LOS ANGELES (AP) – The Los Angeles Galaxy’s Web site has been counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until superstar David Beckham joins the Major League Soccer team.
But does anyone besides hard-core soccer fans, admirers of the dashing and fashionable Englishman or paparazzi care in a country where interest in the sport known overseas as football has never registered more than a blip?
“I’m not quite sure why, but Americans think soccer’s boring,” said Doug Wood, a 25-year-old stock broker from Los Angeles.
Converting hearts and minds about a sport called “The Beautiful Game” will likely be Beckham’s No. 1 challenge.
“He knows soccer isn’t huge in America yet and he’s hoping to change that,” his wife Victoria said. “He’s so passionate about what he does and he’s excited to get there and do what he can.”
Six months of waiting ends Friday with Beckham’s introduction at the Galaxy’s stadium in Carson, Calif. He’s set to play his first game July 21, an exhibition against Chelsea of the English Premier League. Beckham signed a five-year contract in January worth $32.5 million.
The early buzz on the guy famous for his bending free kicks, ever-changing hair and clothing styles and stick-thin pop singer wife is mixed.
People seem to fall into three groups – those who don’t know about soccer and wouldn’t attend games if the tickets were free; those intrigued by Beckham’s celebrity aura, especially women; and true soccer fans who wonder if the 32-year-old midfielder can elevate MLS to the same level as Europe’s more respected leagues.
“If he can do some stuff like Ronaldinho, then I’ll definitely be watching every game,” said Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick in the recent NBA draft who is a fan of the Brazilian soccer star.
Beckham joins an A-list of Hollywood transplants that includes Wayne Gretzky, Shaquille O’Neal and the Dodgers – all of which made an indelible mark on the city’s sports landscape.
“He’s ahead of the game than when I first came to L.A. because he’s so world-renowned,” said Gretzky, who arrived from Canada in 1988 and helped popularize hockey in warm-weather cities.
“The one thing I learned was that one person can’t make or break it. The Galaxy organization, the ownership, everyone has to rally around.”
Count Alexandra Gillardo among women interested simply because of Beckham’s blond looks and engaging smile.
“I hate soccer. It takes forever to score a goal. It’s boring,” said the 30-year-old admissions counselor from Diamond Bar who has already bought Galaxy tickets. “But he’s something nice to look at. He’s got a great body, a great butt. Sex sells.”
Cheryl Rubinstein of Los Angeles said she’d attend a Galaxy game only “to see him and his wife and what she’s wearing.”
“He brings a lot of European mystique to L.A. He’s coming here with an intact image – a good marriage, beautiful kids, and he seems to make good decisions. He’s a great athlete. He’s great to look at. He has the whole package,” she said.
Apparently Gretzky’s wife agrees.
“I don’t know very much about soccer other than my kids love it and my wife loves David Beckham,” he said.
Even with the addition of Beckham, soccer is a tough sell to Rick Redlich, a 38-year-old attorney from Los Angeles who played the sport through high school but would rather spend his money at the racetrack.
“I think the most exciting thing about soccer is when the Hispanic announcer yells ‘Gooooaaaall!”‘ he said. “For the L.A. market, there are so many other things to do, so soccer has an uphill battle.”
Wood, the Los Angeles stock broker, thinks the Galaxy have their work cut out in trying to attract more fans to the games. He said the team needs cheap tickets, cheap alcohol, and an advertising budget that rivals the NFL’s.
“I don’t think guys are really that interested in watching a really good-looking guy play soccer,” he said. “They’d have to hype the hell out it so that it became an event that my friends wanted to go to, like tailgating at a football game.”
Rodolfo Rios, a Peru native who follows soccer, would rather have a Latino hero join the struggling Galaxy, who are 3-5-4.
“We need more young players from South America,” said the 45-year-old auto mechanic from San Pedro. “Somebody coming from my country, I would like to see that.”
Kokayi Barnes has been watching soccer for five years, but said he wouldn’t attend games unless the Galaxy imported Brazilians whose fluid ball-handling style he admires.
“Then you’d say that MLS is on a par with some of the European leagues,” the 27-year-old youth counselor from Long Beach said. “That’s what it’s about in a crowded market like this – legitimacy and entertainment value. And right now, the MLS doesn’t have either.”
Soccer is one of Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Nomar Garciaparra’s favorite sports, and not just because his wife Mia Hamm starred on the women’s U.S. national team.
But he knows most American sports fans are turned off by low-scoring games, which are common in soccer.
“There has to be that understanding that you can watch a 0-0 game and walk away and say, ‘That was a beautiful soccer game,”‘ he said. “To get soccer mainstream like these other sports is going to be difficult.”
Mo Hassan of Irvine, who plays soccer and follows the English Premier League, hopes Beckham’s presence lures other foreigners to MLS, which began more than 11 years ago.
“MLS hasn’t been really competitive,” Hassan said. “He’s going to set the bar higher, definitely. He’s going to encourage the other players to get up to that level. It’s going to be great. The next few years are going to be much more exciting.”
Wood predicts Beckham will make a big splash initially.
“More people will watch this season than ever before,” he said. “But after that it will fall off. It will be a total fad unless it is promoted in the way I described.”
AP Writer Amanda Beck contributed to this report.