NYC needs Derbies not a Superclub

For New York City to become a soccer city; looking to London’s geographic tribalism may be a better idea than one non-central superclub for all
by Mike Firpo   |   Monday, January 02, 2012

New York Cosmos should come to MLS, but not as a superclub

It won’t be an easy proposition turning New York City into a “soccer city”. It may not even be likely in most of our lives. But it is possible eventually. The recipe for such a transformation hasn’t been written nor would it be precise because every city is different, times change and competition for passion and entertainment always exists.

Perhaps creating a superclub in New York is not the answer to making New York gaga over the MLS brand of soccer. Yes, it works for baseball with the Yankees playing the perennial superclub and sharing the spoils with the other teams, but honestly that’s not healthy nor fun for most fans outside of the pinstripe-loving citizens of New York.

MLS is thankfully based on the parity of the NFL, the hugely successful NFL. However, soccer is played more often, longer and has more games so the MLS can’t have only 8 home regular season games. So rare event-like matches like the NFL aren’t realistic. MLS would be more akin to Europe if they grow correctly with matches on the weekend and a healthy dose of mid-week continental or domestic cup competitions to fill in the voids between home matches every two weeks. It’s a lot, but it’s what pays the bills in Europe, the pinnacle of the club soccer worldwide, and likely seems the course the league and much of the world is now on.

Before the shakeup of the British senior management at the resurrected New York Cosmos in October, it was stated that they would become a major club, a club for the nation and the world, like their white-and-green predecessors did in the days of Studio 54. The problem is MLS was still apprehensive of that as it was built on not just parity, but shared ownership of the league. Having a superclub or a few of them like many soccer leagues worldwide or even the American NBA (Lakers) or MLB (Yankees) would be detrimental to the entire business model of the league. MLS Commissioner Garber mentioned a few times that the new NY Cosmos would have to accept MLS’ rules and how they do business, not the other way around, in order to be selected as an expansion club.

In order to get back on MLS’ good side, Cosmos officials soon started refocusing their public plans to stadium acquisition and youth development instead of grandiose ideas of bringing in the world’s current Pele (it’s only Messi and he isn’t for sale yet) and reliving the glory days of trophies and pop-culture acceptance gone-by.

So even the leaders of the reborn NY Cosmos, the most popular soccer club in North American history, had to check their ambitions and realize that a superclub might not be right for MLS according to how the league is structured and certainly not at this part of its history.

With most MLS clubs owning or managing their own stadiums now and controlling more of the revenue streams they used to clamor for as lowly tenants, it’s debatable whether a MLS with one or two (LA Galaxy) superclubs could sink the entire league even if a players arms race began. MLS’ past collective decision making seems to point to them leaning away from superclubs, preferring parity. So it may not even really be an option. Historically the first club to win with costly DPs was the 2011 LA Galaxy and they were far from the level of dominance that say Barcelona or Real Madrid wield in a currently unlevel Spanish playing field.

So if New York City can’t have a superclub, what’s the answer? How do you captivate the populace of the gigantic NY metro area with just one average club?

The answer exists already: Tribalism.

Looking to London

The English have the world’s most successful soccer league. It captivates much of the planet most weekends. Amazingly it isn’t even the league with the best soccer, that arguably would have to go to Spain’s La Liga with its higher technical play and more allowance for skill over what might be more accepted physicality in England, Italy, Germany or the USA.

Besides the good players on show in the EPL, there is another reason for the global love affair with the English top league: the passion of the “supporters” in intimate stadiums creating intense atmospheres. There is much to be said for people wanting to be part of an event and what seems a spectacle (see the NFL). The English passion combined with crammed fans in tight stadiums creates the image of success others love to see and be part of. It’s the same reason that you generally want to eat in a crowded restaurant over an empty one or why it’s much more fun for neutrals to watch the Seattle Sounders play in a packed CenturyLink Field rather than sparsely populated New England Revolution games. 

To see the local EPL fans close to the field yelling, standing, singing their club’s songs and going thru the full range of the emotions as they support their local club is something quite special.

Clubs throughout London

The English are a tribal bunch and about their “football” they are even moreso. No place in their soccer landscape displays that tribalism more than London. There are 14 professional clubs in Greater London, 8 alone are in the top two divisions of the English soccer pyramid. 7 of those 8 play in stadiums with capacities of over 20,000. Some clubs are even located in close proximity as both Chelsea and Fulham play in West London, Chelsea actually plays IN Fulham, not Chelsea. Both play not far from QPR (in the EPL this season). North London claims Arsenal and Tottenham, South London has Millwall and Charlton and East London is home to West Ham and others. All in all, London is full of clubs representing their local turf for national trophies, world fame, sporting honor and certainly not to be undervalued: local bragging rights. Historically most London clubs were named after the district they were from or were founded in. Arsenal is one of the only English clubs not to have a geographic reference in its name. In England it’s truly about representing your home, not your franchise name or mascot. The clubs are intertwined with their communities.

When you ask most English why they think it’s OK to have so many foreigners in the EPL, the most common answer you’ll find points to that not being as significant a factor as those players getting “stuck-in” or fighting for their badge. It’s the badge which represents the area, the community, the people … the tribe.

The passion the English have for the game they’ve been playing for hundreds of years has been duplicated most everywhere they brought the game. Though some nations like Germany are mostly one club per city leagues, there is no policy enforcing that and even the Bundesliga has huge city-vs-city and regional derbies.

One of the key reasons for soccer becoming the world’s top spectator sport comes down to the passion that comes with the derbies. Local rivalries, maybe more than any other single factor, makes professional soccer succeed. Well certainly in London. So why not New York?

British Soccer Tribalism in the Big Apple

New York is a big multiethnic city that is in constant flux. Like everything else, not only club but sport allegiances change as the demographics and immigration patterns shift. Swathes of Brooklyn aren’t dominated by Italians immigrants these days, Germans don’t occupy midtown much anymore and Russians won’t be in Brighton Beach forever. Times change and in New York, more than most places in the world, the people change. Today there are loads of soccer-loving Colombians in Queens, a thriving Polish community in Green Point Brooklyn and Greeks still claim Astoria as a mini-Athens. Add lots of new immigrants from Asia and Africa and you can see that it’s not just the shop awnings that change in NYC, but the people too. And they will continue to change as the beautiful tapestry of New York is constantly re-sewn on top of itself.

Soccer in NYC did the ethnic league and club thing in decades gone by and we’ve seen how that plays out on these shores and in soccer-similar Australia. If not switched to non-ethnic policies, these clubs and leagues generally become decaying remnants of immigrant waves gone by. In a few more decades the Brooklyn Italians will make about as much sense to the wider general public as a club named the German-Hungarians does today. Things, times and patterns change, so sports clubs are obviously better left, or eventually will be, defined by geography.

The issue with New York geography is that there is no real center to the city. Maybe Times Square, but that’s debatable considering Manhattan itself is not at the center of all of the places most metro residents reside. The daily commute from Staten Island to Manhattan for work is one of the longest hikes in the USA.

What isn’t debatable is the likelihood of a stadium in mid-Manhattan. There isn’t much chance of that, as no realistic plots of land for MLS sized stadium footprints are available nearby. There are other options (Flushing where the baseball Mets play, Randall's Island: central to 3 boroughs but close to few, coastal Long Island City and others) but they all have drawbacks. There really is no one central and easy place for everyone to get to. It’s true, Yankees fans have a healthy train ride up to the Bronx to see their team play, but again the New York MLS club of the future will likely not be allowed to become a superclub and bring with it millions of followers like the Yanks have.

Additionally the NY Metro Area (NYC, Long Island, Northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Westchester & Southern Connecticut) consists of about 19 million people. It is not reasonable for masses of fans to get to 20 games a season to their local MLS stadium far from their tri-state area homes. Yet, we need more than just locals to attend matches.  Harrison New Jersey for example, where Red Bulls Arena is located, has a population of just 13,000 and yet RBA has 25,000 seats.

Clubs have to be based on locality to work and in the New York area the neighborhoods would be far too small for soccer clubs of national significance (maybe as amateur or feeder clubs) to be able to succeed. So with this model we really would have to look at the boroughs and similarly sized locales.

If we broke the future NYC area clubs into the 5 boroughs of New York, plus Long Island (home of the largest youth soccer league in the USA) and we renamed NY Red Bulls into the New Jersey Red Bulls … than we can play on the innate tribalism of soccer and more importantly the existing tribalism of New York.

NYC potential clubs map

A possible NYC club breakdown:
New Jersey RBulls (pop: 4.5m)
Manhattan FC (pop: 1.5m)
Brooklyn FC (pop: 2m)
Queens FC (pop: 2m)
Bronx FC (pop: 1.5m)
Staten Island FC (pop: 500k)
Long Island FC (pop: 3m)

They could all have their own small but intimately scaled soccer stadiums in the range of 15 to 30k. Think of the passion that you see Saturdays on TV from England and replace Chelsea with Queens or Arsenal with Brooklyn. It could be amazing if planned and executed properly in the coming decades.

The USA is comparable in size to mainland Europe. MLS also includes Canada however, so the number of decent expansion cities, vast size of the continent and potential for market and business growth will likely lead MLS to consisting of 40 clubs one day in the distant future. Most of the 4 big American sports leagues already have 30-32 clubs and will likely expand to 36-40 over the coming decades. So it’s certainly not out of the question and may even be more likely for the MLS to reach 40 than those other big US leagues if they remain in smaller venues and don’t require NFL-sized stadia, vast numbers of local corporations and giant subsidies from municipalities.

During that same period in the future, the MLS will likely establish an even more secure foundation due to wise collective ownership and a full complement of boutique stadiums. The league brand will grow internationally, it will likely become a top 10 league in the world, all revenues will increase, franchise values will multiply and multi-generational fanbases will grow to a point where the league can confidently add a lower level to itself and even more clubs. This should bring about the worldwide promotion and relegation setup that some traditionalist fans already clamor for in the USA as they see its success overseas for clubs that have been around for a century, have popular roots and less sporting competition.

When the MLS and North American soccer reaches that point, with a large number of well-established clubs and deep community roots, it can than look to smaller-than-city community clubs and in New York’s case, to a bunch.

It was only recently that Toronto was admitted into the MLS as the first of what would become a new wave of hardcore soccer cities jolting the league back to life, reinvigorating it, showing that passion will set it apart from its domestic sporting titan rivals and solidifying its future. Not long after that, there was talk that due to TFC’s relatively small stadium and huge demand for tickets by locals, that MLS might even consider having a second Toronto club. That didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t or that it doesn’t make sense at some point when MLS matures further.

Several cities can do this outside of New York like Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Toronto and Chicago. But for MLS, no other market in North America matters more than New York in trying to gain a sporting foothold, become relevant and ultimately converting it into a soccer city. Imagine the passion that Portland has for the game, all over New York City.

In New York tribalism already exists. If you add the element of soccer to that and let the clubs represent the communities along borders instead of by fans' country-of-origin played at far-flung stadiums … New York can become a soccer city in the future.

Change will happen, but one thing we know is certain: tribalism creates passion in soccer fans in other huge metropolises. Soccer in New York can work other ways as well of course. But we already know this blueprint works for soccer overseas. If we plan ahead and lay the foundation for New York soccer as it works in London, Buenos Aires and other soccer mad cities worldwide where fans grab the crests over their hearts to display love for tribe, it may just work and might just be worth taking a look at.

It’s just one idea. It’s an idea though from one of the first initiators of the MLS generation to want to resurrect the former superclub of New York. Things have changed since then, I’ve changed since then, MLS has changed drastically and grown since then. It frankly doesn’t need a superclub. Not because of what the Cosmos may have done to the NASL and soccer’s timeline and potential in the USA, but because the MLS model worked. There is no reason to aim a NYC Superclub wrecking ball at it, but to build on it with fans who worship their clubs through thick and thin. Just like in London.

Mike FIRPO

Nationality:
USA
College:
Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.
MIKE'S SPONSORS