While the news that Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan is likely to be awarded Major League Soccer’s second New York franchise may be great for the league it may not have been so warmly welcomed by the men behind one of US soccer’s iconic names.
Since pouring money into City the Sheikh has seen his previously under-achieving team win the FA Cup and – in unforgettably thrilling fashion – last season’s Premier League title. Although the club has twice been dumped out of the UEFA Champions League in the group stages and surrendered its title to rivals Manchester United this year, City has become a major power in English football and will almost certainly replicate that on the wider European stage in years to come.
The Sheikh, it appears, has a taste for football and a taste for success. But the challenge he faces in New York will be very different to that of Manchester where City was already deeply rooted in the local community and passionately supported by generation after generation of Mancunians. When Carlos Tevez moved from United to City in one of the first demonstrations of the power of the new owner’s money, a poster proclaiming ‘Welcome To Manchester’ got deep beneath the skin of United which may have the stardust and glamour but, rather like Juventus in Italy, is seen as a national rather than local property.
In the Big Apple, Sheikh Mansour and his team will start with a clean sheet; a stadium to build, a brand to create and a public to win-over. His team – likely to be called simply New York City FC – will be local rivals to the New York Red Bulls and, even before the public announcement of any agreement, the league is licking its lips in anticipation.
It is certain that his investment will include top players – within the confines of the league’s wage structure – who will draw crowds. They will also invest in the marketing required to build a brand and fill the stadium. His links to Manchester City might also prove fruitful in this area.
New York won’t be the first major US market to house two MLS clubs. In Los Angeles the Galaxy and Chivas USA share the Home Depot Centre stadium and a keen local rivalry continues to grow. But New York is New York; a city built on Yankees v Mets and Jets v Giants rivalries, a city where everyone loves a winner, particularly when the battle is for home turf.
Sheikh Mansour should be good news for MLS and the development of the sport in the US. Soccer has taken massive strides since the birth of the league and its initial stuttering steps. Over the years it has grown in a scalable, modest way and is a success by most measures although it has a long way to go to challenge the NFL, NBA and NHL for mindshare among most Americans.
Years ago the low scoring nature of most games, the prospect of a draw (unheard of in the US) and the absence of breaks in which to buy snacks were touted as reasons why Americans could never love soccer!
Bu what the early naysayers seemed to forget was that back in the 1970s North American Soccer League (NASL) games were regularly watched by crowds of more than 40,000 and sometimes over 70,000 in New York.
The New York Cosmos became an iconic brand, a global all-star 11 which included Pele, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia among others. These were players who were nearing the ends of their careers but, even so, brought a touch of glamour to the NASL and crowds to wherever they played.
To many people of a certain age, the Cosmos are New York football so there is an irony in the fact that this week’s news appears to put another obstacle in the way of plans for a re-born Cosmos to join the MLS – for now at least.
The Cosmos name and IP has never been allowed to die and the club was rejuvenated when acquired by English businessman Paul Kemsley a few years ago. But while Sheikh Mansour and his club start with a clean sheet of paper and big plans for the future, the Cosmos are re-starting their playing life elsewhere… the second tier North American League which also features clubs from Canada and Puerto Rico.
With the well backed Red Bulls already doing good business in New York and the Sheikh’s franchise on the horizon, it may be some considerable time before either MLS or the New York public has the appetite for a third team in the city.
This is a personal perspective of Kevin Roberts, editorial director of SportBusiness Group.