David Beckham has won league championships in three countries on two continents, earns millions of dollars in endorsements and his name is practically synonymous with celebrity itself. He has his own cologne, for goodness sake. So why is he even bothering to sit on the bench for the Paris Saint-Germain football club?
His royal highness of football doesn't need the money — and he's said he'll donate his PSG salary to charity — but he does need to start thinking about life after the game. At 37, Beckham is practically a dinosaur for the sport, and he acknowledged in his welcoming press conference on Thursday that he probably won't be in the team's starting lineup.
Instead, Beckham may be beginning to put in place a plan for life after the final whistle. Ellis Cashmore, a sociologist who writes about sports and media culture at Staffordshire University, said that prolonged exposure is always useful to celebrities building empires. In that way, the deal with PSG does double work: It keeps his name in lights for longer and also garners extra attention for the charitable contribution.
"When he does stop playing, which is going to be quite soon, his overall brand appeal will inevitably decline because we will inevitably forget about this guy," he said. "I think he's probably thinking, I want to stay in the shop window for a bit longer."
But Cashmore also cautioned against being too cynical in assessing Beckham's motives: "The guy is an athlete. He wants to do what he loves to do."
Bruno Satin, an independent players' agent who was with IMG for a decade, also said that the move to PSG — even if it's to sit on the bench — is a step up for Beckham.
"For him, to be on the PSG team, it's a higher level than being on the Los Angeles Galaxy," he said. "For the world of football, for real football, the Los Angeles Galaxy is nothing on the map of football."
Some wondered if Beckham was trying to avoid the notoriously sticky fingers of the French state with his plans to donate his salary.
But Sandra Hodzic, a tax lawyer with Salans, said the deduction an individual can take on such contributions is limited. Instead, it would be smarter for PSG to directly donate the salary — and take a big tax break in the process.
Doing so would have an added benefit for the club: UEFA, the governing body for European football, mandate that clubs break even. The donation could allow PSG to essentially write off Beckham's entire salary — a huge help for a team notorious for mega-contracts.
Beckham, meanwhile, would be better off trying to avoid becoming a French tax resident at all. So far, Hodzic said, he is making all the right moves: His family is staying in London, he plans to live only part-time in the country for less than six months, and his primary source of income —whether or not he donates his salary — isn't being earned in France.
Beckham's agent did not return calls for comment on specifics of the contract.
Still, the charitable contribution has raised the question about what Beckham is getting out of the deal. For one, he likely is still getting a cut of rights to his image. Jerseys with his name on them were already selling out at the PSG store on the Champs-Elysees on Friday.
Cashmore, who wrote a book called "Beckham," calls him a "marketing phenomenon" and estimates that about 70 percent of Beckham's income comes from endorsement deals — with Adidas, for instance. That makes salary almost irrelevant — especially for a man estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List to be worth 160 million pounds ($253 million).
But the football feeds the endorsements, Cashmore says.
"It makes an awful lot of business sense to perpetuate, to prolong his active competitive football career," he said, especially with a team that's doing fairly well this year. "It makes an awful lot of sense for him to showcase himself because it will generate more income from his various other sponsorship and licensing activities."
But certainly this move, as any at this late-stage in his playing career, is being made with an eye on what will come next. Cashmore said that when Beckham signed with the L.A. Galaxy, there was an understanding that he would eventually become an ambassador for American soccer. That plan clearly fell by the wayside — perhaps because Major League Soccer decided it was just too expensive to keep on the star after his presence on American soil failed to generate more interest in the game.
It's possible, Cashmore said, that Beckham is looking for a similar deal after his stint at PSG, which is Qatari owned. The tiny, wealthy nation is hosting the World Cup in 2022, and Beckham's contract with PSG will establish a relationship with it; from there, a role as, say, an ambassador for the tournament would seem more natural.
"For his after-career conversion, it's important to have links with major actors in the world of sports," said Satin. And Qatar is certainly one. It has poured money into PSG, drawing major names like striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It also funds the satellite network Al Jazeera, which could provide Beckham with a platform. And then there's the World Cup.
In the end, though, Satin said the clue to Beckham's thinking may be as simple as the eternal draw of Paris.
"PSG has become a glamorous club, a pretty nice club in a beautiful city," said Bruno Satin, an agent. "It's just two hours on the Eurostar (train) from London."