The New York Yankees are now sharing a field with the city’s newest professional sports franchise and are betting that greenbacks from soccer fans will roll in while the grass on the famous field in the Bronx stays green through the long, hot summer.
The New York City Football Club (NYCFC), which kicked off its inaugural season earlier this month, is the latest attempt by Major League Soccer (MLS) to get Americans to watch the sport outside the World Cup frenzy. Every four years, we are told, again, that soccer is now is about to imminently skyrocket to new heights with fans and will surely explode with popularity. The problem is that it never actually happens. When the World Cup is long over and the matches end, except for in a handful of cities, most Americans return to not caring about headers and watching baseball, basketball or football instead.
But NYC is soccer’s next biggest test. Another soccer failure — the New York Cosmos, which landed international superstar Pele, existed from 1970-1985 — could mean it’s time to pack up the goalposts and quit trying to get Americans interested in the game as a spectator sport. Because if it flops in NYC — a place of immigrants from all over the world who bring a frenzied passion for the game with them — it likely won’t succeed nationally or as a legitimate major league in this country anytime soon.
Though NYCFC is the latest effort, it might also be the final arbiter of whether soccer can ever truly catch on as an in demand ticket and not just a place your mom drives you to run around until age 12. The sport has certainly become popular to play, as shown by growth of recreational and youth leagues, but it has yet to, and maybe never will, challenge established leagues as a market force or compete with them for big-time viewership.
Last year, MLS signed a $750 million television deal with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision to broadcast games. Television entities are clearly anticipating a spike in viewership — but so have many for years — and just because you expect the sport to keep growing doesn’t mean it will.
The official NYCFC supporter’s club — the Third Rail New York City — claims that more than 1,500 have registered while team officials say at least 14,000 season tickets have already been sold to the team’s inaugural season.
Read more: World Cup for Beginners
Betting on the world’s biggest media market is the latest, and maybe boldest, attempt to light the fanatic fire, but it’s also a big gamble. If positive predictions don’t come true and NYCFC doesn’t become a legitimate franchise, it will surely signify bad things for the future of soccer in this country. If soccer can’t get popular in a sports-crazed and diverse place like NYC, it may be doomed to fail, for the foreseeable future at least. Working in NYCFC’s favor is that it plays in NYC proper and partnered with the Yankees — one of the most recognizable brands in the world — to play in the team’s world-famous stadium.
But is this enough for soccer to catch on? If not, then it may never because this a nearly perfect test case situation for the sport to flourish.
One complaint from die-hard soccer fans that follow English Premier League (EPL) teams or other elite leagues like La Liga in Spain as to why they don’t watch MLS has been that the quality of play in Major League Soccer is lacking. Through the years, multiple teams have tried to elevate quality by signing European stars, but players have traditionally only become available after they are used up by more-competitive squads. Most imports have passed their prime years by the time they arrived in the U.S., as was the case with David Beckham’s arrival in Los Angeles to play for the Galaxy.
Though scoring Becks was billed as a major coup, any buzz quickly faded as Americans realized he wasn’t a goal scorer. And after watching him, they found that he had used up most of his famous bendy crosses while earning millions in Europe, dating and later marrying a Spice Girl and playing for the English national team.
NYCFC did score when it signed David Villa, a former world-class player and member of Spain’s 2010 World Cup championship winner. Importing other stars like British goal scorer Frank Lampard could also increase star power and get fans recognizable names to watch and cheer for.
New Yorkers are sports fanatics — the city has nine professional sports teams and more amateur and semi-pro clubs. MLS and soccer fans in this country always seem to be forcing themselves a bit, what with all the singing and wearing soccer scarves when the weather doesn’t demand them. In West Coast cities like Seattle, MLS teams are quite popular, even equal to baseball among young people. But let’s keep it real, in New York, it would have to happen organically because New Yorkers don’t like to follow trends.
Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.