I first became a Manchester United supporter in 1998 after a trip to Europe for New Year’s. I was already a fan of the USA Men’s Soccer team, but after the debacle that was the ’98 U.S. World Cup experience, I wanted to understand what it was like to follow a team that played at the highest level. I set out to pick a team in some European league that resonated with me. I admired the passion that one of my friends, Hugo, an Englishman living in Mexico City, had for Man Utd, so I decided to watch a match.
I was instantly drawn to the way they played the game with style, grace, toughness, offensive firepower, speed, and a “never say die” attitude. I was also drawn to #7, David Beckham, who could hit long distance crosses into the middle with pinpoint precision. His passes usually led to exciting goals being scored by forwards Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. In addition to his passes, Beckham was also one of the most prolific free kick specialists in the world. His right foot was lethal, but he also hustled all over the field and never gave up. At that time, Man Utd was on a serious roll.
If you know about that season in European soccer, then you know that Manchester United won the English Premier League, the FA Cup, which is the oldest knock-out soccer tournament in the world, and the European Champions League, which pits all of the top club teams throughout Europe against each other. They call it a Treble when someone wins all three, and it is something extremely difficult to accomplish. We would probably call it the Triple Crown here in the States, as it is equally as rare. It was an exciting time to be following and falling for a team. My appetite to learn more about Man Utd, their history of excellence, and Beckham was voracious. Some of the greatest and famous players in European soccer history wore the shirt #7 for Man Utd: George Best, Bryan Robson, and Eric Cantona wore the number before Beckham got it. There was so much to learn and absorb, and I was 100 years behind.
We are blessed in life when our personal passions align with our professional goals. It was during the time that I fell in love with Manchester United that we began to make the push to pursue the team as the spearhead for the re-introduction of the Upper Deck brand in Europe. A team of us from Upper Deck that included the owner and the president began a courtship that would send us around the globe from London and Manchester to Beijing to show them that we were serious. I had the knowledge to talk Manchester United past and present with everyone and how Upper Deck trading cards would be a phenomenon for kids and collectors from Los Angeles to Manchester to Tokyo and all points in between. We were going to make David Beckham a big part of the campaign.
Upper Deck eventually got the license and I was named the leader of the business unit to bring trading cards of the club to the world. As with any new business and a business in a new country that is 8 hours ahead of you, there are some key obstacles to overcome and lessons to learn. A big part of our pitch to the team was that we would create the same kind of trading card excitement by including game used jerseys and autographs on the cards. We would soon learn that securing these items would be a challenge, as the players were not familiar with who Upper Deck was or why we wanted these things from them. Soccer players in Europe don’t grow up dreaming of being on trading cards like kids who play baseball, basketball, football and hockey in North America do. In Europe, kids collect stickers that get put into the pages of sticker books for fun rather than trading cards placed in plastic holders and sold on eBay or in shops across the country for the highest book values.
Further, Beckham was already a major phenomenon in Europe and Asia for his celebrity lifestyle – great looks and style combined with a glamorous wife, Victoria aka Posh Spice from the girl pop band, the Spice Girls. We were dead in the water without him in our products. His people knew it, Manchester United knew it, and we knew it. However, we would also be a strategic partner in his plan to make it big in the U.S. at some point in the future. Our spokesmen were the best of the best in sports: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Tiger Woods among others. Plus, when our owner wanted something, he was willing to spend the money, so we got Becks to join the Upper Deck team.
In order to drive home the fact that trading cards could be valuable as collectibles for those in the U.K., I created a bounty campaign, in which one of Beckham’s autographed match worn shirt cards that were limited and numbered to 7 could be turned back in to Upper Deck for a bounty of 2,000 GBP. The campaign was supported by posters and ads that resembled old west wanted posters. It was a hit and the packs were sold all over the world. They were especially popular in Japan, where Beckham-mania was at a fevered pitch. Upper Deck did several millions in sales and the cards were hailed as the best soccer trading cards ever launched. Nobody ever turned in one of the cards numbered to 7, so they are probably still out there. I don’t think that the bounty is still on though.
I received a signed and framed poster as a memento for the building of the Manchester United and Beckham business for Upper Deck. It remains a prized part of my collection.
During the first year of our contract in 2001, I got to go to my first match at Old Trafford, which ended up being one of the worst home losses in club history: 3 – 0 to Chelsea. It tarnished an otherwise positive and memorable day. We were even accompanied to the game by a Man Utd legend, Kevin Moran, who held the dubious distinction of being the only player ever sent off in an FA Cup Final match. After a trip to London the next day to talk with distributors and to make a pitch presentation to get the English Premier League trading card license, I went back to Manchester for more meetings. I got to attend a Champions League match against Portuguese side, Boavista, and this time my experience was even more memorable. I had the honor to have a pre-game meal with club officials and Man Utd legends. I even met the chairman, Peter Kenyon. Most of these soccer legends and professionals were amazed that a surfer from San Diego not only knew who they were, but also knew so much about the history of their team. I was in heaven even before Man Utd cruised to a 3 – 0 victory.
It wasn’t until the third year of our deal with Manchester United in 2003 that I would be able to meet the object of my mancrush. We were invited to present our product and marketing plans at the first David Beckham summit, which included all of his global sponsors including Adidas and Pepsi. The event coincided with a Champions League match against Italian soccer super power, Juventus, who had just as rich of a history and top-flight international player line-up, so after a day of presenting our plans and creating synergies with each other, we were treated to the match.
It was towards the end of the season, and Beckham was all over the news, as he had received stitches over his left eye from a locker room accident. The manager of Man Utd is Sir Alex Ferguson, a fiery Scotsman, who is famous for applying a “his way or the highway” approach to managing the team. They call it the hairdryer when he gets into your face and yells because your hair blows back. Man Utd lost an FA Cup match against hated Arsenal, who was the top competitor to Man Utd at the time. When Sir Alex came into the dressing room, he reportedly kicked a boot (soccer cleat) that flew across the room and struck Beckham above the left eye. It opened a large cut that was an injury considered as symbolic as it was physical.
Sir Alex had enough of Beckham’s celebrity lifestyle that made him bigger than the club. The club had raised the young lad and stood behind him through thick and thin throughout his career. In the 1998 World Cup, Beckham was sent off against Argentina, a country that had a long and bitter history with England on the soccer field from Diego Maradona’s “Goal of the Century” and “Hand of God” goal that punched them out of the World Cup in Mexico City 1986, and on the field (or water) of battle, where Argentina and England fought over the Falkland Islands in 1982. The rest of England hated Beckham for being baited into kicking out at an Argentine player, who then flopped like he had been shot, which got Beckham kicked out of the game. He was the England fan’s easy scapegoat for the exit and everywhere he went during the season in England, he was hung and burned in effigy. Sir Alex helped shield Beckham and guide him throughout those times, but once the fateful boot hit Beckham’s eye, the cut that was made between them could not be mended.
Tony Stephens, who was Beckham’s longtime agent, pointed out the whole Beckham affair during our summit and showed all of the newspaper tabloid headlines and stories dedicated to “Bootgate” vs. the amount of coverage being given to the war in Iraq. It wasn’t even close. Beckham’s war with Sir Alex was bigger than the war with Iraq.
That night, after Beckham had two assists in the 2 – 1 win against Juventus, all of the sponsors were led into the Manchester United board room, where a nice spread of post-game food and drink was laid out. I couldn’t eat because, I couldn’t believe that I was in the board room. How many arguments and decisions about the biggest and most famous club in the world had gone down here? Yet, at the end of the day, it was nothing compared to the opportunity to meet David’s family and then eventually, David himself came in and personally talked with all of us. I was impressed by how this international celebrity was so down to Earth with us. I have met and worked with enough athletes to understand who is real and who is not. He was genuine and sincere. It took a long time to finally meet him, but it was worth the wait. It was a moment that I will never forget. The most prized possession of my Beckham collection is the signed and personalized photo taken that evening. You can even see the infamous cut over his left eye.
Unfortunately, these were the last days of Beckham’s Manchester United career. He would be sold to Real Madrid after the season and with him went the sales of Upper Deck’s trading cards. Real Madrid was unrealistic in their expectations for Upper Deck to get a trading card deal done, so we didn’t follow Beckham there. Further, it would take the next Man Utd #7, Cristiano Ronaldo, a few years to become one of the top players in the world and a household name, so Upper Deck did not continue producing Manchester United cards. That was the end of a golden era for soccer trading cards and I was proud to have been a part of it. I was also happy to come out of it with two memorable collectibles and the most incredible experiences possible. I remain a passionate Manchester United supporter and David Beckham fan to this day.