Wednesday, May 22, 2013

New York state of mind

Jurgen Klinsmann must be one of the luckiest SOBs to walk the Earth. Just when his latest fit of message-sending resulted in Landon Donovan being frozen out of the US national team -- a team that includes the non-playing Michael Parkhurst, Brek Shea and Stuart Holden, among others -- and threatened to overshadow the run-up to three crucial World Cup qualifiers, a shoe that's been levitating since Major League Soccer's inception in 1996 finally dropped.

MLS commissioner Don Garber achieved one of his longest-held goals on Tuesday as English club Manchester City and the New York Yankees announced they had agreed to create an MLS franchise that will play in New York City starting in 2015. America's top-flight soccer league already has a team in the area in the form of the New York Red Bulls, but NYRB plays well outside the city in Harrison, New Jersey, and has struggled to attract fans despite a glittering new stadium and several high-profile signings. Having long coveted a team located in the Five Boroughs that can draw on the city's ample ranks of soccer fans, Garber and MLS have their wish.

There are still issues to resolve, of course, with one of the most pressing being where New York City FC (NYCFC to its friends) will play. A proposed stadium in Queens faces continued resistance from both local groups -- who oppose handing over more public parkland on which the stadium will be built -- and the New York Mets -- who want more than $40 million in compensation in exchange for allowing people attending NYCFC games to use the parking lots at Citi Field. Manchester City (whose ownership group is led by Sheik Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family) and the Yankees already face a $100 million expansion fee to join MLS, and replacing the parkland and soccer fields taken up by NYCFC's new home will heap an estimated $90 million on top of any costs incurred in building the stadium. Then there's the not-inconsiderable task of navigating the murky world of New York politics, a process that vexed even well-known entities like the Yankees and Mets as they tried to secure new stadiums.
To build a home for the team, the city, the league, Manchester City and now the Yankees must win over half a dozen community boards, the city planning commission, the City Council, and potentially state and federal agencies — a process that will take months, if not years. Some of the constituents oppose ceding parkland to a foreign billionaire.
“We’re not even talking about an American businessman who made shrewd investments,” said Peter Vallone Jr., a city councilman from Astoria. “We’re talking about a sheik born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and we don’t need to hand him parkland on a silver platter.”
Getting big projects built in New York can take years, especially sports sites that often become fodder for critics of the use of public resources for wealthy team owners. The Mets and the Yankees each spent nearly a decade lobbying for tax breaks and public subsidies before they poured a combined $2.3 billion into their new stadiums, which opened in 2009.
It's perfectly understandable for people in Queens and the surrounding area to be wary of the NYCFC stadium landing in their back yard. The funding for these kind of projects almost invariably comes partially (if not wholly) from public money, an extravagance that's hard to justify amid a faltering economic recovery and persistent unemployment. There's the problem of the city appearing to hand a sweetheart deal to a baseball franchise valued at $2.3 billion and a soccer club whose owner's pockets are so deep they make the Mariana Trench look like a wagon rut. Then there are those in New York who are outraged that the city and MLS are doing business with a group that has such close ties to Abu Dhabi, citing concerns about the emirate's human rights record and continuing ban on homosexuality. Workers' rights are a bone of contention in that part of the world, especially with Qatar receiving the 2022 World Cup and Abu Dhabi and Dubai enjoying rising influence on the club level.

More interesting, though, is the reaction from MLS supporters. There is the expected pushback from Red Bulls fans, but there also appears to be a line of thinking that NYCFC's arrival is somehow bad for MLS. That may sound silly, and it could certainly be so, but there is also a kernel of truth that's worth exploring.

There is little doubt that Manchester City and the Yankees' foray into MLS is a boon to the league in terms of prestige and money, both immediately (19 teams sharing the $100 million expansion fee) and later on (all of MLS's TV contracts expire in 2014). However, there is also little doubt that this sort of flashy, high-profile affair is a marked departure from the conservative approach that has helped MLS survive and make steady progress for 18 years. Taking the slow and prudent path likely won't appeal to the NYCFC ownership, which has shown signs that being very good isn't necessarily good enough for its standards. How will the new kids adjust to the constraints that come with playing in MLS, and will their presence generate upward pressure on the $3 million salary cap? Teams can only exempt three designated players' salaries from counting against the cap, and there is already talk of "major signings." The Manchester City people sound confident that they have the right approach, but then again, rarely does a group buy into MLS without thinking it's figured out the right formula. Perhaps being limited in its spending on players will force NYCFC to focus more on developing an academy and building world-class facilities.

Less tangibly, NYCFC's arrival may also herald something of a loss of innocence in MLS. Jingoistic as it may sound, MLS fans so far could feel that the league is uniquely American, that it's "our league." MLS does have certain charms that are hard to find in other, more "proper" leagues -- players likely live among the rest of us instead of in gated communities; they're usually not paid the eye-watering salaries found elsewhere in the world; and they're likely to be college-educated and will occasionally leave the sport to do things like enter medical school or take an internship with the United Nations. In addition, fans can feel a sense of ownership with MLS that's hard to replicate with leagues or clubs that have been around for a century or more. I've often compared being a fan of MLS in its early days with cluing into REM while they were still playing gigs in Athens, Georgia -- you're in on the ground floor of something you know has the potential for greatness.

In that sense, the arrival of NYCFC could be seen as either MLS's big break or it choosing to "sell out" and go corporate. The ranks of petrodollar-infused clubs is growing steadily, with Qatari investment lifting little-loved Paris St.-Germain to the top of the French league, propelling Spain's Malaga into the Champions League (albeit not without a bumpy ride) and convincing Barcelona to accept a commercial shirt sponsor for the first time in its history. That doesn't even take into account all the money sloshing around the former Soviet Union. Is all that new money worth it to MLS to run the risk of repeating the mistakes of the old NASL or have its shiny new plaything considered a glorified Manchester City academy side?

MLS, Garber, Manchester City and the Yankees are making a huge gamble with this move. For Garber, the success or failure of NYCFC could well determine whether his tenure -- which is not short on accomplishments -- is remembered fondly or as a flop. This doesn't look like a play that can only mildly succeed. Either this is a huge success that remakes the face of MLS and brings the league to a whole new level, or it fails spectacularly (Sheik Mansour tires of his plaything, the stadium question doesn't get resolved, etc.) and ends up as a huge black eye for everyone involved. I am no fan of Manchester City or the Yankees, but as an avowed fan of MLS, I hope NYCFC fulfills its potential and helps lift the league as a whole. I just also hope that MLS doesn't have to abandon what helped give the league life in the first place to do so.

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