Beckham, the media and celebrity football
I’ve been fascinated by the media coverage generated over the past week by the David Beckham transfer story – not least because the BBC Sport website has been pivotal in breaking this particular tale.
Back in November one of our journalists, Matt Slater, secured the first confirmation from LA Galaxy that they were actively pursuing the former England captain - in an exclusive interview with club president Alexi Lalas. Our scoop was met with scepticism by some observers, who felt the link between Beckham and the MLS was a red herring. But once the transfer window had opened, the deal was duly done (and the details dissected by our own Mihir Bose).
So, with its genesis on these very pages, this story has been close to my heart. But I’ve also been keenly following the wider reportage across all media and have been intrigued by how readers, viewers and listeners have responded to that coverage - often by aiming their barbs at the media itself.
Beckham is the kind of figure who polarises journalists and audience alike. Oliver Holt in The Mirror sees the former England captain as “a pathfinder” and welcomed his US switch as just the latest “challenge” in a career that has constantly defied expectations.
Others though are clearly riled by what they see as further evidence of the celebrity takeover of sport. In the view of The Telegraph’s Sue Mott, Beckham’s move to the US is symptomatic of some wider malaise in the game, so that “people in football are hugely overblown, hugely distracted and then fail to live up to their billing”.
To me there is always a delicious irony when the media decries the celebrity of sport. All of us – press, TV, radio and the web (even that last bastion of the broadsheet press, The Telegraph) – have played our part in raising the profile of football and its leading players. For us now to throw our hands in the air in outrage at the way the sport has become overly commercial strikes me as slightly disingenuous.
I’ll give you an example of how much a “celebrity” like Beckham can mean to audiences. On the day the LA Galaxy deal was confirmed, the BBC Sport website pulled in 2.7m unique users – that is about 20% up on a normal day and makes it one of the biggest single daily audiences we have had outside the World Cup. I'm not saying that's a good or bad thing, I merely mention it as a fact.
Of course football has become big business over the past 15 years – but so too has football journalism. With an explosion of TV channels, websites, newspaper supplements and magazines there are now many more opportunities for sports writers and broadcasters than ever before. The Premiership has changed everything. Beckham and his mates may be the ones trousering megabucks, but there are a fair few people in the media earning a living (albeit a much more modest one!) from covering people like him.
So yes, the media should absolutely hold football to account – as well as ensuring fans remain as close to the sport and its practitioners as possible. And yes, we should cast a critical eye on the kinds of salaries the players receive and the ways in which they conduct themselves.
But at the same time the media needs to take some responsibility for the way football has gone. Otherwise, as in the words of one respondent on the Sue Mott piece, we leave ourselves open to allegations of simply being “parasites”.
I recoil at this description of sports journalists, as it goes against everything I believe about my profession. But it is still the view of a reader, of someone who pays our wages, and as such it is not a comment we should ever dismiss out of hand…