PARIS (AP) — David Beckham's pecs are at least as much a part of his brand as his kick; his brand of shoes ultimately more lucrative than the game he's giving up. Listed as the world's highest-earning athlete for 2013, Beckham's retirement from play still leaves him with valuable endorsements and unparalleled celebrity. The question is whether he can maintain it.
Only a few athletes, once their job is preceded by 'ex,' manage to maintain a connection with fans: Those who have carefully built up their image beforehand.
Michael Jordan retired from basketball for the third time in 2003 and turned 50 this year. His eponymous Nike brand — a partnership that dates back to the first days after he left the University of North Carolina for the Chicago Bulls — is still going strong. The Jordan brand makes up nearly 60 percent of the American basketball shoe market, and a significant part of the estimated $80 million that Jordan reportedly earns each year from ventures that also include deals with Hanes and Gatorade, according to Forbes magazine.
At the height of his popularity, Jordan "was just inescapable, and I think Beckham has had that kind of quality up to now," said Ellis Cashmore, a British sociologist and author of the book "Beckham."
Even having given up his salary at Paris Saint-Germain, the French soccer club where he's ending his career, Beckham topped this year's Sports Illustrated list of 20 highest-earning international athletes (his estimated $48 million in earnings — most from sponsorship — would rank third on the magazine's list if American athletes are also included). He has deals with Adidas, Samsung and H&M and has his own cologne. The UK's Sunday Times Sports Rich Lost puts his estimated wealth at some 165 million pounds ($250 million).
The question, Cashmore said, is whether his celebrity will last once he's no longer on the field.
"Beckham was the first athlete to transcend sport," he said. "Leaving soccer is a little bit of a gamble because they don't know if Beckham decoupled from his sport is going to be as powerful as a brand."
Tiger Woods, whose career arc looked a lot like Beckham's until it imploded in marital scandals, is still having a hard time reconnecting with fans — and endorsements. The 37-year-old earned a reported $40 million, according to the Sports Illustrated tally this year, and Nike is using him in television ads again. But this year's survey reported just $33 million in endorsements, down from $105 million in 2007.
Thanks to his years with the LA Galaxy, Beckham's popularity is high even in the U.S., where soccer runs distinctly behind basketball, baseball and football, according to Henry Schafer, executive vice president Q Scores Company, which measures celebrity awareness and popularity.
But he'll have a hard time matching the endurance of Jordan who — a decade after retirement — tops the Q Score list of all athletes, Schafer said. Woods was the only athlete to come close to surpassing the former Chicago Bull, Schafer said, and that's no longer even a remote possibility.
As for Beckham, "I would put him in the category as having the right qualities to extend his playing days," said Schafer, who said former NBA star Magic Johnson, NHL player Wayne Gretzky and boxing great Muhammad Ali among the other top retired athletes who've kept up their images.
Brand Beckham, however, isn't just David. His wife Victoria runs a fashion house which is beginning to gain traction. And there's a rising generation of Beckhams as well: eldest son Romeo features in ads for Burberry's spring/summer 2013 collection.
Jean-Noel Kapferer, a marketing analyst at HEC, warned Beckham's glow could fade unless he shows he's putting in an effort.
"Up to now, the image of David Beckham balanced between the tangible — the presence on the field of an exceptional player with a magic touch — and the intangible — the handsome guy who imprints his style on modern man," he told the French newspaper l'Equipe. "The risk for him is that he's not doing anything but making money."
If nothing else, Cashmore said, Beckham — who owns a company called Beckham Brand Ltd. — has inculcated a new generation of athletes to think far into their futures, beyond the actual game.
"Gone are the Chariots of Fire days of the 1920s," he said. Now, in large part because of Beckham, the question even young teens with talent ask themselves is more calculating: "How am I going to monetize myself?"