Musing from your Post Master General
With a metropolitan area of 23 million people, one may think that New York City could support anything. When it comes to the world of sports, this has largely been the case. The city and its neighbors support two NFL teams that play out of New Jersey, the New York Giants and the New York Jets, two Major League Baseball teams, the highly successful New York Yankees in the Bronx and the New York Mets in Queens, two NBA teams, the New York Knicks who play in the heart of Manhattan as well as the Brooklyn Nets, who recently moved from their New Jersey home of many years. The metropolitan area also supports three National Hockey League squads, the New York Rangers, the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders, who are currently based in Long Island but who plan to move to Brooklyn in the near future.
With all those professional teams vying for the pockets and television eyes of Tri-State area sports fans, does the nation’s largest market have room for another professional league with multiple franchises residing within its boarders? This is a question that will have to be answered if soccer is to succeed in the New York Metro during the next decade as the existing New York Red Bulls, the Major League Soccer expansion New York City F.C. and the NASL New York Cosmos all attempt to share America’s most crowded stage.
The Most Glamorous Team
The Sixties and Seventies were very much a transitional time for American sport. Traditional professional leagues like the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey league were challenge by the upstart American Football League, the American Basketball Association, and the World Hockey Association respectively. In this new age of television dollars, fans clamoring for sports programming gave these fledgling leagues a chance.
Though not competing with a league playing their same sport, the North American Soccer League, or NASL, was born at the same time. At first, the NASL struggled with both finding a fan base as well as television partners. All that changed when the New York Cosmos acquired the rights to Brazilian soccer great Pele in 1975. Suddenly, the Cosmos were not just the toast of the town, but the entire world, and they brought NASL to the top with them. Soon, their collection of top global talent such as Italian national Giorgio Chinaglia, German great Franz Beckenbauer, as well as Pele’s Brazilian compatriot Carlos Alberto would regularly sell out Giants Stadium and win multiple league championships in the process.
Author Gavin Newsham summed the era up in his book “One in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos” by declaring the squad “The Most Glamorous Team in World Football.” Even American sports commentators like Howard Cosell predicted that this rise of soccer in the United States would lead to it overtaking football and baseball as the premier sports. Unfortunately, Cosell’s prediction never came true as by the time the 1980ties rolled in, the soccer phenomenon in the United States had all but passed. By 1985 the New York Cosmos were dissolved and soccer returned to its status as a playground game, that is of course until 1994.
MetroStars to Red Bulls
The United States was awarded soccer’s grandest showcase, the World Cup, which is hosted in 1994. The tournament was a rousing success, drawing 3.86 million fans, a record that has yet to be broken today. The tournament ushered in a new era of American soccer. With it sprung a new league, Major League Soccer, or the MLS. The New York/New Jersey MetroStars (later just the MetroStars) were one of the leagues charter members, playing out of Giants Stadium in East Rutherford New Jersey.
Despite hopefully beginnings, the team proved to be one of the worst in the MLS both in wins and in its failure to fill up their cavernous stadium. Austrian beverage Giant Red Bull purchased the team and completely revamped their image. The name of the team was changed to the New York Red Bulls and their new colors reflected those of the company that now owned them.
In 2010, the Red Bulls moved out of Giants Stadium and into their newly custom built home of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey twenty minutes outside Manhattan. The new stadium ushered in an era of steady growth and competition. The Red Bulls acquired French legend Thierry Henry in 2010 as well, giving them the marquee star they always desired. Currently, the Red Bulls sit on top of the 2013 MLS standings and have maintained healthy gains in their attendance. However, it’s safe to say that they have yet to truly captivate the New York market like the Cosmos did in the 1970ties.
When Major League Soccer was negotiating a deal to sell the MetroStars, they had an eye towards the future as they forced Red Bull to agree to allowing another team to share the New York market in future seasons. It was a commonly held belief that soccer wouldn’t succeed in New York partially because there was no team that played its games within the five boroughs. With the Red Bulls moving to Harrison, their move into the city interior could not happen so it was theorized by creating a natural rival to the Red Bulls, both clubs popularity, as well as that of the league, could be enhanced.
All this came to a head when MLS commissioner Don Garber officially announced the arrival of the expansion team to be known as New York City F.C. earlier this year. The team will be owned by the successful English club ManchesterCity as well as the New York Yankees and will begin play in the 2015 MLS season. Originally, the ideal choice for a home ground was considered to be in the borough of Queens. Queens has a rich immigrant and soccer tradition and its FlushingMeadows-CoronaPark was view as the perfect place to base the new club. However recent political opposition from both mayoral candidates Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota has created somewhat of a roadblock in the leagues plan as further sites are now being explored, included some near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
Twice in a Lifetime
All the while the talk of a second team in the New York Metropolitan Area was taking place, an undercurrent of both nostalgia and support was forming to bring back the New York Cosmos. Eventually, the stars collided when in 2012, the new owners of the Cosmos trademark announced that they would be joining the second tier and appropriately enough newly formed NASL. Originally the Cosmos owners seemed to favor joined the MLS as their second New York team but for whatever reason they were not viewed as a favorable match for the league.
The new Cosmos started play in front of a sellout crowed at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium. Besides being in the second division, the Cosmos have no intentions of being a second division club. To curb some of the outrageous spending that lead to the demise of the old NASL, the MLS has instituted strict salary cap restrictions. The new NASL however does not have any, leaving the Cosmos and their deep pocketed owners plenty of room to try to acquire top talent. They also don’t plan to stay at Shuart Stadium for long as their intentions are to move into a state of the art (and MLS size) new venue to be built in Elmont, New York next to the famous Belmont Racetrack and on the border of Queens.
If this stadium if built (pending local approval), it could perhaps fill the soccer void in Queens that New York City and the MLS wont be able to if they fail to build their Flushing Meadows stadium and have to play their game elsewhere in the city. The new Cosmos could end up forcing MLS’s hand and making the top American soccer league accept them into their ranks. Or their success, just like the success of their name sake decades earlier could raise the level of the new NASL to major league status thus creating a rival circuit for the MLS to contend with.
With potential three clubs operating as top soccer teams in one media market, can they all possibly thrive, or even survive?
The future of soccer in New York
The prospect of a fringe professional league basing three of its teams in one city comes with risks. There is no question that there are plenty of soccer fans in New York City. Anyone who frequents the bar scene can attest to that. But are there enough American soccer fans? That’s the key question. With the advent of satellite television and worldwide broadcasts of foreign leagues on regularly available stations, the MLS has to compete with the English Premier League, the Italian Serie A, la Liga in Spain, and the German Bundesliga among others. The quality of play in the American soccer leagues is much lower than that of many other European leagues and even at its best will probably never be able to match the talent that these leagues possess. With New York being such an international city, many fans hold true to their international sides rather than a local American team. The concern is the over-saturation of a fringe product. One team may be hard enough to follow for those domestic soccer fans in New York. Are there enough of them for three teams to survive with successful fan bases? Of course as mentioned earlier, all the great soccer teams of Europe, Central and South America are not the only competition of the three New York squads as they must compete for dollars with the other nine pro teams the metropolitan area is home to. A tough task for sure.
However, one fact is true, New York likes winners. If all three teams can put winning products on the field, and use the potential rivalries with each other to create top flight match atmospheres, perhaps they can gain some kind of edge. That is something that the foreign leagues can never claim on a full time basis. Watching soccer on television is fun, but there is nothing like the atmosphere of being at a highly competitive game in person. Only the local teams can provide this. And what’s to say that a New Yorker can’t be a fan of a foreign squad as well as one of their local teams? Due to time changes, European teams play in the morning and in the day in New York time, leaving the nights free for their domestic soccer enjoyment. The level of play might never match up, but as long as the league continues to grow, it’s sure to be more competitive in the future.
Currently the only sport with three teams in the New York Metro area is hockey with the Rangers, Devils and Islanders. Some of their survival is due to their geographic separation. The three New York area soccer teams have a similar geographic separation that could possibly foster unique and self sustaining fan bases of their own. The Red Bulls have New Jersey and some of the city, New York City FC has the five boroughs, and the Cosmos have Long Island and some of the outer boroughs as well. The differences in territory could foster somewhat of a regional rivalry as well. Multiple soccer teams in one city is not without precedent. London for example regularly has six clubs playing at the top level of competition within its metropolitan limits.
The jury is still out on this debate but if any city could handle three professional teams playing the same sport, it’s New York. And if there is any sport that could do it, its soccer. Soccer fans are rabid, territorial, and almost tribal; a perfect mix for creating a fan base. As long as the teams are willing to do their part, I’m sure New Yorkers will rise to the occasion and make this arrangement a success.
Hope you enjoyed reading this article. Do you think three teams can survive in New York? If you are from New York, which team will you support? Let me know. Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to like this post on Facebook, follow me on twitter @clashmccoy and to go back and read all my other posts.
photos courtesy of nacion.com, redbulls.com, nycfc.com, cbs.local.com