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The Battle for New York: Cash, Corporations, and Soccer

Three massive corporations are battling to control soccer in New York City, but will the spoils be worth much of anything to the victor?

by Noah Davis
Dec 19 2014, 2:10pm

On a cold November morning, they stood lined up more than a hundred deep to support a soccer team that hasn't played a game yet. The fans wore baby blue and carried orange-accented scarfs bearing the logo of The Third Rail, the 1,200-strong supporters group for a squad that existed in name only. They waited in the cold to get inside Terminal 5, the Hell's Kitchen concert venue that played host to Fitz & The Tantrums the previous night.

Somewhere inside, 32-year-old Spanish forward David Villa slipped on a jersey. This was the ostensible reason they all trekked to the west side of Manhattan. New York City Football Club (NYCFC), the soccer collaboration between the owners of Manchester City and the New York Yankees that will become Major League Soccer's twentieth team when it begins play next March, was set to release its home kit. Villa, the first man signed to the team—a World Cup-winner set to make $6 million a year over each of the next three—would star in the reveal. But first the crowd needed to get inside, where they hoped the future of soccer in the city was about to begin in earnest.

David Villa representing the #brand. Photo by USA TODAY-Sports

With apologizes to Seattle, Portland, and Kansas City, the soul of American soccer lies in New York City. The roots of the sport can be traced back to its surrounding areas, with Princeton University and Rutgers University playing the first official match using modern rules in 1876. The American Football Association became the sport's first governing body in 1884 (and the country's second sports league, behind only baseball's National League). Bolstered by wave after wave of immigrants arriving from countries around the world, soccer remains popular in NYC as thousands play pick-up games and in formalized rec leagues every week. On any given weekend, you can find passionate supporters groups cheering for European teams ranging from Arsenal FC at The Highbury Pub to West Ham United's New York Hammers at Smithfield Hall.

What New York City doesn't have, however, is a dominant club team. There's no unifying force. But that could be changing in the near future. The arrival of NYCFC and the team's promise, yet unrealized, of a world-class stadium within the five boroughs adds gas to what had been a slow burn. The well-financed upstart is set to battle the New York Red Bulls, who are 19 years in the making and boast a beautiful $200-million stadium a PATH ride away in Harrison, New Jersey, but haven't experienced the type of success Red Bull or the league office expected, and the New York Cosmos, a re-brand of the famous franchise that once drew Pele and 77,000 fans to Giants Stadium then disappeared for three decades before returning to the second-division North American Soccer League (NASL).

It's a fight between three teams with three different ideas about how to gain supporters and influence, and a proxy battle between Emirates, Etihad, and Red Bull, three massive international corporations with eyes on getting a piece of the growing soccer market in the United States. It's a struggle each organization believes it can win. (To the victor will go lots and lots of money.) More importantly, the battle itself will boost soccer in the United States as both MLS and the NASL are desperate for successful, viable franchises in the country's biggest city. Without one, the beautiful game will remain relegated to the domestic minor leagues. The stakes are high for club and country. But in a metropolitan area that nine other major professional teams call home, not to mention the beloved squads from Europe that play weekly on television and nearly limitless other entertainment options, can any soccer team truly prevail in the battle for New York City's soccer heart and give the sport the boost it needs?

Sara D. Roosevelt Park in Chinatown. Photo by Thomas R. Stegelmann, via WikiMedia Commons

Marc de Grandpre directs commercial operations for the Red Bulls, and he looks the part. Not in a bad way: his clothes fit with a slight European flair, and he talks with the ease and confidence of a skilled salesman. De Grandpre worked for the club between 1999 and 2008 before decamping for marketing positions at IMAX and Kind only to return to Red Bull in May. The team set a record for season ticket sales in 2014 and was ahead of that pace for 2015, he told me while sitting in an office at Red Bull Arena in mid-October.

In 90 minutes, the Red Bulls would take on Toronto FC, with a win solidifying the up-and-down team's playoff position. De Grandpre made his positive pitch. "We've made a concerted effort to focus on the experience in the arena and making sure that we differentiate ourselves from everyone else. Our arena is unique to soccer," he said, a subtle shot at NYCFC and the Cosmos, who don't boast soccer-specific stadiums. "We're doing a lot of work trying to reconnect with the community and our core fans, which I think over the last six year we've made a few mistakes here and there but we're going to course correct."

While the general manager was selling a success story, the history of the Red Bulls has been anything but. They were one of MLS's inaugural teams, originally called the MetroStars, and played so-so soccer to about 15,000 fans a game in the vast confines of Giants Stadium. Red Bull took over in 2006, angering some MetroStars supporters by rebranding the entire franchise while attempting to distance themselves from the past. Attendance plummeted to 12,229 per game in 2009, but the opening of Red Bull Arena in 2010 and the arrival of French legend Thierry Henry injected life into the franchise. Still, the on-field failure continued. Despite reaching the playoffs in 14 of their first 18 seasons, the Red Bulls made it out of the quarterfinals just twice.

The impending arrival of NYCFC, however, seems to have refocused the Red Bulls. De Grandpre talks of embracing the past, of having an opportunity to tell the team's story: not just about the post-Red Bull years but about being part of soccer in New York City for going on two decades. It's a narrative braced by the time and history, one that places the Red Bulls in stark contrast to their incoming MLS competitors, who are easy to paint as an oil-funded behemoth with limitless cash but little charm. If you're a true soccer fan in New York, this version of the story goes, you should adopt the Red Bulls because of their history, MetroStars and warts and all.

Tim Hall, a long-time member of the Empire Supporters Club fan group that dates back to 1995, has seen team executives change their tune recently when it comes to the past. "I think they realize that a lot of the fans sing Metro, say Metro, think Metro, wear Metro gear, but we're also coming up on the twentieth anniversary of the league. You can't be a part of that twentieth anniversary and say 'established 2006,'" he told me over the phone while taking a break from sipping the group's traditional sangria and Sunny Delight mix at Newark's El Pastor bar. "They have come around on the concept that Metro isn't sin. It's not a vulgar word. From my mind, better late than never. It's capitalism. If they put MetroStars jerseys in the shop tomorrow, they'd be sold out tomorrow. Full stop."

American soccer fans should focus on developing their tifo skills. Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

While it hasn't yet come that far, the Red Bulls know their arena can be a differentiator until NYCFC secures a venue of their own and that they have an opportunity to win more fans with the game-day experience. More than 19,000 fans a game came to Red Bull Arena during the 2014 campaign, split 65-35 between New Jersey and the New York City area. That's a ratio de Grandpre says will work in the future. They won't cede NYC, but they also know the market is bigger than just the five boroughs.

In 2013, the Red Bulls invested in a massive marketing campaign in the city, with subway takeovers and billboards at the entrances to all tunnels baring the tagline "The Battle for New York." In 2014, that didn't happen. De Grandpre says it's coming next year in some form—the club choosing to focus on its grassroots efforts that he claims will reach an estimated 45,000 kids in the New York Metro area in 2014—but Henry won't return after the Red Bulls fell in the Eastern Conference final and 2014 leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was signed to a Designated Player contract, has a fraction of the Frenchman's star power.

De Grandpre denied rumors that the team is for sale, telling me they presented a five-year plan to company owner Dietrich Mateschitz in Austria and he had "never seen him so excited and committed to where we're going," but the New York Red Bulls remain one of 150 Red Bull properties worldwide and the company has seen its profits fall. For all the talk of stability, sporting director Andy Roxburgh is out after this season.

It's a process, one that has sped up because of increased competition. Two hours after de Grandpre and I finished speaking, English import Wright-Phillips scored the game's opening goal. In The South Ward supporters section, Hall and the rest of ESC raised a tifo with the MetroStars symbol.

The New York Cosmos also have a fraught relationship with their past, although for a different reason. In the late 1970s, the team used a successful grassroots campaign and the arrival of international superstars like Pelé, Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, and the West German defender Franz Beckenbauer to take over New York City for a few glorious years. The players dominated the NASL, drawing an average of over 46,000 fans a game to Giants Stadium in 1978 and 1979 while partying with the movie stars of the day at Studio 54. Eventually, the team and the league collapsed under the weight of immense and unsustainable contracts, but the squad holds a place in the hearts of soccer fans of a certain age.

The second iteration of the Cosmos sputtered to life between 2009 and 2012, finally returning to the field under new ownership in August 2013. The team joined the NASL, a league that offers more flexibility, after flirting with MLS. (Accounts differ on which party dropped out of negotiations first but suffice it to say that nothing got too close to materializing.) Led by Marcos Senna, a veteran of Spain's 2006 World Cup and 2008 Euro teams, the squad won the league's 2013 Soccer Bowl.

The Cosmos are attempting to honor their namesake's legacy by doing things like taking Pele as honorary president while not repeating the mistakes of the 70s. Mostly, that means keeping costs low—officials bristle when I intimate that the Cosmos have the NASL's highest payroll—while trying to build the brand from the ground up. In the club's Midtown office, which they moved to recently enough that most of the furniture is on back order (although a Pele jersey with the inscription "to my teammates" hangs on the wall), chief operating officer Erik Stover talks about the future of his born-again squad. "It's a grassroots effort," the executive who worked as managing director of the Red Bulls between 2008 and 2011, tells me. "Look at old Cosmos. It wasn't 70,000 right away. They had pretty low attendance in the beginning. Even when Pele came, it didn't shoot up to 70,000 immediately."

Pele during his heyday with the Cosmos. Photo via WikiMedia Commons

The efforts so far include sponsoring local youth teams, ticket giveaways, and more. Progress has been slow and, depending on your point of view, lacking. The name recognition helps draw fans once, but the game-day experience won't keep them returning. The Cosmos play out on Long Island at Hofstra University's James M. Shuart Stadium where the squad also played in 1972 and 1973, but attendance dropped from 6,900 in year one to 4,700 in 2014. While poor results, stemming at least in part from injuries, didn't help, the Cosmos lacked the excitement they had the first year. "We certainly expected—and budgeted for—our attendance to increase in year two," Stover admits. "We need to do a better job of drawing from the area around the stadium."

Emirates, the team's primary sponsor, remains committed and the ownership group didn't expect the process to be easy or short. Still, there's a long way to go. "I've looked at the attendance numbers and the TV ratings, and I am concerned," Jérôme de Bontin, a career soccer executive who has worked with the Red Bulls, says. "I'm concerned with the fact that they didn't draw the numbers. This summer they haven't performed on the pitch. I put the question mark in front of this issue. Are the Cosmos there for the long run? And what's going to happen for the NASL?"

A new stadium could change the Cosmos fortunes, giving people a reason to return, and they are actively working toward one. The team submitted a proposal for a site in Belmont Park, a privately-financed $400-million effort that includes 200,000-feet of retail space in addition to nine restaurants and other amenities. While Stover sounds confident in the plan, that's his job, and the proposal been in limbo for more than a year. They expect to hear a result soon. But that's been the talking point for months now. And even if the stadium does come through—a big if—will anyone come to watch a second-division team that consists of an aging European star or two and a bunch of players who couldn't latch on in MLS?

The Cosmos did get one late fall boost, signing former Spain and Real Madrid star Raul to a multi-year contract. The 37-year-old attacker will join for the spring season, both as a player and as a technical advisor for the newly opened New York Cosmos Youth Academy. He'll take over as full-time director when he retires, an aging legend putting down tentative roots with a second-division club in the NYC area.

The executive team behind NYCFC declined an interview request for this story, citing the start-up nature of their club. Given their expenditures, it's a strange position to take. But rather than be seen as the big shots who paid the then-largest ever fee for an MLS club, the team wants to position itself as an upstart fighting for legitimacy. They feel that this is a more appealing tale than that of Manchester City-lite, NYCFC as a collection of overpaid guys who can't cut it in the English Premier League playing in the U.S. either to improve until they can or collect a final paycheck and then retire.

So fine. But facts are facts, and potential fans are well aware of them. NYCFC paid $100 million to enter the league and spent millions more to hire Jason Kreis, arguably the most successful MLS coach in history, away from the dynasty he created at Real Salt Lake. They threw another massive contract at former United States national team engine Claudio Reyna to serve as technical director. The salaries of Villa and Frank Lampard alone are enough to put the team's payroll in the top five for the 2015 season. Presumably, the huge billboards in Times Square announcing the Spaniard's arrival didn't come cheap either.

NYCFC might be a squad without a full roster, but they aren't coming in quietly, despite what they might want to say. "It's strange to talk about a team becoming a dominant team without any players and several months before they kick off, but I see them becoming the dominant team [in the New York area]," Newsday's Michael Lewis told me.

A major reason for this feeling, which Lewis isn't alone in sharing, is that the team will be based within the five boroughs. Next year—and for the foreseeable future—they'll play in Yankee Stadium, which is a garbage soccer venue. It will take three days for the grounds crew to convert between soccer and baseball, but at least it is a place with which most New Yorkers are familiar. (You can't say the same about Harrison, New Jersey.)

Chance Michaels is one of the founders of The Third Rail, NYCFC's supporters group. The proximity to NYC drew him to the new team. The life-long soccer fan who owns Arsenal season tickets tried to get into the MetroStars but was turned off by the atmosphere at Giants Stadium. When he learned that a second MLS team was coming to New York, he started blogging about it and found other like-minded people online. They eventually met in person at their adopted home bar, Nevada Smith's, which is the center of soccer watching in New York City. ("I look forward to filling it with sky blue next spring," Michaels says, noting that the venue hosted their Halloween party.) They formed The Third Rail on the day the league announced NYCFC. The group has 1,200 dues paying members already, well over the 500 Michaels and his co-founders were targeting by opening kickoff.

Michaels says that supporters are coming from everywhere. "I know some people who were MetroStars fans who were soured by how that purchasing and re-branding went down. I know people who were at least casual Red Bulls fans but the prospect of having a more local team to support has been irresistible," the freelance theater producer for Off-Off-Broadway shows told me. "There's an opportunity not only to be present for the start of something but to really shape it. Soccer, more than any other sport, is really shaped by its supporters culture." The Third Rail and NYCFC worked with wary Yankee Stadium staff to ensure that the supporters sections in the left-field bleachers could be general admission, a must for a vibrant group.

While it's not hard to see NYCFC drawing well and perhaps even selling out its first few home games—capacity will be downsized to just under 34,000 for soccer matches—there is a question about how to sustain the excitement. Yankee Stadium, with its strange sight lines and field featuring strips of sod laid over the infield dirt between first and second base, makes for a poor viewing and playing experience. Are casual fans going to keep returning to the Bronx to watch soccer in less than ideal conditions? Probably not, which is why NYCFC is desperately searching for a place to put its own stadium.

Finding the money to pay for a $200 to $250-million venue is the easy part. Before the Manchester City-Yankees partnership arrived, MLS executives were trying to solve the stadium problem on their own. Councilman Francisco Moya told me he thinks they were close to settling on a site in Corona, Queens before mayoral elections and other timing issues intervened. Commissioner Don Garber recently said that "we thought we had a site in our hands; we lost it." NYCFC took over the process and has not announced anything yet, and while no one will go on record, the general consensus both inside and outside the league is that they aren't particularly close to finding a location. Money only gets you so far in the capitalist center of the United States. At the very least, they are three or four years away from having their own place to call home. That's a long time to play in Yankee Stadium.

Furthermore, the appeal of the team revolves around finding a home in NYC. At the uniform unveiling, NYCFC chief business officer Tim Pernetti said they aren't considering any options outside the city limits, Right now, the Third Rail and the rest of the team's nascent support are buying on that promise. "I have no doubt that they are committed to a stadium solution in the five boroughs, on the subway system, which is about the only condition that I myself would put on it," Michaels says. "If they go off the subways, that's potentially a big issue. I'm sure they know that, but I'm really hoping we're not still talking about the stadium when play kicks off next spring.

"But we very well might be."

Soccer in Yankee Stadium looks wrong IMO. Photo via WikiMedia Commons

MLS is growing slowly and steadily, but getting New York City right finally will help the entire league. Success in Portland, Seattle, and Kansas City is great, but New York is New York. The New York Knicks aren't important to the NBA because they are good. (They aren't.) They are vital because they are the centerpiece in the Big Apple. MLS needs a flagship presence. Likewise, a vibrant Cosmos squad that's a fraction as successful as the glory years in the 1970s would elevate NASL from a league known only to diehards into something more viable.

Right now, soccer as a sport is winning in the United States, but in most places the domestic leagues are losing to their European counterparts. When Liverpool and Manchester City play at Yankee Stadium, they outdraw the Yankees. When NYCFC hosts the Red Bulls, well, we'll see, but Cleveland Indians-level attendance might be a more realistic target. "We have to deliver the right product and that so far hasn't been there," de Bontin says.

Is the right product coming? Perhaps, but don't get too amped up. "Red Bull and any team being owned by a corporation is the opposite of organic," Shep Messing, a Cosmos legend who does broadcasting for the Red Bulls, says. "Soccer is historically a very tribal sport around the world. The whole notion of a corporation, let alone a foreign corporation that is selling a drink, owning a team is the antithesis of an organic team that is adopted by the community. I think that's almost been insurmountable to Red Bull since they bought MetroStars."

You can make the same argument about NYCFC's close affiliation with Manchester City and Sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan's oil money from the United Arab Emirates, as well the Cosmos ownership group that has close ties with Sela Sport, a marketing firm in Saudi Arabia, and Emirates Airlines. While there are millions of dollars available to anyone who can conquer the New York City market in a real way, the underlying fact is that NYC might simply be too saturated for soccer to ever become more than just another thing to do, a solid option in a sea of opportunity. The lack of ability to capitalize trickles down to the rest of the two leagues, hurting the ability to be big-time.

At Terminal 5, NYCFC business director Pernetti tried to make the case that his fledgling franchise could change the equation. Focusing on "experience" was the main talking point, the way they could compete. To pump up the crowd, which included league executives, fans, school children from "community partner" PS 111, dozens of staffers in Manchester City blue, and many, many dudes, a DJ played and someone named Frankie Flow freestyle juggled. In the front row, a man in a pigeon head danced to the hot beats under blue and white banners for NYCFC, The Third Rail, Astoria, NYCFC NJ 4, and, for some reason, Honduras. An LCD screen played a loop of images on repeat, the team's logo, a few photos, and the two important dates in the team's history: the May 21, 2013 announcement of the team and the May 22, 2013 hiring of Claudio Reyna. History, we were supposed to believe, was in the making.

Lampard, playing for Manchester City, couldn't attend the jersey unveiling, but Villa was there. Near the end of the presentation, the crowd parted and he slowly made his way up to the stage wearing the team's first-ever kit. While Twitter immediately exploded with wrath, panning how closely it hued to City's jersey, the Spanish star couldn't have known yet. He had a smile on his face, thinking about the present moment. But he understood he and his team had a long way until that first kickoff at Yankee Stadium. It was unclear if anyone knew the way.