Ahead Of The Game

David Beckham and Freddy Adu skip right to the ads

One was born in London in 1975, the other in a harbor town in Ghana in 1989. One owns two Range Rovers, three BMWs, two Ferraris, an Aston Martin, a Lincoln, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Chrysler and a Jaguar; the other is too young to drive. One was the main attraction at soccer’s World Cup, the world’s top sporting event, two summers ago; the other was mostly doing geometry homework at the time.

Still, David Beckham and Freddy Adu have a few things in common: Both became pro soccer players at age 14 for teams called United. Both are powerful celebrities (although Time’s 100 Most Influential People list has a bit more heft to it than RedEye’s 25 Most Influential Celebrities 25 and Under). Both have a knack for scoring goals.

And both recently pulled off a neat marketing trick: signing on to star in major national ad campaigns in the U.S. They’re the first soccer players to do so (if you don’t count Arsenal’s Freddie Ljungberg—Calvin Klein’s current pretty boy—or Pelé’s sporadic endorsements over the years). And yet the deals put them in a weird position: They’re set to earn oodles of money pitching products to an audience that, by and large, hasn’t seen them play—and isn’t familiar enough with the sport to understand why they’re celebrities in the first place.

Adu, a naturalized American, signed a Nike deal that’s reportedly worth a cool $1 million, appeared with Pelé in a Sierra Mist ad and celebrated his 15th birthday last week by linking up with Campbell’s soup.

Beckham, aka Mr. Posh Spice, promotes all sorts of brands around the world, from Pepsi to Adidas, and has sought a big U.S. deal for years. The Real Madrid star got his wish late last month—a three-year pact with Gillette worth tens of millions of dollars—and will appear in a global push this summer that includes North America.

All of which is great for them and for soccer fans—but a little strange. Usually an athlete must prove his marketing potential by first becoming a big draw on the playing field (or, in the case of someone like LeBron James, showing signs that he’ll be one soon). Neither Beckham nor Adu has done that in America. They are magnetic personalities, and maybe that’s enough. But their celebrity precedes them.

At this early stage in Adu’s career, his fame has less to do with his soccer talent per se (he shot the Sierra Mist commercial before scoring a professional goal) than with a vaguer accomplishment: being the youngest pro athlete in any sport in the U.S. in 100 years. Many more people will see him hawk chicken-noodle soup this summer than watch him play for D.C. United.

Beckham is best known here thanks to a British movie about girls’ soccer. Millions of people will see him for the first time in the Gillette ads or on the cover of July’s Vanity Fair, shot by Annie Leibovitz. How many will shell out $20 a game on pay-per-view to watch him play for England in Euro 2004 this month? They could fit in my living room—and they might have to, at that price.

Will the advertisers get their money’s worth? My guess is, Nike and Campbell’s will, while Gillette maybe should spend more of the big bucks in Europe and Asia. But the quiet winner here may be soccer itself. Once these guys pop up in the ad landscape, people might check out a game, just to see what the fuss is about. Thus, rather than being in an ad campaign because they have a bunch of fans, Beckham and Adu could get a bunch of new fans because they’ve been in an ad campaign. Now that would be a real trick.