3:15 pm Aug. 17, 20122
Two things became clear this week, with reports that Major League Soccer and both the state and the city are attempting to put together a deal to build a privately financed, 25,000 seat soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
One is that M.L.S. is determined have a second team in the New York area, sooner than later, to compete with the New York Red Bulls. The other is that nobody really knows what that's going to mean for the original, decidedly un-storied M.L.S. franchise once known as the Metrostars.
It says something about the state of soccer in this country, and not in a bad way, that the Red Bulls are enthusiastic about the idea of a local competitor, despite the fact that 40 percent of the Red Bulls' attendance comes from outside Jersey, in New York City and surrounding area.
“We have already spoken about this possibility," Jurgen Mainka, a spokesman for the Red Bulls, told me in an interview this week. "We would welcome a second New York team. Local rivalries are one of the most important traditions of international soccer. But until this project becomes a reality, we wouldn't want to comment further on speculation.”
Certainly, there's reason to believe those rivalries can do a lot for both teams; witness the increased popularity of the Los Angeles Galaxy once M.L.S. plunked Chivas USA down into the same big market.
Let's start with that initial question, though: Can New York City support two soccer teams?
After all, the Red Bulls aren't doing great, attendance-wise. Despite fielding what is probably their strongest team ever, attendance is actually down approximately 2,500 per game this year over 2011. Their stadium has been only 68 percent filled, on average, despite a successful season that has them just a point out of first place in M.L.S.'s Eastern Conference, and the presence of stars like Thierry Henry and now Tim Cahill, and a spectacular venue to watch soccer.
The Red Bulls acknowledged this problem earlier this month more eloquently, and brutally, than any statement could have, by firing their president for business operation.
Things would be easier in this regard for a Queens-based soccer team—possibly the Cosmos, the minor-league outfit named after the famous New York franchise from the defunct North American Soccer League—with access to it from both the 7 line and the Long Island Railroad. And this would probably be the case even if the MetroStars/Red Bulls hadn't fumbled their long opportunity to build the kind of following that leads to packed houses.
The league, normally so cautious, would be making by far its biggest financial bet ever with the new stadium, and they're talking about doing so before a new owner or team to play in the stadium has even been finalized.
"I'm a Queens guy, born and raised," Martinez said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "And there is a deep soccer-loving community out there that wouldn't shy away from supporting a new team."
Jack Bell, the longtime soccer writer for the New York Times, sees the new team's location as one that could force the local media to take notice of the league in a way that the MetroStars/Red Bulls never have.
"Look, the Cosmos come in, people like what they see, they're going to go see it," Bell said. “Lots of people talk about that [impact on the Red Bulls] on the negative side. I look at it differently. What M.L.S. is lacking is these sort of rivalries. They try to play up New York and D.C., or Philly-D.C., but in soccer terms, this is nothing like two truly local teams playing against each other. You have a rivalry like that, it would force local media outlets to pay attention to both.”
In that sense, it's the existence of the rivalry that counts; it doesn't really matter to the league how long it takes for the new team to become competitive with the Red Bulls on the field, or to catch up with them in attendance market share.
It does, however, matter a great deal to the Red Bulls.
LOCAL PRECEDENT SUGGESTS THAT THE RISING-TIDE theory applies even to better-established American sports.
The 1957 New York Yankees played as one of three Major League Baseball teams in New York, and drew 1,497,134 fans. A year later, the Dodgers were in Los Angeles, the Giants in San Francisco. The Yankees had New York all to themselves--and drew 1,428,438 fans with a team that won the World Series.
Four years later, the Yankees experienced the same thing in reverse. After drawing just under 1.75 million to Yankee Stadium in 1961 for Roger Maris' pursuit of Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, they still drew just under 1.5 million fans in 1962. The Mets, playing 1.2 miles away in the Polo Grounds, drew another 922,530 fans.
By 1964, the year Shea Stadium opened right near the newly proposed soccer stadium, the Yankees drew more than 1.3 million fans; the Mets logged 1.73 million to the new stadium. The audience for watching baseball had effectively doubled from what it was just six years earlier, when the Yankees had New York to itself.
M.L.S. has a precedent of sorts as well, though not in New York. The Los Angeles Galaxy was an original M.L.S. franchise, like the former Metrostars. Unlike the Metrostars, the Galaxy were successful, drawing just under 24,000 fans per game in the team's final season as the lone Los Angeles franchise in 2003.
With a rival in 2004, they broke 24,000 per game, while Chivas USA drew better than 17,000. While Chivas has since leveled off around 14,000-15,000 per season, the Galaxy have continued to average attendance at or better than they did prior to the arrival of Chivas to M.L.S. And the total drawn by the two teams is approximately 80 percent higher than what the Galaxy drew as a standalone team, while the matches between the two teams at the home they share, the Home Depot Center, are usually sold out.
As Bell put it, "Think of soccer like a shopping mall around here, the Garden State Plaza. There's Nordstrom, there's Macy's. Ask Nordstrom, you think Macy's is going to hurt you? No, it ends up driving more people to the mall. Having the Cosmos and the Red Bulls is the same thing. It keeps soccer in the sports consciousness.”
But if there's a team in Queens, what could possibly compel the significant part of the Red Bulls fan base that comes from the five boroughs, or Long Island, to continue making the trip to Harrison?
For one thing, there are parts of the city that are about as accessible to Harrison as they are to Flushing.
"Manhattan is basically up for grabs," Martinez said. "Manhattanites typically think of anything outside Manhattan as the suburbs, anyway. That goes for Queens or New Jersey."
For another, as Martinez points out, the Red Bulls' fan base, such as it is, isn't exactly filled with the bandwagon types.
“It's not easy to be a Red Bulls fan," Martinez said. "But Red Bulls fans are loyal. They're not just going to abandon the team they've suffered with for so many years.”
And, of course, no one knows what would happen if the Red Bulls actually, you know, won a championship.
Asked what he thought would get bigger crowds to see the Red Bulls, Bell said, “It's real simple: It's winning consistently. I'm a great believer that what happens on the field is what drives everything else. And for too much of the team's history, it's been a black hole on the field. Now, they have the potential to host an M.L.S. championship game. That can make a difference.”
It'll be several years before any new stadium is ready, assuming it gets built at all.
There will be not insignificant land-use issues, plus the Cosmos or some other organization will have to cover the cost of construction plus an expansion fee to the league in the neighborhood of $100 million.
"First you need to get stadium approval," Bell said. "Maybe next summer, you're finally in the ground. Then you need one-and-a-half, two years to build the stadium. And you need to raise the money, for the stadium, the expansion fee, to put a team together. So I'd say 3-5 years, and a half-billion dollars before you've even started."
The Red Bulls, in other words, still have time.