Little did David Beckham know that when he moved to MLS that he was only following a trail blazed by Hulk Hogan.
Fans of professional wrestling are very familiar with the the Monday Night Wars. It was when the two biggest pro wrestling companies, World Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), compete head to head for supremacy. Their respective television shows drew in millions of viewers each Monday night. They had to do whatever it took to one-up the other and bring what they believed would be a better product to the fans.
For WCW, this meant signing older stars from the WWF who were way past their primes. It was a smart tactic. It brought instant credibility to the company and they were names that the average wrestling fan might know.
It was easily the biggest move WCW had ever made. Hogan was and arguably still is the biggest name in professional wrestling. Moving to WCW was also a good move for Hogan, too. His act had gotten stale with the WWF audience. Once the biggest star in the company, he was beginning to be phased out, while younger wrestlers took his place. His move was made official at Disney World in front of hundreds of people. It was a festive atmosphere with cheering, fawning, screaming and confetti.
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with Major League Soccer. I had a thought over the weekend and realized the two are incredibly parallel. You could substitute wrestlers like Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall for football players like Torsten Frings, Rafael Marquez, Robbie Keane, and Freddie Ljungberg. They're players who are on their last legs as footballers and are looking for nice paydays to finish out their careers. These players aren't completely washed out and still have something to contribute, much as the older wrestlers did. But it's only a temporary solution.
Of course, there was the man that started it all: David Beckham. Beckham was and still is arguably the most recognized footballer on the planet. He arrived with the most hype of any footballer to come to the United States. You could argue Pele coming to NASL in the '70s was bigger, but I personally don't believe that. Much like Hogan, his time in Europe seemed to be drawing to a close. A move to MLS was seen by Team Beckham as a way to introduce him to a relatively untapped American audience. His signing was made official in Los Angeles in front of hundreds of people. It was a festive atmosphere with cheering, fawning, screaming and confetti.
The big-name signings appear to be continuing for MLS. Rio Ferdinand and Alessandro Del Piero are being rumored as the next two to make the jump to the States. Nicolas Anelka is another named I have heard rumored in the past. It seems that any prominent name who is at the end of his competitive career is linked with a move to the States.
It was much the same way the older wrestlers continued to flow toward WCW. Business was booming. Not only had the company gotten level with the WWF, it had even overtaken them. The veterans had taken most of the credit, but many viewers would tune in for the younger wrestlers who brought a new style that hadn't been seen by American viewers. The older wrestlers, on the other hand, went through the basic motions and collected a large paycheck. (That kind of sounds like Rafa Marquez.)
And then it happened. Well, the singular it is actually hard to pinpoint. WCW began falling off and losing fans. From 1996-98, the company was the hottest thing in wrestling, but by 2001, it was out of business. This was a company that had been around for decades. Three years prior, they were one of the most highly rated programs on television. Then, it was gone forever. Many wrestling enthusiasts point to different events that began the downfall, but seemingly one man is always at the center: Hulk Hogan.
You see, WCW emphasized its older wrestlers so much that viewers got bored by seeing the same thing each and every week. Younger stars were being held back on what is called the midcard. This would be similar to a player being a substitute for every match, with an occasional 10- or 15-minute cameo. Essentially, so much time and effort was devoted to these older wrestlers by WCW, that the inmates began running the asylum. The older wrestlers were making so much money and had so much influence in the organization that they refused to step aside and let anyone else succeed.
And that is the worry that I have for MLS. Does going after players like Ferdinand and Del Piero really benefit the league at this point? Beckham was a great signing in terms of publicity for MLS. On the field, the results are much more mixed. But regardless of the on-field production, the Beckham signing was essential for MLS to get that kind of attention. You can't possibly debate that the league isn't more popular now than it was back in 2006. Granted, the success of the US Men's National Team and increased exposure of the world leagues on television also has had an impact, Beckham was the catalyst.
If MLS wants to continue to succeed, it needs to emphasize more young talent. Instead of spending millions and millions of dollars on designated players, the league should spend those millions on better contracts for the other players. MLS will never be able to compete with the prestige of La Liga, the Premier League, Serie A, etc., but that doesn't mean it can't compete at least somewhat financially.
Fortunately, it seems Beckham is on his way out. Who Ate the Pies writes that Paris Saint-Germain has ordered 20,000 David Beckham shirts. I say good riddance. He no doubt has helped the league grow, but his time is up. There's no need for MLS to keep putting him on a pedestal. The Beckham Experiment, as Grant Wahl's book calls it, is over.
If only WCW could have done the same with Hogan.