Patient Zero: David Beckham
In 2015, David Beckham’s fame is such that it’s sometimes easy to forget he was, once upon a time, just a footballer. It’s easy to forget, for example, that he only announced his retirement from the club game two seasons ago, bidding an emotional farewell to the fans packed into Paris Saint-Germain’s Parc des Princes at the end of a career that had spanned more than 20 years, taking in five countries, two continents and three World Cups.
That’s largely down to the fact that Beckham was in possession, long before the tears in the French capital in May 2013, of an influence that transcended the game and had helped to establish him as an icon the world over. He bowed out as one of those rare people capable of inspiring adulation, admiration and respect in equal measure from all corners – football’s first true global superstar for a twenty-first century world.
But the building of ‘Brand Beckham’ – the figure as at home rubbing shoulders with international monarchs, heads of state and renowned fashion designers as with Zinedine Zidane, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville – was by no means a one-man operation. In many respects, it was a one-woman operation. When, in 1998, Caroline McAteer began managing Beckham’s image and public relations, the closest football had come to flirting with the idea of celebrity was John Barnes’ appearance on New Order’s World in Motion eight years earlier. McAteer, however, was about to spearhead a movement that would revolutionise the sport and provide a blueprint in years to come for any player with aspirations to move beyond the confines of the stadium. She is now the Director of her own company, the Sports PR Company, that works with Didier Drogba, among others.
For this, the last in the Decider’s Patient Zero series, we spoke to the woman that changed the face of football.
To start, I wanted to ask you how you came to be involved in PR and brand management. Was it a natural progression for you?
I worked in music PR before moving in to sport.
When and how did you come to be involved with David Beckham?
I was looking after the PR for the Spice Girls, so I knew David, then in 1998 after the World Cup sending-off – when he was public enemy number one with the press – I started helping him, and advising him on all his media.
How was it different from projects you’d worked on in the past? Was there a noticeable difference in approach?
Having worked in music PR, I was surprised that in sport, athletes did not have their own PR representatives, particularly given the amount of media attention they receive globally.
What was at the centre of his appeal? Was it something innate, something to do with him as a person? Or something external, down either to your work or to the evolving nature of celebrity culture?
I think it was a combination of many factors. When David scored from the halfway line, it was a very exciting time for Manchester United with that group of young players coming through and winning the treble, plus there was a lot of media interest in his relationship with Victoria.
At what point did it become clear to you that footballers had the potential to become the celebrities they are today?
I don’t think most footballers see themselves as celebrities – they are athletes first and foremost, sportsmen and women, who have to work very hard to stay at the top level. If you ask any of them they will all say the same – it is a certain amount of talent and a lot of hard work.
You must have seen a number of agencies emerge in the wake of your work with David, vying to look after other top league players – did that give you the confidence to know that you’d been on the right track all along?
Yes – it seemed obvious to me, given the unbelievable amount of media attention globally on footballers, that they need someone who can work alongside them and their football agent to advise on the media side, which is exactly what we do at Sports PR.