing music videos?

At 21 July, 2007 13:27, Blogger Keving said...

agree with all the comments..the becks factor has hit over here with tv channel now moving MLS highlights to a primetime slot instead of a graveyard one.

signing players past their prime and looking for one last pay day is not the way to go..not that beckham is any off the above.

getting players who move from the mls and do well in europe will make more hot dog munching couch potatos interested in the league.

we like nothin more than seeing ex players do well elsewhere..unless it's mo johnstone..

At 21 July, 2007 16:09, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff L'Hote had an interesting article in Soccer America a few weeks ago in which he pointed out that the Premier League only recently passed the NHL in revenue generation among world sports leagues.

MLS probably isn't anywhere close to the NHL in terms of revenue, but I'd like to think it's getting closer every season, and getting closer to the Prem every season too.

At 23 July, 2007 09:24, Blogger Caps Nut said...

IMHO, Wilbon is just getting caught up in the hype of Beckham coming over to the U.S.

Add in that the MLS is on ESPN, ESPN has a clear attitude of "if it doesn't happen on our network, it doesn't happen/matter," andESPN pays Wilbon rather handsomely, I don't think there's any real surprise that he would say something like this.

Besides, let's face it, the NHL is in a serious decline right now for many different reasons.

But as some have properly pointed out, the NHL once had ESPN's favor and it fell out pretty quickly. There's no doubt that the same fate will befall the MLS when ESPN is already delaying the start of MLS matches in favor of Men's College Volleyball.


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