Is NYC the El Dorado of MLS?

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For decades, the National Football League has dreamed of a successful franchise in the TV-friendly city of Los Angeles. As the United State’s second largest city, demographics suggest an NFL team could thrive there. However, the last professional team, the Rams, left town in 1994 and headed to St. Louis. A website dedicated to “bringing back the Rams” hasn’t had a new post since July 2012. The current commish consistently gives inconsistent statements about whether an LA team is on the perpetual horizon.

Thus, LA is the NFL’s El Dorado – a mythical town of gold that appears perfect, but is impossible to find or enter. Given the hype and rumors about a second MLS team in NYC, I ask – is the Big Apple in similar territory?

First, a bit more history. The LA Rams actually existed for several decades, from the 1940′s until the 1990′s. In fact, the Rams enjoyed sporting success in the 1950′s and one of their executives, Pete Rozelle, weaved magic with the relatively new invention called “television” to keep up a glamorous image of the franchise long after the trophies dried up. However, in the 1980′s, the team moved to Anaheim. In the 1990′s, the team entered a downspiral of losery, and, as became the modern trend, blamed its problems on a stadium. More specifically, the lack of a sweetheart deal from the public purse in constructing a new one. Thus, they moved to St. Louis in 1994 and have never looked back.

Enter New York and MLS. The New York Red Bulls, formerly the MetroStars (and Empire Soccer Club technically), have existed since the league’s inception. Like most MLS teams, they originally played before an almost empty NFL arena: Giants Stadium. Attendance was poor, and the team failed to win consistently. That’s despite a who’s who list of former coaches including Carlos Quieroz, Carlos Alberto Parreira, and Bora Multinovic. In 2006, Red Bull bought the team, changed the name and logo, and promised an era of heavy investment. In 2010, the team moved to a lush soccer-specific stadium. They even signed only-slightly-aged world class players like Thierry Henry.

The result? Playoff appearances, but little more. Even former USMNT coaches Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, folks who are normally intimately familiar with the US soccer landscape and unique nuances like “salary caps,” could not bring home an MLS Cup. And both Arena and Bradley have won MLS Cups elsewhere, with tighter purse strings. Red Bull Arena enjoys seating capacity for 25,000 fans. However, the average attendance for the last three years has been around 18,794. That figure is good compared to the rest of the league and also compared to the team’s last five years at Giants Stadium, but there’s still 7,000 empty seats on game day.

Of course, nobody points at the Red Bulls when they talk of a second NYC team. Instead, they hark back to the glorious NY Cosmos team of the NASL-era. In the late 1970′s, the Cosmos signed Pele and, not surprisingly, increased media interest and attendance dramatically. Pele also legitimized the team and paved the way for the arrival of more foreign players, including Giorgio Chinaglia. The team won trophies and played to a packed house. So the story goes, the Cosmos reached an unfathomable pinnacle of soccer interest and success. At least by American standards.

However, a closer look reveals cracks in the facade. Before Pele’s arrival, the team played at the lowly Downing Stadium, which was closed and demolished in 2002. For Pele’s first game, the groundsman had to spray paint green the field in order to camouflage the lack of grass. Shortly after Pele’s retirement in 1977, NYC and league attendance dropped and the league lost its television contract. The league and team folded in 1984.

From these two clubs and their histories, we get two common narratives. One: NYC is a “soccer town” just waiting to be unearthed. “Two” the failure of the NY Red Bulls to replicate the Cosmos and  turn NYC into a soccer town is due to mismanagement, not external factors. Both narratives, though, suffer from serious gaps in logic.

First, if NYC was a “soccer town,” then how come the Cosmos only drew crowds when they had Pele as a player? Could a second NYC team accomplish a similar signing? I’m highly skeptical that in the next ten years any MLS club will sign the best player in the planet just after his prime. Also, the MLS’ talking point has been tread softly, slowly, and with caution – the NASL (and the Cosmos) went bust because it spent too much money, too quickly. This now leads to the NYRB narrative.

Let’s assume the NYRB have done some things right. Like most franchises in big cities, they spend lots of money on good players and coaches, but sometimes things don’t gel. What can a second MLS franchise possibly do better? Sign a better forward than Thierry Henry? Have a stadium actually in NYC? The second is a definite yes. And that may help draw more crowds and create more buzz. However, I’m not sold. Just look at LA for two team MLS situations. The example of Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center rings a bell. Granted, that was and is a shared stadium situation. Still, if LA struggles to support two teams (Chivas had pretty poor attendance), then why wouldn’t New York?

From a cynical perspective, a second New York team will merely over-saturate an unprofitable market. Optimists may hope for a “rivalry” ala the Yankees/Mets and Islanders/Rangers, however, don’t expect any alleged Queens team to replicate the Cosmos (I’ll leave for another day whether that would even be a good idea). Soccer interest in the US and NYC is growing, but this seems like the wrong step at the wrong time.

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24 thoughts on “Is NYC the El Dorado of MLS?

    • Let’s hope that comparison is preposterous! It’s easy to forget all the “Chivas franchise” buzz at the time when the USA goats were born….

      • Where the comparison falls short is that Chivas USA *intentionally* tried to slice off a small piece of the marketplace (not Latinos, not even Mexican-Americans, but specifically Chivas fans). . . and then to top that off failed to provide the product that they implied they would (ie only a handful of Liga MX players over several years of existence) and that this slice would expect.

        And after all that, half of all the games on MLS’s Spanish-language national soccer package next year will *still* feature Chivas USA, as they make one more last-ditch run at their original premise by hiring Chelis.

        • But what is NYC #2′s hook? Just the fact they are in Queens, not New Jersey? Where is the MLS market that they are slicing off? I want and hope for the best, but am not sure a change in stadium zip code will ignite a firestorm of attendance and interest.

          • It seems simple enough to me, one’s the west side of town, one is the east side (whereas right now, LA and CUSA play in the very same stadium). Nobody has been going from Nassau County to New Jersey to watch a game.

  1. I feel the main reason why the Red Bulls have 7,000 empty seats every match is because they play in the middle of no where NJ. According to my NY friends, you have to catch a train that runs pretty sparsely and then when you get to NJ you actually have to take a cab because the closest station isn’t quite in walking distance. I feel the MLS and The NYRB FO are to blame and should have put a little more thought into the question “Would someone from NY support a NY club based in NJ”

    • In Reddit, a commentator pointed out that the NY NFL franchise(s) (?) use stadiums in NJ and have had success. Is that not the case? Why would soccer be different?

      • Also, plenty of teams play far away from the center of their major metropolitan area. Look at PPL park in Chester. Just as far away for most fans as Harrison is for RBNY supporters, and it doesn’t even have legit public transit going there.

      • The hook is, it may not even be different. NFL franchises might draw two and a half times as much in NYC as NJ too, for all we know. And we never will, because no stadium will ever be built that big.

      • New York has two NFL franchises – the Jets and the Giants. Both play in New Jersey.

        The only team to play in New York state is the Buffalo Bills.

    • “According to my NY friends, you have to catch a train that runs pretty sparsely and then when you get to NJ you actually have to take a cab because the closest station isn’t quite in walking distance.”

      You have to catch the PATH train – which runs every 5-10 minutes – from WTC, which is in close proximity to something like 12 subway lines. When you get to Harrison after the 15-20 minute train ride, you walk 5 minutes and you’re at the stadium.

      Your friends are remarkably misinformed.

    • As someone who attends RBNY matches and lives in Manhattan, the claim that you have to take a cab from the closest train station is not even remotely true. In fact, if your friends think that, I challenge that they’ve even been to the stadium before. Every fan who leaves from the PATH station walks to the stadium. It’s about four blocks away. In attending matches over the course of the last two seasons, I can’t remember seeing anyone use a cab.

      And if the PATH isn’t convenient for someone, they could also take NJ Transit or Amtrak to Newark Penn Station. The stadium is about a mile away (15 min walk). The supporters groups usually get off there so they can walk through the Ironbound to their various bars.

      The only population of people it might be hard for is drivers. At the moment, there aren’t many options for parking in Harrison.

  2. Can’t compare Chivas to NYC2. Chivas plays in the same stadium as LA. NYC2 will play on the opposite side of Manhattan to Red Bulls. Chivas is being treated like a farm team for a slightly better league. So their level of play is lower than the rest of MLS.

    • Chivas USA is admittedly a drastic example, but, at the time, everybody read LA’s love of the Galaxy as being translated to “LA is a soccer town.” Either that is not the case, or the “x town is a soccer town” narrative has major holes in it.

  3. I think a second team in NY is not a great idea these days. I also think that it is unfortunate that RBNY play in such a nice stadium surrounded by nothing. I really looks so dank and horrible around that stadium. Now, I’ve only seen pictures and when on the Amtrak coming up from Baltimore but you need thinks around the stadium to make it popular. The Islanders on Long Island have the same problem whereas there is nothing around that arena.

    Let RBNY get some fans and maybe in 10-15 years expand.

    • That time frame sounds reasonable to me. Instead, MLS and the Cosmos appear locked in a race. To where? We don’t know.

  4. The fact that New York Red Bull’s attendance is better than a lot of other teams in the league is not technically true either. Look at Seattle, they have massive crowds almost every home game, and filled up with over 60,000 fans against the Portland Timbers in a regular season game. Also, the Portland Timbers had a full sell out season, although their stadium only holds I believe a little over 18,000, if their stadium was to hold 25,000, they’d easily fill the stadium over 20,000 average for every game. Kansas City also draws good crowds like New York Red Bulls and so does the Houston Dynamo for most of the season.

  5. Really, really wish the Red Bulls didn’t call themselves “New York.” Harrison is wonderfully placed for New Jersey fans – good access to the Turnpike, Parkway and I-280. Not bad from Rt 3 or Rt 17. The public transportation to/from New York is another issue. While the WTC PATH station is close to TriBeCa and the Financial District, that’s not where the fans live. Coming from the outer boroughs, it’s a real pain in the rear to get back, because neither the PATH nor the MTA run all that frequently at 10:00 on a Saturday night. It takes my co-workers from Brooklyn upwards of an hour and a half to get home after a Wednesday night game. The Red Bulls are not a New York team. A team in Queens would be a New York team.

  6. I think soccer has a lot of potential in New York. The comparisons to Los Angeles just don’t hold up: it’s a very different city, in a very different part of the country. Plus, I don’t think anything can compare with the madness of Chivas USA (what MLS is even thinking with that dysfunctional franchise is beyond me — move them to Arizona, Nevada, the Southeast, or just demote them to NASL/USL!).

    New York has a lot to offer: a city whose name sells itself, a vibrant population that loves its sports and would love to cheer for a local team (granted, New Yorkers demand perfection…), branding power, the works. Even if legend of the Cosmos is indeed a myth, it’s a powerful one that can do a great deal for American soccer. And if the Red Bulls can get 18,000+ fans in, that’s not too bad. The Northwest is pretty flashy about their attendance numbers, but these aren’t bad numbers for a “disappointing” team.

    Like other commentators noted, the problem with the Red Bulls is that they aren’t in the city itself and getting there is a hassle. If Manhattan were a soccer hotspot, it wouldn’t be so bad. But the real passionate fans are in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island (i.e. where regular people can live affordably). Red Bull Arena’s great for the Jersey crowd or for those who live in lower Manhattan. But for someone like me, who lives in Nassau County, there’s no way that I’ll spend 2+ hours commuting to Jersey for a 90-minute game and then spending 2+ hours coming back to Long Island. I wouldn’t even go for a USA National team game, though that’s more because those tend to look like away games. I’d rather travel out to Columbus or Kansas City for those, especially if the RBA experience is anything like what happened in that friendly between AS Roma and Ecuador. Granted, you can’t guarantee that same thing won’t happen this city-based stadium (I gnashed my teeth when the Queens legislators stupidly commented that they would only watch Barcelona or other national teams), but I can dream. But the locations in Belmont or Flushing — great for both driving or mass transit, and used to handling large volumes of people — are both great and convenient for most people. I also heard an option for Greenpoint, but that’s in Brooklyn and it goes against every fiber of my being to support a “Brooklyn” as opposed to a “New York” team.

    Plus, with everything from games to grassroots media events happening largely in New Jersey and lower Manhattan, there’s not going to be a lot of attention from the NYC media. I don’t think many New Yorkers (certainly very few in Nassau) know that we even HAVE a soccer team. I didn’t until 2 years ago, and I’ve lived here my whole life. Most coverage is limited to the Internet or Spanish-language television and when it isn’t…well, you aren’t going to get a lot of people hooked with constant recriminations of not having won a trophy in 17 years. Those guys will cheer start looking to the EPL or La Liga or some other league.

    A lot of commentators mention the Giants and Jets — people, you’re talking the wrong football! Those franchises had generations to garner their large fanbases, while MLS is just 16 years old. You hear stories of whole families, grandparents down to great-grandkids, going to those games, not unlike the other great sporting institution here: baseball. Plus, the schedule is much different: there are much fewer NFL games compared to MLS games, so people are willing to head out there no matter the conditions. And, lastly, in terms of demographics, a lot of the football fans that once lived in the outer boroughs or Long Island did move out to New Jersey anyway. You could say that the majority of the fanbase ended up moving with the franchise. You cannot compare American football with American soccer.

    Do I think another New York team will work? Yes. The Red Bulls should welcome it because it’ll draw more attention to them. And it won’t divide up the fanbase too much since most of the Red Bulls fanbase actually IS in New Jersey. What will most likely happen is that the Red Bulls will take New Jersey, Manhattan, Staten Island, west Brooklyn, and maybe the Bronx. NY2 or the Cosmos will likely take Queens, Nassau, Suffolk, and east Brooklyn. And who said a rivalry was a bad thing? It works well for most New York teams. So long as the NY2 owner avoids doing a Chivas USA — essentially not looking to represent all locals in the area/city, but trying to appeal to a small and fickle ethnic subset — I think it has a good chance of succeeding. The new Cosmos management seems to have the right idea so far with steady growth and looking to either future top-flight expansion or revolutionizing the NASL.

    This guy had an interesting idea for New York soccer that’s worth looking at to solve this “El Dorado” issue as well: http://www.soccernewsday.com/usa/a/43/nyc-needs-derbies-not-a-superclub

    That said, it would be awesome if whatever new soccer stadium that is built in New York (proper) is nicknamed “El Dorado.” Or if a New York-based derby (Red Bulls, Cosmos, Brooklyn Italians, Long Island Rough Riders) was called that.

    • Appreciate the thoughts. Lots of folks look at the NY/NJ divide, forget that NYC has lots of different Burroughs and what’s convenient for the NYC students in Greenwich Village is not so convenient for folks in Long Island.