Drew Carey plays better soccer than David Beckham
2009 August 21
As a diehard soccer fan who’s lived in the US for more than thirty years, I’ve been frustrated by the futile attempts of professional soccer leagues to establish the sport by hiring aging European or Latin American stars. When the LA Galaxy recruited David Beckham two seasons ago, I thought this was another example of a major league team not understanding that they should be co-creating a fan experience around the team, not packaging a product. Beckham has lived up to my nihilistic expectations by being injured most of his first season with the Galaxy, then in the second season treating his Galaxy commitment as summer recreation compared to his more serious AC Milan engagement. He was recently taken to task for his tourist-like behavior by Landon Donovan, a lightning-fast teammate at the Galaxy (the two have reputedly made up since then). Some Galaxy fans have booed Beckham during home games, producing startled comments by journalists that fans would care enough about soccer to go to that trouble…
I have nothing against David Beckham the person. He seems a nice enough chap and was a great soccer player. But I strongly object to David Beckham the brand when that is considered the future of US soccer. To discover a more authentic model, I suggest going a thousand miles north to see what the Seattle Sounders have been able to accomplish. A recent article in the Boston Globe describes how the team, in its very first season, draws more than 30,000 people on average for home games, doing better than the long-established Seattle Mariners baseball team and doubling the average attendance for Major League Soccer games.
The model is pure co-creation with fans. Fans picked the name of the team. They came up with the concept of a colorful march to the stadium behind drums before every game. Season-ticket holders get to sit with like-minded fans, i.e., they choose to be in a section where people cheer loudly or conversely want a less exuberant experience. Fans get to oust the general manager every four years, a governance structure copied from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid – although Seattle fans do not get to elect the new one like in Spain (instead, the owners do). Speaking of owners, the Sounders have come up with a uniquely American “mixed model” of ownership. The team has four traditional “rich guy” owners – including the actor Drew Carey, who is credited with coming up with the fan-centric model after a trip to Spain, a Hollywood producer, and the ubiquitous Paul Allen – but their influence is leavened by the fans’ participation. Somehow, this enlightened team of owners has figured out that engaging the fans is the way to go.
While the success of the Seattle Sounders warms my heart, it caused me to lose a bet. I figured the male-dominated Major League Soccer would never figure out the fan thing. My money was always on US women’s soccer to invent the new model. I hope the new women’s soccer league in the US gets to do that anyway, for the world needs a successful women’s soccer league. In the guys’ department, though, it’s Drew Carey 1, David Beckham 0.