16 September 2014

NYCFC Looks at Queens Again: Aqueduct Racetrack

Developers behind the nascent New York City Football Club are now looking to land near the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, after plans to build near Yankee Stadium fell apart.

Manchester City Football Club owner Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the New York Yankees, which are partnering in the joint venture for the NYCFC, are now looking at a possible site adjacent to the Aqueduct Racetrack in Ozone Park, Queens.
Sources close to the site negotiations said that the Bronx plan “fell through the cracks,” after developers could not reach a deal with a tenant in a building that occupies the site the partners had hoped to develop.
“The tenant is in one of the old buildings in the area that they needed to vacate, they had agreed on a price, then he changed his mind and the deal fell through,” the source said.

"NYCFC is looking at sites all over New York City," said Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for NYCFC. "We are working with the De Blasio Administration to find a world class site for a soccer-specific stadium."

Last month that Paul Seifred, the vice-president of an elevator business that would have had to relocate, met with representatives from bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the Yankees. At the time, Seifred said that despite talks with the football club, it appeared the plan for the site was dead.

The city abandoned its original plan to build in the middle of Queens’ largest park (Flushing Meadow Park, site of Citifield) after the Bloomberg administration came up with a more attractive deal, which would build on a 10-acre site in the South Bronx, encompassing three of Yankee Stadium’s parking lots and the building controlled by Seifred’s elevator company.
The Aqueduct Racetrack, home to the Resorts World Casino, sits on an expansive 210 acre piece of land in Queens. Redevelopment plans have consistently been pitched for the area, with the latest being a short lived proposal for a Javits-style convention center on property by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Soccer is no stranger to the Aqueduct. Teams have entertained the area for years, dating back to the Metrostars (now the New York Red Bulls, with their own stadium in Harrison, NJ) in 2001. Then-owners John Kluge and Stuart Subotnick proposed a Cosmos-style $70 million redevelopment plan that would include shops and housing centered around a 25,000 seat stadium. But that plan never took off; the MLS rejected the site due to its transportation issues. Only one subway, the A-line, reaches the site, and the closest parkway, the Belt, is renowned for bumper-to-bumper traffic jams. In addition, the entire site sits at the edge of JFK International Airport.


10 June 2014

First New York, Now Miami: Another MLS Expansion Stadium Deal Collapses

 Just two weeks after MLS Expansion Team NYCFC lost it’s hoped-for practice stadium (article here), soccer great-turned-investor David Beckham’s efforts to find a location for a new Miami-based soccer team has suffered a similar fate: Mayor Tomás Regalado and City Manager Daniel Alfonso told Beckham’s investment group that their proposal to fill in a nine-acre waterway and build a $250 million, 20,000-seat stadium adjacent to the Miami Heat’s Arena on public park land was a no-go. 

In spite of Beckham’s offer to privately fund the construction and pay the City $2,000,000 in annual rent for use of the public land, public opinion was deeply divided; a Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald poll taken last week showed county voters evenly split over the location. Local residents offered the usual complaints about traffic and losing their water views; Cruise lines opposed the proposal as well, and the entire process may have been poisoned by the bad feelings remaining from a recent failed attempt at a taxpayer-supported stadium for the Miami Marlins. 

City and county leaders continue to insist that they want an expansion franchise in Miami. But Tuesday’s decision marked the second time a proposed location was rejected by the political leadership that once not only supported the project, but even recommended the location.   

A third possibility - sharing a downtown stadium with the University of Miami college football team ended with no agreement in sight.

According to theguardian.com, Beckham's investment group, “which includes the entertainment impresario Simon Fuller and the Bolivian telecoms billionaire Marcelo Claure, said it would pause to consider its options, one of which will presumably be withdrawing from the project altogether.

We presented a strong proposal for the site suggested to us by the two mayors the group, Miami Beckham United, said in a statement after a meeting on Tuesday with city officials in Miami.

Our package was the most equitable soccer stadium proposal that Miami, or any other city in America, has ever seen, 100% privately funded without any local taxpayers' money.

Our team will now pause and weigh alternatives. The people of Miami deserve a team and stadium that they will be proud of for decades to come."


09 June 2014

Add NYCFC to the List of New York City's Homeless....

 The proposed “New York City Football Club” (NYCFC) is quickly finding out what most native New Yorkers already know: housing is hard to find, and it ain’t cheap.

When Major League Soccer decided to go on an expansion binge last year, someone apparently decided that there was some sort of synergy in creating “local rivalries.”   Instead of attempting to locate teams in places like San Antonio (the 7th largest city in the entire United States, with a huge media market, a ready soccer-friendly Latino majority, and only a single professional sports team – the Spurs – of their own), the powers that be went for geographic "doubling up:" they announced new teams in Orlando and Miami (the latter partly owned by soccer great David Beckham), both in Florida, along with a new franchise in Atlanta (I have NO explanation for that one). But before those clubs came the announcement of a second club in the New York metro area, presumably to rival the existing New York Red Bulls.

Certainly, with over 8 million people, New York appears  big enough to host multiple professional sports teams: Mets & Yankees, Jets & Giants,  Nets & Knicks, and Rangers, Islanders & Devils  all come to mind.  

So why not a second MLS team?

Well, first of all, the existence of a team sure doesn’t guarantee its success.  As I write, the Mets are heading once again for a losing season, and can not claim more than 20% of the NY fan base, even on its stronghold of Long Island; The NY Islanders have lost money every year since 2001 and were listed by Wall Street 24/7 as one of the top 7 teams on the brink of financial collapse;  The Jets made it to the Superbowl…..once…..45 years ago.   I have to question the wisdom of launching a second MLS team in the same media market where one team, the Red Bulls, has just ‘emerged’ in their own right.  

But perhaps more importantly, one wonders if MLS just doesn’t “get” the real estate market in New York. New York stadiums need a critical mass of open land, direct transit service, and both neighbors and real estate developers who don’t mind.

In other words…..good luck.

When the NYCFC was first announced, there was a concerted effort to build a new stadium in Flushing Meadow Park in Queens.  That went over like a lead balloon, as local residents, having already lost green space due to the new construction of the Mets’ Citifield next to the existing Shea Stadium, opposed the move.  (New York is a place where neighbors call City Hall to complain about the neighbors patch of grass being too high – one can only imagine how a 30,000-seat stadium would fly.)  One suspects that the Mets, struggling to fill the seats in their new antiseptic stadium, may not have been too happy about a rival sports stadium either.

In the end, the NYCFC declared that they would be playing at Yankee Stadium, another huge concrete stadium built for anything except soccer. 

But even if the games could be played there, practices could not – and so NYCFC set out looking for a different piece of real estate to practice in, beginning January 2015.  In a reasonable good faith effort, NYCFC offered to fund a $10 million renovation of Manhattanville College’s gymnasium and soccer fields, in return for calling it their practice home. But Manhattanville College, in spite of its city-sounding name, is not in New York City: it is in Purchase, in Westchester County, squeezed between the wealthy enclaves of Scarsdale, NY and Greenwich, Connecticut.  The "Purchase Environmental Protective Association" and three residents filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court against the team and the college….a process which, even if unsuccessful, will drag out beyond the planned Jan 2015 practice dates.

It’s an old ploy used by anyone who wants to stop anything in New York: delay, harangue, file suit, raise issues of traffic and the environnment.  The New York Jet’s efforts to build a new stadium on the Hudson Railyards on the West side of Manhattan came to an end when political opposition arose; all that opposition, of course, was silent when realtors made a bundle as construction began on the current six, luxury high-rise condominiums instead.

The Jets and Giants share a stadium…in New Jersey.  The Red Bulls are located in nearby Harrison, NJ. The Nets and the Islanders share a home only because the city took an entire blue-collar working class neighborhood in Brooklyn by eminent domain and provided public subsidies to help politically-connected real estate mogul Bruce Ratner build what has now become the Barclay Center.

There are other pieces of land of course….Floyd Bennett Field (under National Park control and nowhere near public transit) and on Staten Island (little transit available and hey, you might as well be in New Jersey if you go to Staten Island….)

So, in spite of great intentions and the recent signing of Spain’s David Villa as its first star player, the NYCFC has neither its own home, nor a place to practice.

I understand San Antonio is lovely in January…..


06 June 2014

Time for Major League Baseball to Return to Montréal?

“Le baseball peut sauver Montréal” screamed the headline of the Sports section of the 28 March 2014 edition of La Presse, one of Canada’s top 10 newspapers, and the only one with a growing weekly circulation.

“Baseball can save Montréal.

The paper was quoting Warren Cromartie, a versatile outfielder who played with the original Montréal Expos, who has been vocal in generating enthusiasm for a return of Major League Baseball to Montréal.  And Cromartie has not been alone.

On the weekend the full-page news article appeared, not one, but two Major League Baseball games were played at Montreal’s Stade Olympique (Olympic Stadium) as the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the New York Mets for a two-game exhibition series. It was  the first time MLB baseball had been played in Québec since the Montreal Expos left town ten years earlier.

Was there interest in Francophone Québec for this stereotypically “American” sport?

To quote reporter David Lengel of The Guardian,

“Beer was poured, hot dogs were steamed (buns toasted), and programs were sold. Fans, legions of them, cheered home runs, booed errors and gasped at great defensive plays, heckling in both English and French…Montreal was a Major League Baseball city for the first time since its franchise picked up and relocated to Washington DC 10 years ago.” 

The numbers?  More than 96,000 Canadian fans turned out for two games.  They chanted, “Let’s go Expos!” and “We want baseball!”

For comparison purposes, that’s just about the equivalent of two complete sell-outs of the entire 50,000-seat-strong new Yankee Stadium. The average attendance at Boston Red Sox games so far in 2014 has been 36,000; for Seattle, 22,500; for Tampa Bay, just 18,000. The number of fans at the Blue Jays-Mets games was astounding.

 Once upon a time, Montréal had an MLB team in the Expos.  In fact, they were home to the very first MLB franchise located outside of the United States.   

Montréal seemed to burst on the scene in the 1960s. The 1967 World's Fair, called Expo 67 was hailed as a success, and the city subsequently won the bid for the 1976 Summer Olympics and then unveiled a new subway system, the Métro. This was all capped by winning of one of the four MLB expansion franchises awarded 1969.

While they had a long and slow growth period, the Expos had achieved the best record in Major League Baseball (74–40), when the 1994 players’ strike suddenly ended the season.  The strike dragged on through the fall, forcing the cancellation of the playoffs and the World Series. Shut out of their best season to date, the strike damaged the Expos' campaign for a new stadium, and the local ownership group chose not to invest additional funds to retain the team's best players. 

In fact, they did the opposite:During the 1994–1995 offseason, owner Claude Brochu instructed general manager Kevin Malone to conduct a “fire sale” of their players: ties with their major stars were severed, players were released as Free Agents, and others traded away. Game attendance dropped to under 20,000, and Malone resigned in October 1995, saying "I'm in the building business, not in the dismantling business."   Subsequent years found the owners engaged in head-scratching gambits such as having the Canadian team play games in Puerto Rico.

On September 29, 2004, the date of Montreal's last home game of the season, MLB announced that the Montreal franchise would move to Washington, D.C. for the 2005 season, and the team was reborn as the Washington Nationals.

Nonetheless, Montréalers have never stopped hoping for the return of a team, and they made their feelings known this past spring.

Basic sports economics would support the notion that Montréal is ripe for another team:  the largest source of revenue for Major League Baseball teams are local media broadcast revenues, the majority of which stay with (and enrich) the home team; this is why baseball teams are always located in large media markets like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, and never in media-poor cities hosting NFL teams like Green Bay and Nashville.

Montreal is currently the largest North American media market without a major league baseball team.

Andrew Zimbalist, prolific author and my sports economics colleague 20 minutes down the road at Smith College, agrees.  Interviewed by La Presse, and asked if a Montréal team could be viable, he stated (and this is my translation; original French appears at the end of this blog post),

“For me, there is no doubt. If Montréal possessed a good stadium, it would work. I don’t see why not – there is no longer a serious devaluation of the Canadian dollar against the American, which contributed to the Expos departure in 2004.”

Cromartie and others have started an actual internet campaign to generate momentum for a team, with a website at Montreal Baseball Project and a Facebook Page  .

But does that mean moving the Nationals back, or shuffling the hapless Rays or the Cleveland Indians (currently possessing the poorest attendance records in MLB) to Canada? 

Not necessarily.

In a May 16 article in Sporting News, Jesse Spector of  Sporting News  argued for expansion to 32 teams.

 “With 32 teams, it would be possible to go to four divisions of eight teams each. The playoffs could then place a heavier emphasis on divisional rivalries, with the second- and third-place teams in each division squaring off in one-game wild card playoffs, then facing the division winners….Why wouldn’t a division of the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Phillies, Orioles, Nationals, Blue Jays and Expos 2.0 work?  The time is right for the move from 30 teams to 32.”


*”Pour moi, il n’ya pas de doute. Si Montréal possède un bon stade, c’est un marché positif. Je ne vois pas pourquoi pas non plus d’une possible dévaluation du dollar canadien par rapport à la devise américaine, ce qui avait contribué au départ des Expos en 2004. »


26 May 2014

Donovan Rises Above Klinsman's Questionable Cut

It started with US Men's Soccer Coach Jurgen Klinsman making a head-scratching decision last week to cut Landon Donovan, arguably the best player in American Professional Soccer today, from the US Men's team in the World Cup.  Donovan had performed well during the training camp, making Klinsman's decision even more questionable.  Donovan was upset and could not come up with an explanation, but handled it like a professional and a gentleman.  But what was Klinsman's rationale? Did he feel that at 32, Donovan was too old?  Or that in spite of Donovan's performance, his heart wasn't into another World Cup (Donovan played in two previous Cups), especially since Donovan took a sabbatical in 2013?

If that was the case (as some sports writers have suggested,) why did Klinsman call Donovan up from the LA Galaxy to training camp in the first place....since he knew all of that beforehand?

The weirdness continued with a eye-brow raising tweet by Klinsman's own son after the cut, which raised the question of the quality and kinds of conversations that took place around the Klinsman dinner table.

The Tweet by Klinsman's son: 

In any event, Donovan returned to play with his home team, the L. A. Galaxy last night....whereupon he became the highest scoring player in American MLS history by making his 135th...and then his 136th....goal.

Congratulations to a great player. I still don't know what Klinsman was thinking... perhaps his ego in shaping a team, or a need to control younger players got in the way...or perhaps it was simply a personality conflict.  His decision to cut Donovan, however, will be judged by the performance of the US Team at the World Cup.  

Meanwhile, Donovan's performance is now cemented in history.


23 May 2014

A Tale of Two Stadiums... Red Bull Arena vs Citifield (originally posted 24 July 2012)

Over this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend two different sporting events with my boyfriend and my son. In both cases, these events were ‘firsts” for me: my first major league soccer game, and my first time attending Citi Field. And in spite of the pervasive corporate influence in both places….one franchise “did it right,” and one was horribly wrong.

On Saturday, July 21, I watched a match between the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union at Red Bull Stadium in Harrison New Jersey. It was the first time I had ever seen a live professional soccer match. I was a little nervous, simply because I assumed this would all be ‘new’ to me (Disclosure: I was a soccer coach for “mini-kickers,” the five-year old soccer kids, in the early 1990s in Cheshire County, New Hampshire. I also had the wild experience of watching the European Cup in a bar in Holyhead, Wales at about the same time. But I still entered the stadium feeling ‘unprepared’ as an American at a soccer game).

The journey to Red Bull Stadium (to see the Red Bulls, owned by the Red Bull Company) on the New Jersey PATH trains was efficient, but certainly not, shall we say, “aesthetically pleasing.” The signage at the NJ PATH stations is sparse and incomplete, and certainly not up to the standard that this New Yorker is used to. Fortunately, the Red Bull crowds knew their way about, and I followed them to the stadium in Harrison, NJ. The stadium is located in an urban – nay, industrial – part of town, with nothing to see for miles around but iron and steel and rust and grit.

Nonetheless, the stadium rocks.

Seating 25,000 fans, the stadium is larger than Fenway Park in Boston. It is not a “football” stadium, rented by a soccer team, but a SOCCER stadium. It is touted as the *premier* Major League Soccer stadium in the United States….and it is, from a fan’s perspective – a great (and fun!) stadium.

We entered the stadium and my son was handed a red bull cap. We found our way to our seats - fairly inexpensive seats (about $24) in section 223. I was a bit nervous, as these seats were located in a “corner” of the field, and fairly “up” in the stadium. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the seats were. In fact, I can honestly say that there is not a bad seat in the stadium. All of the action was clearly viewable from any point in the stadium.

And the match began.

We had an unbelievably, enjoyable, wonderful time.

The fans (both the Red Bull fans *and* the visiting Philly fans) were *excited* about the game. The stadium is built with metal floors, so stamping your feet made NOISE. The opposing Philadelphia team brought in drums and fans, and they made incessant noise the entire time. At the other end of the stadium, Red Bull fans unleashed a multi-level banner supporting New York, and matched the Philly fans in excitement and noise. (We’ve discovered there are several Red bull support groups that have special seating privileges as an official ‘fanbase,” such as the Viking Army and the Raging Bull Nation.) This was a REAL rivalry, and it was exciting! I found myself being drawn into the rivalry…and standing and cheering when “our guys” made a goal. In fact, both goals were made by headers by Kenny Cooper (pictured above) – a name I didn't know then, but I sure know now. Just as I now know the name Thierry Henry now. And just as I now know the name of Bill Gaudette, the goaltender who was *clearly* in command of communication with the rest of the team throughout the game. I was drawn into the game, and found myself booing and cheering and clapping and standing and being completely involved (My boyfriend stood up so fast at one point to cheer that he fell back into his chair with a low blood-pressure head rush! Though he continued to scream…)

Were there drawbacks? Sure. No fan likes to be charged $7 for a medium beer or $9 for a large beer (the $7 purchase was actually a better buy). And the corporate domination of the team was clear: the Red Bull Company owns both the team and the Stadium; the team is named after the company (after previously being called the Empire Soccer Club and he MetroStars), and the corporate logo is the same as the Red Bull energy drink logo. But the Red Bulls have managed, in spite of that clear corporate connection, to keep further corporate money “out of your face.” And one must admit that, given the predominance of “the Big 4” (Baseball, Football, Basketball, and Hockey), how in the world could soccer make a splash on the American sports scene without significant corporate support?

The Red Bulls won the game 2-0. I was elated. I was psyched. I went home a fan.

Then, on Sunday, it was on to a Mets game.

Understand that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Mets fan. I went to Shea Stadium as a kid; I grew up (in spite of generally being sports-ignorant) knowing the names Tom Seaver, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote, Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones, and Tommie Agee. I sat in box seats in 1969 as the Mets moved towards World Series victory. I have imagined how a Mets Logo would look as a tattoo on my calf. This is MY team.

But I had never been to Citi Field. And I went with an open mind, and an excitement at having been able to attend a Mets game, once again, this time with my son. And it wasn’t just any old game - it was a game against the Traitorous Los Angeles Dodgers, whose exit from New York led to the birth of the NY Mets.

So, off on the 7 Train we went to Citi Field.

We arrived, and I was excited as I anticipated seeing the Jackie Robinson rotunda for the first time. I have to say, it was pretty disappointing. It was smaller than I thought, and was merely a staging point for herding crowds . Oh well. On to the stadium.

On the positive side….I must admit...I LOVED the pavillions. In a masterpiece of engineering and design, in spite of the fact that we were up on the Promenade level, the “food courts” were masterfully designed. I felt that I was at an outdoors food pavilion at Jones Beach rather than somewhere in Queens adjacent to LaGuardia airport. The open-air feeling, and the variety of food choices, were a sheer delight.

Unfortunately, the food was insanely expensive and of fairly low quality.

$8 beers, *cold* fried dough, carrying trays unable to hold 3 mini-sausage & peppers, and no carrying trays able to contain draft beers without massive spillage were annoying at best.
The game experience - in spite of my wanting to LOVE everything – was disappointing.
The seats (we were in section 424), were decent. In fact, it seemed that most seats were pretty decent in the new CitiField (except for the fact that we had to stand to see balls hit along the third baseline in the outfield). No complaints there.

But the Corporate over-kill was overwhelming.

I counted thirty-six different corporate advertisements assaulting my senses around the stadium. Even the scoreboard that gave basic information (balls, strikes, outs) disappeared from time to time for “corporate messages.” Every inning and half-inning was introduced on the Jumbo-tron by a new Corporate Sponsor and fan who had “won” a corporate sponsor contest. The sheer information-overload made it almost impossible to separate – and comprehend – the player statistics from the game stats to the Corporate infomercials.

The stadium floor is poured concrete, which meant that it was virtually impossible to drum up excitement, as all fan sound was muffled even as it started. And the musical accompaniment was incompetent when it came to generating excitement. As a child of the 1960s, I was used to the Jane Jarvis Organ getting the crowd excited.

Instead, at Citi Field, the musician played one, perhaps two measures of a song or chant. The crowd would try to join, the organ would stop, and the fans would be lost. End of excitement. For 12 innings, this continued without change: there simply was no momentum established to get the fans excited. It was a BIG change from the days of Shea that I remembered as a child.

Perhaps most disappointing of all - were the Clothes Police.

Keep in mind, this was a sporting event. An OUTDOORS event. In 95 degree heat. It was not an Opera at Lincoln Center.

Guys at Football games arrive shirtless and paint their bodies with team colors or spell out words. When we went to Red Bull Stadium, we took our shirts off and waved them in the air in celebration of Cooper’s goals.

But at Citi Field? No way.

As I left my seat to get some beer, I was shirtless, but brought my shirt with me (just in case). As I somehow anticipated, one of the hundreds of security-conscious employees grabbed me and explained that I needed to wear a shirt. I decided to comply without a fight, and walked away, arranging my tank top over my head.

Security ran after me.

“You can put your shirt on in them restroom, or right here,” he commanded.

“I’m putting it on right here,” I responded, as I continued to walk and arrange my shirt. He followed me to make sure.

Later in the stands, both my boyfriend and I removed our shirts in the 95 degree heat, with the sun bearing directly down upon us. We saw other guys in sections 404 and 435 taking their shirts off.
A Mets Security Goon came running into the stands to “require” us to wear shirts (in spite of the fact that our backs were against a wall, and no one was sitting next to us). 20 minutes after complying, a different security goon came to check that we were properly clothed. I learned later that Citi Field refuses admittance to anyone wearing a T-shirt that conveys what they feel is a ‘controversial’ message.’

After I got home, I received an email survey about my Citi Field experience. It asked if I was satisfied with the level of Security. The implication was that in security-conscious, paranoid New York, “Security” was a “good “ thing.

For me, it was like watching a game under the surveillance of a Corporate-driven Fascist State.
The comparison between these two stadiums was stark.

The difference was *not* in corporate financing: both were clearly corporately financed. The difference was in the perspective that both teams took towards their fan base, the freedom they afforded their fans to celebrate, the inclusion of their fans in their overall team drive towards success.

I am thinking, today, that I am glad I did not have that Mets tattoo inked on my calf. And that I can’t wait to see my next Red Bulls Game.