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.
Elliott’s eBook, An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, is available for under $5 at Amazon.