Barely had I recovered from the end of the EPL season (and its sad climax for my beloved Tottenham) when I read about this. In case you haven’t heard, the sworn enemy of 250 million Americans is joining forces with everyone in England’s second-least favorite club to create a new MLS entity, to be called New York Football Club.
A glamour venture between two of the most recognizable names in world sports? With deep pockets, no less? MLS has come a long way from the Tampa Bay Mutiny (pour one out for Carlos Valderrama’s beautiful hair).
Of course, the move is not without curiosity. The league already has a team (at least nominally) in the New York area, and a founder member of MLS to boot. Several cities with no MLS team have been pining for one, and a few aren’t bad options, such as St. Louis, San Diego, Minneapolis or Atlanta (on second thought, scratch Atlanta, which has never been a good idea for any sports team, ever). MLS has always been a plucky league whose goal was to carve out a niche within the crowded sporting culture of the United States by identifying soccer-sympathetic pockets of the continent where the sport can thrive. This model, after some initial hiccups, has located Portland, Kansas City, and more recently Montreal to go with showpiece teams in Los Angeles (not Chivas USA, the other one) and New York.
The creation of NYC feels like a shift in the league’s persona. This is inherently a gamble, and one that the United States has lost before. The NASL went upscale in the seventies, and by the early eighties was a doomed, disastrous husk of a league. By the mid-eighties it was gone.
That is not to say that the MLS will suffer the same fate. The league is, if nothing else, seemingly stable, and even thriving in the locations mentioned above. Under the stewardship of Don Garber, the league has been calculated in its growth. Gone are the days when MLS teams were tenants in massive football stadiums which they could never fill. Every team has at least a home. The talent level of the league has improved dramatically, both from imports (Beckham, Henry, etc.) and the growth of American players. Things aren’t bad in MLS land. On the surface, this move is two huge corporations and one eager league taking a good thing and making it better.
But listen to your gut. Do you trust this move? I had a good talk with my gut this morning over some oatmeal, and we thrashed out some questions about NYFC. Here we go:
1. What does this mean for the Red Bulls?
New York’s team is about to become New York’s “other” team. And in case you haven’t heard, New York’s other team ain’t bad; currently tied for the league’s best record (with FC Dallas) on 24 points. But they play in Harrison, NJ, accessed by the New Jersey Turnpike. NYFC will move into Flushing Meadows park, on the 7 train. I don’t live in New York, but I know how New Yorkers feel about their travel. If the option to be entertained without leaving the boroughs is there, it wins. This one’s a no-brainer.
But with 19 million in the Metro area, New York can support two teams, right? Maybe. A quick look at the attendance figures shows that as of May 13, the Red Bulls were averaging 16,021 per home contest, just 11th of 19 MLS teams, despite playing in the third largest venue in the league. By percentage capacity, the numbers look even worse, with only three clubs filling less seats than the Red Bulls 63.6%. Furthermore, team attendance is down over 12% from 2011.
Already flagging attendance and new, more convenient competition (with mega-dollars behind it?). Despite the fact that those currently involved with the Red Bulls are saying all the right things, this could mean curtains for them over the long haul.
2. What does this mean for the league as a whole?
Um…visibility? Who the hell knows? One thing is clear, this club is not meant to be Toronto FC or Chivas USA. It’s clear, even without saying it, that Garber and the MLS brass mean for NYFC to be a flagship team, on par with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle. While the league has moved closer to a competitve balance as teams have transitioned to their own ownership groups, MLS has never been shy about locating players in advantageous spots. In the league’s youth, players were doled out on largely ethnic grounds, the better to attract fan bases rooted in those same communities in certain cities (latino communities in Florida and Southern California, traditionally Eastern European communities in Chicago, etc.). More recently, star imports have more or less “found their way” to the league’s glamour spots. Ever wonder how Thierry Henry ended up in New York? David Beckham and Robbie Keane in L.A.? Wasn’t Frank Lampard also headed there before he signed his extension with Chelsea? These don’t seem like accidents, but rather careful calculations.
Now, with another big boy entering the league fray, will the MLS become a league of haves and have-nots? Possibly. Consider Chivas USA. Initially popular upon their inclusion in the league. A club that has always felt like an altogether too direct and rather needless effort to pander to the Mexican-American community has fallen on hard times. Last in the Western Conference for the third consecutive year, they are averaging just over 8,000 per game. Similar smaller outposts like Colorado and Columbus are also struggling for fans, as the rich continue to get richer. Now, this model is well entrenched in Europe, where teams are divided into tiers upon tiers upon tiers. West Bromwich Albion doesn’t have the pretense that they are on the same level as Manchester City, Chelsea or Manchester United, despite nominally being in their league. MLS isn’t supposed to work like that. Theoretically, Chivas USA is supposed to be on the same level as the Galaxy. In reality, they already seem to be a cut below NYFC, a club that won’t play a game for another two years. For the same reason that Garber has rejected the promotion/relegation model, MLS cannot afford a de facto caste system. Without the pretense of balance that is central to our sporting experience (Major League Baseball notwithstanding), fans will disappear and teams like Chivas USA will likely not survive. That being said, MLS appears to be sliding that way, all in the name of visibility. That could be to its detriment.
3. Why Manchester City?
Why not Manchester United? They have always seemed like the European counterweight to the Yankees. Both are behemoths. Both have a truckload of titles to point to, and the global brand that comes with success in this era of sports. On top of that, United sports American owners. They seem like the most logical business partner for MLS to leech onto.
That being said, United has been under a questionable financial cloud since the Glazers took hold in 2005. While the team continues to make money hand-over-fist, no one besides perhaps Malcolm Glazer seems to know exactly where it is going. A bizarre and ultimately lukewarm stock float last year confirmed United’s status as an enigma in terms of global finance, even while the team continues to bag EPL titles on the field.
City on the other hand, appears to be a bottomless pit of money. Nouveau-riche owner Sheik Mansour bought the team in 2008 and has splayed cash around on players and toys at a rate that could generously be described as “reckless.” Before the 2011-12 season, City spent more on new players than the rest of the EPL combined (in doing so, they also bought themselves the 2012 title). Mansour has spent this money like a man who never fears going broke, mainly because that’s exactly what he is.
However, new European financial regulations may be driving Mansour and City’s ambitions. FIFA’s Fair Play financial initiative, the brainchild of former French midfield maestro and current president of EUFA, Michel Platini, theoretically could punish any club without balanced financial books by banning them from elite club competitions. City, with its early nineties MC Hammer-esque financial model, has some of the least balanced books in Europe.
The Fair Play regulations are more complicated than a Joyce novel, so to save a long explanation (which I do not have the wherewithal to deliver anyhow) I’ll say this, one of the ways to circumvent the policy is by investing in business matters tangential to the day-to-day running of a football that show a profit on their own. These profits are then factored in to the total business output of a club, mitigating the bloated spending of a club like Manchester City.
Therefore, the optimistic fan could look at City’s investment in NYFC as a major financial boost to MLS, while the cynic could point out that this investment is an underhanded way to offset club-crippling financial debt. Before you ask yourself what the difference is, think of it this way. Will City be running NYFC as a club that they actually want to win, or as essentially an easy tax write-off? That motivation could drive the success of the venture as a whole, and the results likely won’t be known until it is too late.
So, as Manchester City and the New York Yankees put ink down on the creation of a sports supergroup, is it a brilliant business investment or boondoggle? The brave new future of MLS or the indicator of a wide financial chasm in American soccer? The next few years will tell us a lot about the future of soccer in the United States.