Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Grant Wahl, "The Beckham Experiment"

Today is the release date of "The Beckham Experiment" the new book by Sport's Illustrated's Grant Wahl and the book could very well be the most important book about the current state of soccer in America. I personally can't wait to read the book, I am hoping that Amazon comes through and gets me the book today or tomorrow. This Is American Soccer's Adam Spangler has an interview with Wahl.

There has been a fair amount of press about Landon Donovan's comments and how Beckham considers them a personal affront (and they are), but this question from Spangler and answer from Wahl is actually the most interesting bit of back story on the book:
That speaks to my #1 question for you. Access. It appears you had tremendous access to players and some management. The candidness of your sources is unbelievable. Take me through how you negotiated those usually tepid waters for sports journalism as you went along.
With Beckham I had done two major stories about him for SI. One in 2003, kind of introducing him to the American audience, and then a cover story in 2007 for his arrival to Los Angeles. We had a good relationship based on the time we spent together. Both stories involved significant one-on-one interviews with me and him, about an hour each time; photo shoots in both cases. I didn’t know going in how much one-on-one access I was going to get with Beckham, but I knew he would do media availabilities before and after every game, which is more than he had ever done in Europe. But when I brought the idea of the book to Beckham’s people, even though we had always had a very good relationship, their stance was that David had done books before that were “by David Beckham, ghost written by somebody else” and that he got significant advances for those books—over a million dollars. The implication being, if I wanted to have special one-on-one access to David Beckham for this book itself, that was the sort of money that had to be paid. That wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t angry about that, and I would not have accepted the book deal if I thought that was a possibility. I knew that Beckham’s voice would be throughout the book, and I would be able to ask him all sorts of questions because of the access before and after most games. So I wasn’t all that concerned to be honest because Beckham is not the most colorful source ever, and I don’t know how much I would have gained one-on-one.

But I did know that everyone else within the Galaxy, just because of my relationships that I developed over the last 12 years at SI, would be interested in sitting down with me throughout the reporting process, and that is what happened. It worked out really well in the end. Hypothetically, I guess if Beckham’s handlers wanted money they also wanted approval over what went into the book, and I don’t work that way. I’m a journalist. No past stories I’ve written about Beckham were subject to the approval of Beckham and his people, so the best way for me to put it is that this is neither an authorized chronicle or an unauthorized chronicle. It’s just a straight-up chronicle of what happened, good and bad, from the inside.
I think that the viewpoint of money for access to Beckham says a lot about brand Beckham. I don't know how much Beckham has a role in that "money for access" set up that seems to surround Beckham, but that Wahl refused to be a party to that situation speaks well of Wahl and the book itself.

I think that most interesting part of Wahl's book will be the actual collision of history and stature that permaeates the MLS. In 2007, the MLS still had a reserve division, where players were making just $12,500 a year, which is less than what Beckham made for a daily training session, and how they dealt with the press, the media, the entourage of a player who has made millions of dollar a year, on par with American basketball players.
Those stories open up that larger story of American soccer, and the realities of life in MLS for a player, team, franchise, and even the league. How different would this story be if those situations didn’t exist?
I think it would have taken out a big, interesting part of the story—this world’s colliding narrative. I found it fascinating. Going in I knew that would be one of Beckham’s biggest challenges to try and relate to teammates who were making such a microscopic fraction of his salary and his income and whose fame was minuscule, nonexistent really, compared to him. And yet a guy like Alan Gordon was going to play a lot and be relied upon to finish a lot of the passes that Beckham was giving him. That to me was a crucial part of the story. Alan Gordon to me is very symbolic of the MLS player. So many players in MLS, most of them American, make almost no money—Gordon made $30,000 for four years and only later got a bigger contract, which was still not guaranteed. But he kept performing and was asked to do a lot of things in front of crowds of 66,000 people in New York when he is getting paid $30,000 a year. He represents this huge section of MLS players who don’t get a lot of recognition and probably deserve a lot more.
I cannot wait to see and read the whole book.

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