As Becks suits up for Spain, real action happens in stores

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Earlier this month more than 2 billion people around the world tuned their TVs to a live news event from Madrid. (After Princess Diana's funeral, it was the second-largest global, live TV audience ever.) The event was the official introduction of sports superstar and international fashion icon David Beckham as a member of Real Madrid, the storied champion Spanish soccer club. The club had just paid $40 million to acquire him from England's Manchester United-plus $7 million in salary and $7.5 million in "image rights" annually.

Some 1,100 journalists attended the press conference (500 were allowed in, 600 more were outside). It was staged at 11 a.m. in Madrid to make the evening news broadcasts in Asia, where Beckham's astonishing fame nears demigod status. A Spanish newspaper breathlessly described the events as "one of the most important things to have happened to Spain in a decade." Rupert Murdoch's inimitable U.K. tabloid The Sun set up a help-line number for distraught readers.

What does it all mean? For the answer, think Yao Ming and the globalization of sport. Never mind that Beckham may not command a regular starting position on Real Madrid's all-star team. Do not look on the playing field to understand why Beckham was acquired. Look in the club store.

Look at the calculated cynicism with which Beckham chose "23" as his shirt number. (He was "7" in Manchester.) It was, "Becks" said, "in honor" of Michael Jordan. Whatever his reason, Real Madrid sold more than $1 million worth of "23.Beckham" shirts in one store that first afternoon. It is already the fastest-selling sports shirt in history.

Small wonder that Nike CEO Phil Knight, in an interview with me last month, remarked "David Beckham? I wish we had him." Becks, however, is under contract to Adidas, which also manufactures the Real Madrid uniform. Meanwhile, Nike has a $300 million, 11-year sponsorship arrangement with Manchester United (on tour in the U.S. this week), and has announced a lucrative business deal with Italian soccer giant Juventus of Turin (also touring here).

This week Real Madrid and Beckham head to Asia for a tour that will rival Manchester United's here. Each game in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Japan will bring Real $3 million. Becks' $40 million fee is visibly shrinking. The TV rights for Real games are being re-negotiated as we speak.

Florentino Perez, Real Madrid's president, talks openly of emulating the economic expansion of Manchester United, the world's largest sports franchise, into Asia. If you do not have 10% of the Chinese market in a decade, Perez said, there would be dire financial consequences in a truly global marketplace. He could have been NBA Commissioner David Stern discussing Yao Ming.

If I ever mention soccer in Advertising Age, I receive abusive letters from philistine readers telling me I am wasting trees and that "the beautiful game" is boring. I won't respond. I am as neutral on this subject as Ad Age's editor is about his beloved New York Yankees. Instead, just chew on the above story of a marriage of content and commerce, and then tell me again that soccer's boring.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity.

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