I read with bemusement, the story that Manchester City had announced a partnership with New York Yankees with the intention of creating an all new franchise, a “New York City Football Club”, to compete in the MLS. I’ve been involved in the North American game for quite some time and I must say I’m very surprised that this decision has been taken but, then again, taking into account that City have the financial backing to do whatever they want, I wasn’t surprised that it has probably been encouraged by people in power in the MLS.
My first thought was – three football clubs in New York? Really? Is it sustainable? That might sound like a bit of a daft question – New York is huge, compared to London, which has plenty of professional clubs. English football has a structure, a traditional hierarchy, and a proper system in place whereby over time those clubs – however modest in size – have earned prestige and a place in the tradition of the game due to their contribution to it.
I’m not saying these things for the sake of it, but when events like this hit the news, it really makes me wonder what they’re trying to do with the game. It all feels a little bit like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. I’ll run through the clubs to show you exactly what I mean.
You have New York Cosmos – if there is a team in the North American game that has a history of excellence and a name you would know, it is usually the Cosmos. They were revived three years ago and very little has hit the mainstream media since. Eric Cantona was brought in to spearhead a global promotion and since then, what has happened? After three years, the Cosmos are in a position to be playing in the NASL – which is the equivalent of the Second Division, or the “Championship” in new money. It has taken a lot of time and effort to get them to this stage and they will take part with other reborn clubs with names you might recognise such as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers or the Tampa Bay Rowdies. No matter how well they do, they won’t gain promotion to MLS, because there is not a conventional system for promotion or relegation in the North American game.
These things aren’t governed by merit, they’re governed by the dollar, and Cosmos haven’t quite got the entry fee to be permitted entry to the MLS. I could go on for hours about the financial regulations crippling the game and restricting natural talent but this article is solely on the New York “clubs”. The Cosmos will hopefully continue to survive at this lower level until they benefit from a windfall – the new proposed franchise between Manchester City and the Yankees only go to show what a hollow shell it all is. There’s no substance, no culture, no tradition, it’s merely an attempt from already cash-rich people to try and tap into a market with no idea of how they’re doing it. What happens when people lose interest? That’s what happens if there’s no natural interest in the game, instant success, or a prolonged period of glamour and success. They’re looking at something that will be attractive in the next two or three years but without a standard of excellence throughout the league and a proper structure then how can it be properly sustained? The Cosmos announced a while back they want to build they want to build a complex including a stadium with chairman Seamus O’Brien playing hardball about the entry fee to the MLS, or “the expansion fee” as it’s known.
The New York Red Bulls, as they’re now known, were around at the start of the MLS and over a period of time and hard work – and, of course, money – they are now in a position where you could arguably compare them to the Cosmos of old, able to attract top European stars nearing the end of their careers but still capable of playing to a high standard. It’s understandable that in a city like New York you’ll have the money men wanting a piece of it but you simply can’t build something like that, click your fingers and replicate it under the gimmick that they’ll be the first team based “in the City”. It will be overplayed, a lot of talk and money thrown at something that will struggle to establish itself in the real world of the game. You can’t saturate the market – look at how long it’s taken the Cosmos to get to a position where they can just compete. The Red Bulls are established but their crowds have not been great recently. Grant Wahl made a startling observation about the Cosmos when he visited there last year – there were just six employees in their HQ, as opposed to thirty when it was re-formed in 2010.
That’s the North American game in a nutshell – the Red Bulls and this new franchise fighting it out for the prestige, the Cosmos has the prestige but it has nowhere to go! It’s a big facade, it feels like the Cosmos was brought back merely as a marketing tool. They can sell merchandise because the Cosmos are back, but they’re not really – meanwhile, you have the MLS themselves speaking about creating a franchise and where a stadium should be built, encouraging business people to bid to create a club. Why not concentrate on the ones that are suffering already? You can’t put your fingers in your ears or your hands over your eyes, play dumb and pretend it isn’t happening – it is happening, and the solution is not to move on and build something more flashy.
Of course, none of the above is concentrating on the actual sport. The sport of football. I’ve said before that there has been too much emphasis on trying to “Americanize” the game to make it palatable for audiences and crowds but football simply doesn’t thrive in an environment where you abandon tradition and consistency for a quick fix and glamour – if you’re serious about development of the game, then you have to make it a game that all can play and you need to give towns everywhere a chance of creating clubs that can compete, and dream of achieving. O’Brien has the right ideas about a long term strategy to rebuild the Cosmos as a club rather than simply a franchise but what good is honest work when those in power of the “top” league are essentially cherry picking what they think is good for the game – which, as is plainly evident, is what makes most money.
New York, New York, New York – anyway you look at it, you can only predict half empty stadiums after the excitement of throwing money at it has wound down. The MLS are a company, dictating what clubs should do and wanting to even govern how one should be created – it’s all artificial. If they are serious about long term interest in the game and real glamour then instead of dishing out the orders, they should take a long hard look at themselves.