Beckham. It’s the most famous last name in U.K. sports history, and this Sunday in London it will be written across the back of a new superstar’s jersey.
Odell Beckham Jr. leads the group of players hitting their stride just as the NFL is catching fire in the U.K. He scores incredible touchdowns, executes one-handed catches with ease, headbutts or proposes to kicking nets and sheds tears on the sidelines, and across the Atlantic Ocean, new NFL fans are latching on to every moment.
“Superstars draw people to teams, and he is a superstar,” says Keith Burton, the founder of the Facebook group New York Giants Fans UK. “Manchester United’s popularity grew in the U.S. because of David Beckham.”
The similarities with the English soccer legend go well beyond the surname. Odell Beckham Jr.’s star has grown to a point where casual sports fans in the U.K. are finding his highlight reels—for every person who has seen the sideline tantrum, another has seen the one-handed catch—leading many to believe the NFL’s Beckham has every chance to do for American football in the U.K. what the U.K.’s Beckham did for soccer in the United States.
“That one-handed catch echoes the goal Beckham scored against Wimbledon from the halfway line when he was still a kid with floppy blonde hair.” Keith has been a Giants fan since the ’80s and upon starting the group, “expected 20 or 30 likes on Facebook, and that was about it.” Instead, if you walk down Regent Street in central London during the annual NFL fan rally, the crowd is flooded OBJ’s blue number 13 jersey and Eli Manning’s number 10. “It’s split 50-50, but the kids are all wearing 13,” Burton says.
Both Beckhams push past the traditionalists who are happy watching the sports they grew up on. Odell, with his own floppy blond lid and multi-million social media presence, provides the perfect tonic for the people that matter most when it comes to the growth of the game in Europe: youngsters.
The Giants and Rams are now both in London for the first NFL game at Twickenham Stadium—home of England’s rugby team—this Sunday. For his part, Burton has promised his fellow Giants fans are trying to turn Twickenham into “MetLife Stadium East”. London will say hello to a different kind of star for the 16th International Series game in Beckham, who is not a traditional Giants player in that he knows how to act like a superstar—he’s perhaps the team’s first off-the-field sensation since Jeremy Shockey.
“He’s not the sort of person I would want to go for a beer with,” says Burton, wearing his Giants T-shirt and baseball cap, the kind of apparel that makes you stick out like a sore thumb in this part of the world. “I liked him more last season. He seemed more humble.”
While the media has piled on the good and bad since the beginning of the season, the feeling on this side of the Atlantic was still something wholly different. Perhaps the fuss was blown up because he plays in New York, the media capital of the world. What if Beckham were a Buffalo Bill? Entering some of the sports stores up and down Oxford Circus, the NFL banners raised high alongside the recently constructed Christmas lights, Odell’s influence is creeping through to a soccer-mad nation. One national sports store’s latest magazine has him on the front page, and he is a prominent face on the U.K.’s new Touchdown magazine. Giants winter hats and caps are stacked high, and there are even wide receiver gloves on sale. Another chain has a life-size mannequin in Beckham’s clothing, but expenses were spared for the hair and tattoos.
“It has all changed in the last couple of years,” Keith says. “You used to see Manning jerseys dotted around, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, too. Now it’s all 13. “ The catch is when it all exploded. People forget we actually lost that game, but following it we had 30 or 40 new members every fortnight in our Giants group.”
In less than three seasons, Beckham has received seven fines totaling $154,698. When he was suspended for one game after an on-field bout with then Panthers cornerback Josh Norman was the first such suspension in the Giants’ 92-year history. Beckham’s appearance on the cover of Madden was a huge influencer in spreading his brand and the game to international markets, but this season, the visibility of his antics has threatened to trump the appreciation of his talent.
He has split opinion over the last six weeks. Now, international NFL fans have a reason to dislike Beckham other than the fact that they don’t root for the Giants. Beckham is still primed to arrive in London as the next great thing in the NFL. People acknowledged the surname and felt a sense of connection dating back to even before the draft, when they heard that ‘a Beckham’ was on his way, as if it were William and Kate expecting another newborn. The Bears and Dolphins are traditionally well supported teams in the U.K. from back in the 1980s when it was originally broadcast on free-to-air television. Andrew Luck has garnered popularity in recent years, and the Jaguars are still trying their best to convert fans. But Odell feels like the one we all want to see.
So have recent events hurt his brand?
“I really don’t think it has to any great degree, because I know it is going to be insane when he runs out on Sunday,” Burton says. “Regardless that he punched a kicking net, he is going to be Odell Beckham, number 13, running out onto that field and kids are going to want to see him live.”
It will be intriguing to watch how Beckham, 23, carries himself as his celebrity grows further. The tears, shouting and angst just to get back on the field show how much he loves football, but his behavior in the Ravens game suggests the opinion he has of himself and his feeling of self-worth are steadily rising along with his profile. What's clear is he isn’t just in it for the status, as other wide receivers around the league may be guilty of.
Beckham can be the perfect poster boy for the league’s growth in the U.K.—he even began playing soccer, his first true love, at three years of age. He visited England and Germany earlier this summer to promote the London game and was mobbed in Munich. Youngsters cycled after his car, and in the end Beckham got out and took pictures with them. Groups of young kids whispered his name excitedly upon seeing his name on an obscure playing field in west London.
“Odell has made insane plays on the field like David used to,” Burton says. “Things that go on the sports highlight reel that, even if you have never seen the NFL before, you know you are watching one of the world’s greatest athletes, one of the world’s greatest players. If he keeps his head together and sticks with the right team—which is what the Giants are—then he has a chance to mirror the success that David Beckham had. But, we need to judge him at the end of his career.”
So the man with 28 career touchdowns and 1.63 million Twitter followers is bringing his game to a city ready to embrace him as an ambassador. If he lets his play on the field define him on Sunday, interest in the the NFL will be brewing internationally, and in a place where they really do like their brew.