Beckham, Liverpool bid could kick up U.S. interest in soccer

The Kickoff

February 07, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

Believe it or not, there is absolutely no connection between the news that soccer star David Beckham recently signed a $250 million contract to play in the United States and yesterday's announcement that Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks has joined Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett in a $430.8 million bid to buy the Liverpool Football Club.

I was suspicious at first, considering Hicks' history of flushing record sums of money down a hole - most notably the only other time anyone has given an athlete (Alex Rodriguez) a quarter billion dollars - but I have been assured of three things: (1) Beckham has no connection to the legendary Liverpool squad; (2) he is not represented by Scott Boras; and (3) the New York Yankees have told Hicks that under no circumstances will they assume the remainder of any more of his $250 million contracts.

That's good enough for me.

These are two independent events that speak to a significant global shift in professional sports. Beckham's much-publicized jump to the Los Angeles Galaxy is expected to raise the profile of Major League Soccer, and the purchase of Liverpool would put 15 percent of the 20-team English Premier League under North American ownership.

(Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer assumed majority ownership of Manchester United in 2005 and Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner bought Aston Villa last fall.)

American professional soccer has come a long way in the past decade, but this dynamic (though unconnected) convergence of American money overseas and European star power at home could be a sign that soccer is ready to make a major inroad into the American sports consciousness.

Of course, they said that when Pele signed with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in 1975, and the league folded in 1984. Beckham's giant contract could be the beginning of something big for MLS, but there is concern that the league has put all of its eggs in one basket and could end up losing the farm with this glitzy gambit.

One thing is certain, the league is going to try to squeeze every ounce of star power out of Beckham, who is expected to join the Galaxy soon after his current contract with Real Madrid expires on June 30. The MLS schedule that was released yesterday has him visiting every MLS market during the second half of the regular season except FC Dallas, and he'll likely play in an exhibition game there on July 31.

To give him maximum exposure, all but one Galaxy game following his arrival will be televised nationally by one of the league's rights-holders, creating the strange irony that the arrival of a huge European star will transform the Galaxy into the soccer version of "America's Team."

Hicks and Gillett, meanwhile, enter a British soccer market that shuddered when Glazer acquired controlling interest of Manchester United with a debt-laden takeover bid. The Liverpool bid is different, however, because it is expected to solidify the team's finances by retiring $89 million in existing debt and facilitating the construction of a new 60,000-seat stadium.

It's not a done deal. Hicks and Gillett have to acquire 90 percent of the outstanding shares of the team and have commitments for about 62 percent so far, but Liverpool chairman David Moores - who has agreed to sell his 51 percent stake and remain with the club as lifetime president - is strongly recommending the deal.

Liverpool is a cornerstone franchise that was founded in 1892 and has won 18 First Division/Premier League titles, but the most recent one was in 1990.

If the takeover is finalized, Liverpool will be the seventh Premier League club under foreign ownership. Fans of the team should be heartened by the great history of Gillett's NHL franchise, but Hicks may have some explaining to do.

After all, he once spent $252 million on one player and never sniffed the World Series.

In Liverpool, there are probably a lot of people asking the same question: "If we're going to be bought by a Yank, why can't it be the owner of the Yankees?"

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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