With the Real Madrid era over and the man himself approaching 32, David Beckham looks like a brand in decline. The decision to move to Los Angeles tends to reinforce that idea.
The heady days of the Police sunglasses contract have gone, and the Gillette three-year deal is in its twilight, yet there are plenty of sponsors prepared to keep the faith. Motorola has replaced Police, and Adidas is apparently willing to make him the centre-piece of a £50m campaign later this year. Not dead yet, then.
Why do such blue-chip sponsors continue to believe in the resilience of brand Beckham, despite the apparently contradictory evidence?
Not quite what he seems
The truth is, Beckham’s qualities as a brand were never quite what they seemed. Though he’s abnormally talented, he?s not the greatest footballer the world has seen. His class doesn’t touch that of George Best or Jimmy Greaves; and much the same can be said of his personal charisma. Nor has he been an especially good leader. His mediocre captaincy of England speaks for itself.
Yet there’s a lot more to brand Beckham than conventional good looks, luck and his Posh wife. Qualities, in fact, that rightly continue to make him attractive to big-spending advertisers. By contrast, they would have been mad to invest similar faith in George Best or even Bobby Charlton at the height of their powers (supposing for a moment that such sponsorship opportunities existed in the late Sixties, which they did not).
A problem with big stars, Best being a quintessential example, is their unpredictability. There is, unusually, little or none of this in Beckham, whose phlegmatic and slightly passive affability makes him an attractive and malleable property when it comes to building image. He]s clean-cut and a family man, but has made it clear he]s no plaster-cast saint either. The Rebecca Loos affair did no harm at all. It extracted him from the equal and opposite pitfall to unpredictability – being boring – and yet left no lasting mark on his reputation. Almost, but not quite, like John Major after the Edwina Currie exposé.
It?s entertainment, stupid!
Perhaps most of all, however, Beckham early grasped, intuitively or otherwise, the complex relationship between top-level football and entertainment – it’s neither about ultimate professionalism nor the out-and-out cultivation of celebrity. Plenty of other talented footballers have used the global fame of Manchester United to launch themselves into the stratosphere of celebrity. But they have been meteors compared to Beckham’s stardom.
Too many meteors, not enough stars
So perhaps Adidas and Motorola should be praised for the wisdom of their judgement rather than criticised for its potential flakiness. Real stars don’t come along very often. And even when they do, they can disappoint. Witness Jonny Wilkinson, who seemed to have everything going for him three years ago – but has fallen victim to the least predictable thing of all, chronic lack of fitness in his twenties.
Others might argue you can finesse the frailties of the individual and yet still enjoy the pulling power of sport by backing team effort. A brief look at the fortunes of the England cricket team over the past two years should quickly cure any such optimism. Frankly Vodafone, for one, would have been better off sticking to Beckham.