Anointing phenoms always has a price

Ivan Gazidis is the deputy commissioner of Major League Soccer who might want to consider a crash course in damage control, which is one option when you are quoted saying something unbelievably stupid.

Gazidis spoke last week about the transfer of American teenager Freddy Adu to the Portuguese club Benfica, spoke about why the experiment of keeping Adu home instead of encouraging him to play overseas earlier — you know, against legitimate competition where the game actually matters — didn’t work out as promised.

“Freddy, when we signed him, was one of most talented young players in the world,” Gazidis told The Associated Press. “I think, today, he still is one of the most talented young players in the world. What we’ve struggled with is the expectations, not that we’ve placed on him but that the media has placed on him.”

If the man said it with a straight face, he deserves a medal.

It’s a good thing MLS didn’t put any of those expectations on Adu in 2003, what with his introductory news conference in Madison Square Garden and his then-league high $500,000 annual salary. He was 14 at the time.

There is spinning a story in a way that best protects your league, and there is sounding like a goofball. In his own clumsy way, Gazidis reminded us of the marketing monster that lurks each time another young athlete is anointed a sport’s next great phenomenon.

The next Jordan. The next Pele. The next Woods. The next Ricky Bobby.

The same swoosh-embedded ogre that nearly swallowed Adu whole also has gnawed off a large chunk of Michelle Wie’s psyche. It’s big news now when Wie, advertised three years ago at age 14 as one who would transform and dominate women’s golf while also competing against men, breaks par.

The monster is a vicious, unjust creature with several heads, from the individual leagues to shoe and apparel companies to countless media outlets. Those components initially combine for a massive publicity campaign, make boatloads of money for themselves and readily blame others when soccer players can’t get off the bench and golfers begin regularly shooting in the 80s.

The only ones left to question are, well, those who purchase tickets and the promise of greatness.

“The marketplace has become so cluttered with the next greatest star — whether that person is being imported or one of our own young athletes working his or her way up the system — that in order to make a splash these days, you are forced into over-the-top expectations,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “It is almost impossible for the athletes to live up to them.

“But to get the attention and momentum needed to secure the kind of buzz to stand out in the marketplace, expectations are set at unreasonable levels, where anything short of living up to them is considered a failure.”

It doesn’t just happen with young, unproven athletes. Take the circus that has been David Beckham’s arrival into the United States.

Does it matter if this guy ever plays again, which looks more and more doubtful as he nurses what is now officially the most famous sprained ankle in history? Does it matter the biggest news around him has been his untalented wife finding a pair of sunglasses that fit over her entire face?

The monster already has eaten sufficiently off a ludicrous notion that the mere image of Beckham in an MLS uniform will make America awake one morning with this abiding love for a sport it always has enjoyed playing, forever hated watching and permanently considered nothing more than a niche activity.

But that doesn’t matter. The money has been made.

“So many people for so many months took advantage of monetizing Beckham coming to the U.S., and the last ones yet to get anything from it are the fans, who are left to wonder, ‘What’s in it for us?’ ” Carter said. “In order to get people’s attention, it wasn’t just that Beckham was coming. It was that he was coming with a $250 million contract.

“Even the number had to be a number that created buzz.”

The monster never will die. It is too big, too powerful, too rich. But that’s not to say we must continue to accept and support all its rhetoric about which next athlete to place atop our empty pedestal.

We should have known better long ago.

Freddy Adu and Michelle Wie aren’t failures. They were just good enough early enough to get caught in this mammoth swell of promotion by those who benefit famously from hype with no real concern for reality.

Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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