The ability of splashy stars to drive attendance in Major League Soccer has long been overstated. The evidence over 20 years just doesn’t support the narrative that adding one big star from Europe or Mexico will significantly move the attendance needle.
Of course, a figure as massive as David Beckham could be a game-changer in terms of adding seats in MLS grounds. But there’s only one David Beckham; Generally, teams are smarter going for quality and value when adding big-budget salaries, because winning will always be the best driver of revenue and attendance.
There are few exceptions, a small set of names who fall into the sweet spot of this equation, able to improve a team on the field while adding big bucks to the balance sheet on their own.
The L.A. Galaxy just got one of those in Giovani dos Santos.
There is a reason the deciders at the StubHub Center have been chasing the Mexican star since 2011, which is about the time Dos Santos helped El Tri pick apart a beleaguered U.S. back line in that year’s telling CONCACAF Gold Cup final. Dos Santos (who scored this beauty of a goal that day at the Rose Bowl) helped convince U.S. Soccer leaders that a change was needed for the national team that day, and the Mexican attacker convinced the Galaxy he was worth pursuing.
A gifted playmaker or scorer, the 26-year-old’s club career has been a bit of a mixed bag, with enough changes of address (seven clubs in nine years in Europe) to raise a few eyebrows. Starting at Barcelona helped launched the legend, but his most successful days were at Mallorca and Villarreal in La Liga. Dos Santos did enough along the way to stay in the Mexican national team plans, shining in appearances at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Those magic moments on the biggest stage, like his high-quality goal last summer in an elimination match against Netherlands, helped ensconce the new Galaxy man as an enormously popular figure in his homeland and with Mexican Americans here.
That puts Dos Santos in an elite fraternity of players like Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Luis Hernandez and Jorge Campos, figures with enough brand appeal to individually spike the attendance numbers over a bigger window. Fans will certainly come out to see a recognized name like Steven Gerrard or a Michael Bradley (the U.S. international now with Toronto FC), but they won’t necessarily become fans of the team and go to multiple matches because of them.
But that’s exactly what happens with a figure as large as Dos Santos, especially considering the demographics of his new community; latest figures show that Latinos, many with Mexican ancestry, account for almost 50 percent of the Los Angeles population.
As for his ability to help a team that has won three of the last four MLS Cup titles: he goes a long way to replace what the Galaxy lost with Landon Donovan’s retirement after 2014. Like Donovan, Dos Santos has speed and knows how to use it, on and off the ball. Like Donovan, he can attack from a variety of positions, and he’s highly capable as a passer, dribbler or shooter.
Playing just wide of Gerrard and behind Robbie Keane, who still represents the gold standard of off-the-ball movement in MLS, will certainly increase the chances of getting the best from Dos Santos.
Plus, don’t underestimate the larger value of getting Dos Santos at 26, closer to his prime. The ratio of “aging star signings” to “stars in their prime” still tilts too heavily to the old guys in MLS, but that ground shifts every time a name like Dos Santos, Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Mix Diskerud or others are added.
There is this matter of Dos Santos’ landing spot, as yet another huge name goes the Galaxy way. Whether that part is good for the league in the long run is another matter; with every big name added to the Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC or New York City FC, the league drifts further to a two-tiered collection of haves and have-nots. And the increasing incidence of big transfer fees – the L.A. Times says Los Angeles paid $7 million for Dos Santos – represents a sea change for a league that not long ago made hard policy of not shelling out for transfer fees.
All of that still needs sorting out. But for a club looking to boost attendance and performance with one stroke, this has the look of a clear win-win.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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