Thursday, January 6, 2011

Becks By the Numbers: Quantifying the Beckham Effect on MLS and the LA Galaxy

I'm not typically a big fan of trying to quantify an individual player's contribution to a team's success absent lots of information about the team the player plays on or plays against - that is, lots and lots of good statistical control and plenty of observations. But I thought these journalistic efforts by Leander Schaerlaeckens for ESPN (and Lawrence Donegan for The Guardian) were well worth sharing. I found them particularly apropos in light of Tottenhams' keen interest to sign David Beckham to a short-term loan deal before the start to the new MLS season on March 15.

Among the more interesting findings about Beckham's contributions to his team and the league:

Games played
Regular season games: 48 of 106: 45.3%
Minutes on the field: 3,855 of 9,540: 40.4%

Winning percentage
With Beckham: 18-18-12: .500
Without Beckham: 26-17-16: .576

Goals scored
With Beckham: 1.69
Without Beckham: 1.27

Goals conceded
With Beckham: 1.73
Without Beckham: 1.12

Galaxy Attendance
Pre-Beckham (2006): 20,813
Beckham era: 20,008 (2008), 20,416 (2009), 21,436 (2010)
Pre-Beckham: 19,929 (2006)
Beckham era: > 28,000 (2007, 2008), 18,525 (2009).

MLS Attendance
Since 2007, the league's average attendance is down 95 fans per game, from 16,770 to 16,675.

So what are we to make of these numbers? Looking only at the cold, hard facts, the evidence is decidedly mixed - at a minimum, they don't allow anyone to claim that the Beckham experiment has been an unadulterated success. Beckham has played fewer than half the games and minutes the LA Galaxy has been on the field, and it's not clear that they have performed better when he has been active. And while the Galaxy were a real draw when Beckham first started playing for them, this, too, has tapered off since.

But before we jump to the conclusion that having Beckham join the Galaxy and the league has been a failure, it's important to remember that there are some things you can't quantify as easily; things, that you may not see in these numbers.

For one, as Zach Slaton from A Beautiful Numbers Game pointed out to me, numbers related to team performance with Beckham in/out of the game are going to be skewed by the awful early years he experienced on the Galaxy, and his absence during the two best years. Clearly, the numbers penalize him for what was truly awful team management those first two years (but if you believe Grant Wahl's reporting in The Beckham Experiment, this may have been Beckham's own doing, at least in part). But thankfully, Bruce Arena, and his ability to build a viable defensive core, was the key to turning an awful team into a perennial championship contender.

There's another thing that may not be obvious. As Schaerlaeckens and Donegan point out, it's worth asking whether the Beckham transfer has made MLS a more credible soccer league or has made the Galaxy a better team. My hunch is that the answer is a qualified yes, and a definite yes if you ask Thierry Henry or Arsene Wenger (or Bruce Arena), if only because of the knock-on effect that having a Beckham on your team has on the rest of the squad (through his presence at training and with the team, he makes others work harder, be more professional, and play better) or the league (his presence makes it more likely that other top players not completely past their prime will think seriously about a transfer to an MLS team). In fact, I believe that Beckham's continued ability to attract the interest of some of the best clubs in Europe, even if only for a few weeks' worth of playing time, is actually a good thing. Not only does it speak to Beckham's own ability and desire to play at the highest level or his global and local appeal as a player and soccer symbol, but it also means that there's some pretty good football being played in America. And if we know nothing else, it's clear that we haven't seen the last of Becks.