x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UAE fans would sit up and take notice of David Beckham's presence

It does not require much imagination to see Beckham and Jazira playing to full houses throughout the second half of the Pro League season.

David Beckham attended a dinner function hosted to launch Strategic Visions magazine at the Emirates Palace.
David Beckham attended a dinner function hosted to launch Strategic Visions magazine at the Emirates Palace.

On Friday, July 13, 2007, David Beckham walked across the home pitch of the Los Angeles Galaxy, climbed a dais and declared, before more than 700 global media members, 3,000 season-ticket holders and live TV: "I've always lived for the challenges in my career."

The challenge he was taking on that day was to boost the popularity of US football - "soccer" he carefully called it, catering to his new audience - and to improve the Galaxy's performance.

His arrival touched off something of a football frenzy in Los Angeles. That his celebrity wife, Victoria, came as part of the package made it an even more compelling story in nearby Hollywood. Not everyone understood what sort of player Beckham was, but even football-averse Yanks knew this: a star was among them.

The Galaxy at that moment were an ordinary club in a brittle football body, Major League Soccer, which as recently as 2004 had boasted only 10 clubs, a retreat from a previous high of 12. The league was an American sports afterthought.

Beckham immediately sold shirts and tickets. Lots of them. Eight days after he arrived in California, the Home Depot Center, the Galaxy's home ground, was packed for an exhibition match with Chelsea.

Among those in the crowd: Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eva Longoria, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. One month later, Beckham's arrival in New York to play the Red Bulls generated an attendance of 66,237, the third-biggest crowd in league annals.

When Beckham played his last match for the Galaxy, on December 2, he left a league that had grown to 19 clubs and sold nearly twice as many tickets in 2012 (6.1 million) as it had in 2007, the season he arrived (3.2 million).

Average attendance throughout the league had grown 14 per cent to 18,807 per game, and three of the eight biggest crowds in the 17-year history of the league were to see Beckham's Galaxy. No one seriously disputes that the MLS is here to stay.

The club he left behind also have won successive championships, and Beckham is accorded more than a little credit for that.

He was brilliant in 2011, and nearly as good in 2012, and he leaves a Galaxy side now considered the most glamorous and popular in the league.

What sort of reaction, then, might we expect in the UAE were he to choose Al Jazira as his next club? That "one last challenge" he spoke of a month ago before the end of his playing career?

An educated guess? His arrival would produce a massive impact.

The UAE is not virgin territory for the sport, but it is suffering from poor attendance and a lack of diversity in supporters, who are overwhelming young, male and Emirati.

It does not require much imagination to see Beckham and Al Jazira playing to full houses throughout the second half of the Pro League season, were he to join the club during the break next month.

The league probably could print - and sell - tickets, rather than just throwing open the doors, generating a stream of revenue hitherto nearly unknown. Individual clubs could expect fans from new demographics, such as women and expatriates, to see the great man play.

He would bring attention to the league's players and matches, rather than the vague, non-competitive attention Diego Maradona brought when he signed on as coach of Al Wasl in May of 2011. Beckham at Jazira would focus attention on the country's football like no one before him.

The test this time? Not creating fans, but getting them into the stadiums and generating new excitement. If he lives still for challenges, this is one worthy of his attention.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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