Thursday, July 30, 2009

Books: Beckham Experiment by Grant Wahl

Apparently, it's Summer Reading Week here! Today: "The Beckham Experiment," by Grant Wahl.

Deadspin beat me to the punch yesterday with its excerpt (and chat!) with Grant Wahl, who wrote the recently published "Beckham Experiment," which is exactly what it sounds like: In-depth reporting and analysis of David Beckham's attempt to turn soccer in America into a "major" sport.

Beckham's goal was that audacious and both Wahl's book premise and execution match it -- even if the goal itself has fallen short. (Perhaps way short, if last week's Beckham Revolt was any indication.) But, for me, that makes the book all the more interesting. Success is never as interesting as failure.

Like my post about "Cooperstown Confessional" yesterday, I am still mid-way through Wahl's Beckham book, but it is already one of my favorite sports books of the past few years. I am constantly looking for the "If you read only ONE book about this sport, make it X." ("Sunday Money" is my gold standard.)

I hesitate to compare "Beckham Experiment" to "Fever Pitch" (memoir of fandom) or even "Among the Thugs" (sociology of fandom). As a book purely about the sport -- the business, the inner-workings, really -- of soccer, Wahl's book is a must-read, if just to be soccer literate as a sports fan (as you should be).

I even got Wahl to give me my own "exclusive" Q&A -- literally, one question of mine, via email, for which he was gracious enough to answer:

Q: Youth soccer participation is huge -- and feels like it has been for at least 30 years, since I was a kid. And there's a strong argument to be made that you develop fan affinity by actually playing a sport as a kid. (That is certainly an argument that MLS has made for at least 15 years, if not longer.) At what point -- if ever -- will this youth participation translate to widespread, "mainstream" (ie, up there with MLB, NBA, NHL, NASCAR) fan interest in soccer within the U.S.? Star-wattage apparently won't do it. What will? Wahl's reply:
I love soccer, and I've been covering it for 12 years for Sports Illustrated, but I still have no idea if it will ever be one of the top three spectator sports in America. I do find it fascinating, though, that so many wealthy businessmen--billionaires, in fact--continue investing so much money in trying to make pro soccer matter on a regular basis in this country. I don't think there's any magic bullet that will suddenly skyrocket pro soccer's popularity, but I do think that a combination of factors have already made soccer bigger here: the advent of MLS, the infrastructure that has come with it (read: soccer stadiums), the changing demographics in America (most notably the huge population increase of Hispanic-Americans, many of them soccer lovers) and the improvement of the U.S. men's national team (five straight World Cups after going 40 years without one). I hope the soccer failure (so far) of the Beckham Experiment doesn't prevent MLS owners from opening their wallets for future stars, because I do think that star power will help MLS, but MLS's slow-growth strategy has worked in some ways. The league isn't in any danger of folding, and new expansion cities like Seattle have seen soccer be a rousing success. The continued growth of pro soccer here is a slow process, one that might take decades, and it may never compete with the Top Three. But it is here to stay.
It is here that I should add that during my brief tenure at SI from 1998-1999 (working on the side, then, Wahl was probably my favorite person on the magazine side. As you can imagine back then, most SI magazine staff thought we dot-com staffers were second-class citizens. Not Grant -- he "got" the Web, as his terrific mailbags (mostly about college hoops, which I got to edit) were evidence. He was also a congenial person to work with.

He and I were both assigned to cover the 1999 Final Four -- he wrote the magazine's cover story, I did stuff like this (which, frankly, helped crystallize my thinking for the Daily Quickie, so it sort of worked out) -- and he couldn't have been nicer to me, despite being under a ton of pressure himself. I have always appreciated that -- even as I have marveled at his writing and reporting talents, which are among the best not just at SI, but in all of sports media. I had sort of been waiting for him to write his Book -- "Beckham Experiment" is probably the purest representation of Wahl's abilities fulfilled.

You can get the book here. Your summer reading diet -- and sports-book library -- will be better for it.

-- D.S.

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