- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

It is hard to think of global soccer power Real Madrid as completely anonymous.

The Spanish club is the most successful European team ever on the pitch, most recently winning the prestigious Champions Cup title three of the last six years. Its roster includes such stars as Brazil’s Ronaldo, France’s Zinedine Zidane and Portugal’s Luis Figo, each a winner of FIFA’s Player of the Year Award. FutureBrand, an international marketing agency, ranks Real Madrid as the sixth most powerful team brand in sports, ahead of such teams as the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Green Bay Packers.

But Real Madrid is off the sporting radar here in the United States, and in other spots like Africa and the Far East, it lags far behind many of its rivals, including Manchester United.

That lack of profile or fiscal dominance, however, completely changed with last week’s $41million transfer of star midfielder David Beckham from Manchester United to Real Madrid. Just as Man U has spent the last several years carefully executing a global marketing strategy — complete with international tours, expanding TV exposure and soup-to-nuts merchandising — so, too, will Real Madrid.

“He has a great image and [is] top quality,” said Real Madrid general director Jorge Valdano. “That’s why his presence is strategic.”

Beckham’s skill has long been well known to global soccer fans. And the hit movie “Bend It Like Beckham” is exposing non-fans to his legendary ability on free kicks.

With Real Madrid’s loaded roster, however, Beckham may not even be the fourth or fifth best player on his team.

No matter. Real Madrid is getting a player whose enormous fan base cuts across all demographic, geographic and socioeconomic lines. Even among fierce divisions created by race, political ideology or sexual orientation, Beckham’s popularity is a constant.

Beckham will make his Real Madrid debut later this summer during a tour of Asia, seen by most major European clubs as a critical and untapped economic opportunity because most nations there have no major pro sports of their own. A tour of the United States also is being considered. Such a trip would match one by Manchester United, which will play this summer in Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and the Meadowlands.

“Beckham is hugely popular in Asia, so for Real Madrid, there’s an immediate and significant bump there in their profile,” said Charlie Stillitano, executive director of ChampionsWorld LLC, a New Jersey company that is promoting Manchester United’s American tour. “The States are still essentially an open market, so you can bet the U.S., and really all of North America, are in Real Madrid’s plans. We could see them here as soon as next year.”

The signing is also a boon for Adidas and Pepsi because each hold marketing deals with both Real Madrid and Beckham. Now future advertising can effectively combine the two properties.

“These days football clubs are marketing brands, not just teams,” Valdano said. “It is no longer just a case of doing well or not on the pitch — that is not the only thing that matters now. It is not just what happens that matters, it’s what you say happens. The image is important.”

Real Madrid’s plan to mimic and then overtake Manchester United in economic might, however, has one significant issue here in America: the lack of a powerful marketing partner. Man U has partnered with YankeeNets LLC, parent company of the equally mighty New York Yankees, to aid its marketing efforts.

“That’s critical for Man U, having somebody here who knows the market and is a force in their own right,” Stillitano said. “There’s something going on behind the TV exposure, the tour to support it.”

Real Madrid, however, still has several key advantages over Manchester United. The club is a private, supporter-owned operation, compared to Man U’s structure as a publicly traded company, and is under far less investor scrutiny over skyrocketing salaries that are currently grappling all of major European soccer.

The club also insists upon retaining 50 percent of the “image rights” for each of its players, meaning half of every new endorsement deal Beckham signs while with Real Madrid will go to the club. As a result, some analysts expect Real Madrid to recoup its transfer fee on Beckham in less than three years through increased revenue.

“This signing is a reason for joy,” Valdano said.

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