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When John Travolta donned a U.C. Santa Cruz T-shirt in the film "Pulp Fiction," sales of Banana Slug merchandise skyrocketed. Last spring, Santa Clara University had its own brush with the silver screen with the release of the hit film "Bend It Like Beckham."
And SCU's women's soccer program has been reaping the rewards ever since.
The film, which was produced in England, centers on Jess Bhamra, a young woman living in London who dreams of becoming a professional soccer player like her idol, David Beckham. After battling gender and racial stereotypes and facing strong resistance from her Sikh parents, Bhamra eventually gets scouted by Santa Clara University, wins a scholarship, and heads to California to pursue her dream.
In 1999, while "Beckham" was in production, SCU's soccer team was ranked number one for most of the year. The co-writer of the film, Paul Mayeda Berges, happened to be from the Bay Area. This led a producer of the film to contacting SCU's athletic department for permission to use the University in the film. The athletic staff agreed and supplied the producers with a sweatshirt and a team photo.
As a result, a character in "Beckham" refers to the University's women's soccer team as "one of the top teams" in America, and, at the end of the movie, SCU's sweatshirt is displayed prominently. The producers even went so far as to alter the Bronco team photo provided by the athletic department- placing Jess Bhamra's head over real-life player Aly Wagner's. Wagner was the 2001 national player of the year.
Initially, SCU's athletic department didn't think much would come from their encounter with "Beckham's" producers. But after its worldwide release, the film became a sensation. It was an instant success in both Europe and Asia. So far, in the U.S., the film has grossed more than $31 million-a remarkable sum for a small international film. The movie has also been a hit with the critics.
This is all fantastic news for SCU, which has received international attention, as well as a tremendous amount of interest in the women's soccer program. The media has latched on to the story, including the television show "Evening Magazine," which ran a story on SCU and its ties to "Beckham."
SCU Women's Soccer Coach Jerry Smith is even using the movie in recruiting materials. "I think the movie is another piece of evidence that Santa Clara is one of the top, if not the top, women's soccer programs in the country," Smith says. "It's an example of where we are now, as well as where we're heading."
The team has been delighted with the publicity; in May they attended a showing of the movie in Palo Alto. "We all loved the movie and we had a great time. We left with a great feeling and we were so excited to be a part of it," Smith says.
Best of all, prospective players have begun e-mailing and submitting videos to the athletics staff. This includes European players, who can be tricky to recruit given the distance. "We have a two-year recruiting process for the team," Smith says. "Being a good soccer player is just the starting point. I need to look at the whole person, which means observing them in their environment and with their team, as well as away from their team." For this reason, Smith has never recruited a foreign player in his 16 years at SCU.
Still, Smith says, it's nice to have the option. "We are definitely following up on more leads than in the past. The movie has thrown our program into the national and international spotlight," he says.
In truth, the women's soccer team has been on a roll for some time now. The team continually makes it to the Final Four in the NCAA College Cup, and their 2001 championship title was followed up by a second place finish in 2002. In May, Soccer America magazine named the current class of SCU's soccer recruits the best in the nation.
"This group ranks as one of the two best we've had. They are comparable to the 1996 recruiting class," Smith says. "That class made the final four all four years and produced five WUSA (women's professional soccer league) players. This class has that kind of potential.
In addition to the excitement about the team's chances this year, the "Bend it Like Beckham" phenomenon is expected to boost the program. Articles have been written, e-mails are pouring in, and alumni and friends of the University are calling to say how delighted and surprised they are to see SCU being featured in an international film.
But most importantly, after buzz about the film has subsided, the prestige and strength of SCU's women's soccer team will live on.
"We've gotten to the place in our program that each year we expect to be the best in the country," Smith says. "That doesn't necessarily mean winning championships. It means that when people think of the very best women's soccer program, they think of Santa Clara University."
Victoria Hendel De La O is a Santa Clara University writer/editor.