MLS, Manchester City, Yankees take risk with New York City FC
Five thoughts on the announcement that Manchester City and the New York Yankees will own an MLS expansion team called New York City FC, expected to become MLS' 20th team in 2015 ...
• The surprise here is the Yankees. In a move that heralds nearly $500 million in new investment into MLS -- including a $100 million expansion fee and a $340 million stadium -- the 17-year-old league has added Middle Eastern petrodollars in the biggest of ways thanks to Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour. We've known for months that Man City was one of the leading candidates to own NYCFC, but what we didn't know was that the Yankees would also be involved as a minority owner. In theory, the Yankees' affiliation will help provide additional clout to get the deal done for a new stadium for this team. But there will be questions. The Yankees used to have an affiliation with Manchester United, City's rival, but that deal didn't bring about anything of substance. On paper, the Yankees will have a much bigger role in this project, but we'll have to wait and see how their influence is used.
• Man City, the Yankees and MLS are placing a big bet here. Make no mistake, this is the biggest MLS announcement since David Beckham signed with Los Angeles in January 2007. For 17 years, MLS has mainly been about slow and steady growth in an effort to avoid making the same over-spending and over-expansion mistakes that killed the old NASL. The cornerstones of that conservative strategy have been MLS' single-entity business model -- the league owns all contracts, and teams don't bid against each other for players -- and a penny-pinching salary cap. But the reins started being loosened with the Beckham Rule in 2006, allowing for up to three big-name Designated Players per team, and you can be sure that NYCFC's owners will be part of a growing chorus to allow even more spending. Is that risky? Heck yes; it's still soccer in America. But this announcement may also be heralding a realization that you have to spend money to make money if you're MLS.
• Where will the team start off playing in 2015? NYCFC will be staging its games in an "interim venue" when it kicks off in 2015, but the club needs to have a good stadium situation so that it doesn't start off on the wrong foot. Just speculating here, but possibilities would include Yankee Stadium, MetLife Stadium and Red Bull Arena. Remember, though, this project may involve a lot of money, but it's not a slam-dunk success. The New York Red Bulls, who play their games in Harrison, N.J., don't fill their gorgeous soccer stadium for a team that includes Thierry Henry and still seem like they're on the periphery of the New York sports landscape. The last thing MLS needs is not one but two NYC-area teams that don't draw very well.
• This move has a lot to do with TV ratings. MLS' national TV ratings have plateaued for years at the 0.2/0.3 level, which is lower than the ratings of most TV Scrabble broadcasts. What's more, the widespread TV availability of higher-profile leagues from around the world is putting more pressure than ever on MLS to upgrade the quality of its games in comparison and entice more Americans to watch on the tube. It's no coincidence that NYCFC will start play in 2015, which is the first year of MLS' new round of TV contracts. MLS' current deals with ESPN, NBC Sports and Univision all run out at the end of the 2014 season. Perhaps the addition of NYCFC will help bring more buzz to the league -- and more eyeballs for its TV carriers.
• What does this mean for the New York Cosmos? The wild card in the New York City soccer equation continues to be the revived version of the Cosmos, the old NASL powerhouse that featured Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer. The new version begins play in August in the second-tier NASL with games at Hofstra University. But the Cosmos have big plans of their own, including the construction of a fancy soccer stadium, which makes you wonder if New York City has enough interest to support three teams and three stadiums, much less two of each.