A second Major League Soccer team in New York City has long been the ambition of commissioner Don Garber. There have been months of speculation, ranging from the discovery in January that variations on the name of the New York City FC team had been registered as domain names, to a recent heavy-handed allusion Commissioner Garber made to there being an announcement expected in a few weeks — widely taken as a reference to the forthcoming Manchester City vs Chelsea friendly at Yankee Stadium.
Yet the sudden confirmation that City, and as it turns out the Yankees, would be the owners of the so-called NY2 team, instantly changed the complexion of NY2 from a concept seemingly stuck in a permanent holding pattern, into a tangible entity that, if not exactly cleared for landing, now has a chance to finalize its touchdown in Queens.
There are still obstacles left in what has been a long game of bluff and counter-bluff in New York, that has become further complicated by the traditional saber-rattling that precedes a mayoral election. The proposed site for the new team's stadium is in the symbolic immigrants' heartland of Queens, and involves the complicated issue of MLS replacing parkland that will be displaced by the building of a 25,000-seater stadium. It's a topic that's prompted local protests, but so far has not ignited debate within the mayoral race, with candidates mostly waiting to see what definite developments would take place. Today's news may force the hands of some of those candidates to come out definitively for or against the proposed Flushing Meadows stadium that is due to become New York City FC's home.
Certainly MLS have lobbied extensively within the city to build the new stadium (the initial model for the deal was that whoever purchased the 20th MLS franchise for $100 million would then help build the stadium at the site identified and brokered by MLS). Of the amounts paid to lobbyists registered with the city treasury last year, MLS-related consultants represented the largest dollar amount. MLS claims many of these were architectural and legal consultants rather than lobbyists per se, but Garber's intense commitment to forcing NY2 through has long been apparent, even if skepticism persists about the ability of MLS to crack a crowded media market with 10 existing major sports teams.
Certainly the current New York franchise, the New York Red Bulls, have at times limped along, despite a state-of-the-art new stadium of their own and the signings of marquee players like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. Publicly the Red Bulls have welcomed the prospect of a second New York team to ignite a rivalry, though their commercial manager Jerome de Bontin made critical comments about the likelihood of a second franchise succeeding just after his appointment last year.
The Red Bulls, famously, have never won anything, and in a league where forced parity reigns (financial fair play — of sorts), there is no guarantee that even the might of Manchester City and the New York Yankees will ensure the kind of winning team that draws crowds. In the 1970's, with no such restrictions, the New York Cosmos prompted an unsustainable arms race in the NASL when media mogul Steve Ross ran the club as a plaything and brought the likes of Pele, Beckenbauer and Chinaglia — and crucially titles — to New York City. Other clubs tried to follow suit and the NASL flared and died in the aftermath — for a long time existing only as a cautionary tale for MLS executives.
The Cosmos actually played some of their games at the old Yankee stadium, and the revived version of the team have engaged with a long flirtation with MLS over NY2 — even possibly trying a little brinksmanship of their own by announcing plans for their own stadium at Belmont Park. They now face an immediate future as a familiar if not formidable brand within the revived, second-tier North American Soccer League. NY3 seems wishful thinking.
Those Cosmos games were not the only soccer games at the old stadium, with international exhibitions a regular feature there until the mid-1970's. The George Steinbrenner years ended that, and in fact City's game with Chelsea at the new Yankee Stadium this Saturday is only the second soccer game to take place at a Yankee Stadium since that period, in a revised stance. The first was last year's friendly between Chelsea and PSG. Beyond that revived interest in hosting/promoting the active involvement of the Yankees in the new City deal is an eyebrow-raising one, not least since the Yankees last active involvement with a soccer team was a commercial tie in with Manchester United.
City's plans may have been a barely secret in recent weeks, but the degree of the Yankees involvement, while as yet undefined, will be intriguing. With the stadium still up in the air and the new team scheduled to begin play in just under two years, there will be an interim period where they must play their home games somewhere. It's possible that may include dates at Yankee stadium, though community activists opposed to the loss of parkland may prove nothing compared to the wrath of baseball purists when confronted with repeated replacements of the pitching mound.
Speaking at a hastily convened press conference on Tuesday and asked about the difficulties in getting across the finish line in Queens, the Yankees president Randy Levine said "Yankee Stadium is a potential place to play" while insisting that the partners would step back and assess all options, including Queens. Certainly having the major player in a competitive market as a minority business partner certainly shouldn't hurt City's chances of success with this venture, even if the Yankees' partnership with United didn't appear particularly transformative for either party.
City sources might quietly assert that they have a different mindset to United when doing business. United have led the way in commercial tie-ins worldwide — dividing up marketplaces and setting up complicated tiered sponsorship deals. They are floated on the NYSE and are in the process of setting up an East coast office in the US. Backed by billionaire Sheikh Mansour, City arrive in MLS legitimately able to point to investment in grass roots funding of the game, including the recent investment in a soccer school in Washington D.C. and prior to that, in New York's Spanish Harlem. These schools are seen in part as outposts of a ground-up mentality that may have been arrived at by expensive consultation and research into worldwide best practices, but which have nonetheless been heavily invested in, in apparently good faith, by the City ownership — most obviously in the 80 acre training/academy complex in Eastlands, that City see as key to their longevity as a top flight club. For all United's noted promotion and celebration of youth, City arrive in the MLS scene making all the right noises for a league that has prided itself on cautious growth.