Why can’t Major League Soccer put a team in Citi Field, really?

Citi Field. (Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr)
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Major League Soccer would very much like to build a soccer arena in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. 

The league and other stadium proponents are making all the usual arguments for a new stadium: that it will generate jobs and subsequent economic activity, and that it meets the latent demand of a vibrant, underserved local fan base.

These things may be true. But the unattractive fact remains that what the league is proposing to do is this: stick a large stadium in the middle of a city park.

Recently, one city councilman suggested an alternative: Why doesn’t Major League Soccer play at the Mets’ Citi Field instead?

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"It should absolutely be part of the discussion and it hasn’t been," said Councilman Peter Vallone of Astoria, who is running this year for Queens borough president. "We’ve got a state-of-the-art, new stadium, which was built with taxpayer assistance sitting a stone’s throw from where they want to build another stadium in a park."

Citi Field is right there, after all, next to the same subway stop that would serve, at a greater distance, the proposed new M.L.S. stadium. And it's already there. 

The Mets said they were open to the idea, which is unsurprising, given the rent and added revenue they'd accrue from hosting soccer matches there.

The idea has other supporters too.

“It’s far preferable for us for them to play at Citi Field than for them to take parkland,” said Will Sweeney, a member of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance, which is part of the Fairness Coalition of Queens, a collection of organizations that opposes the current M.L.S. stadium plans.

It’s not as though Citi Field can’t accommodate soccer games. In August, Chile and Ecuador played an exhibition game at Citi Field that drew large crowds.

But M.L.S. dismissed the proposal out of hand. And they continue to do so.

“An M.L.S. team at Citi Field is a nonstarter for us,” M.L.S. spokeswoman Risa Heller emailed me. “A soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park is a win for soccer fans, a win for the Queens community and a win for economic development.”

Benjamin Flowers, a Georgia Tech architecture professor who studies stadium design, suspects it’s about money.

“The real reason they don’t want to share a stadium is revenue,” he told me. “The way teams become self-sufficient and really make money is by owning their own stadiums.”

If M.L.S. were to share a stadium with the Mets, they’d have to pay the Mets rent, and lose out on revenue from concession sales, luxury box rentals, naming rights and more.

“It keeps the team in a subservient position,” he said.

In fact, in recent years, M.L.S. has explicitly moved away from sharing stadiums with other sports organizations.

As Daniel Feuerstein has noted on MLS Talk, “Since Columbus Crew Stadium was opened on May 15th, 1999, stadiums designed for Major League Soccer have been a priority, especially after the arrival of Commissioner Don Garber.”

As anyone who's been to a soccer game at a non-soccer stadium will tell you (see the comments on this Deadspin post about the Citi Field idea), there are legitimate design reasons for that. Baseball stadiums, for example, don’t provide the same sort of sight lines that a soccer-specific stadium does. And football stadiums, like the one in the Meadowlands where the Metrostars (now the Red Bulls) played, are just miserable places for soccer—too big, with the seats too far from the field, and with playing surfaces that just aren't conducive to passing or dribbling or slide-tackling or, well, soccer.

“If you laid a soccer field down along the third-base line, then all the seats along the third-base line have great seats, but the seats along the first baseline ... are not so great,” said Philip Bess, the director of graduate studies at Notre Dame’s architecture school and a baseball stadium design expert.

There’s also the question of team identity—“A building inevitably becomes a symbol of the franchise,” said Bess—and, of course, branding.

Remember, M.L.S. doesn’t actually have a team yet for the stadium it wants to build in the middle of the park, and one of the primary candidates to become the league's second franchise in the New York area is supposedly bidding to build a $400 million soccer-only stadium seven miles away from Flushing Meadows Corona Park, at Belmont.

“Let me speculate that the league is saying that you have a better chance of getting a team if you have your own venue,” said Bess.