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May 272013

They have no permanent home. They have no coach. They have no official colors/uniforms. They won’t start playing for two more years.

But none of that stopped MLS from announcing that New York City FC (doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?) will become the 20th franchise in 2015.

The league chose to pass on the newly revived New York Cosmos (and vice versa) as well as the fully functional Lions of Orlando City in the USL-Pro division. The team will be owned, in part, by Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan as well as Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees. The move is being hailed as a saving grace for the young league, partly due to the reported $100 million franchise fee.

It’s somewhat appropriate (and perhaps not entirely coincidental) that this move first gathered steam in November after it was announced David Beckham would depart Los Angeles to join France’s Paris-Saint Germain in the international transfer window in January. Beckham, after all, was the last “sure thing” to hit MLS when he arrived in 2007. He brought about the creation of the Designated Player Rule (a player whose salary does not count against the $2.9 million salary cap) and produced a flurry of youth jersey sales and sellout crowds.

For one year anyway.

Yes, Beckham has had on the field success leading LA Galaxy to back-to-back MLS Cup titles but he was always a sideshow first and foremost; an excuse to get the casual sports fan in America to pay attention to the best MLS has to offer. During his first two season in Los Angeles, almost every road game he traveled to would sellout.

But then people lost interest. Suddenly teams like the Columbus Crew, a team in a “small” city with a lot of soccer moms and youth teams aching to see the star power of Beckham, couldn’t even sell out their home match with the Galaxy in advance. TV Ratings fell off the map; not that they were all that high to begin with. Suddenly the league found itself back at square one in need of more consistent national TV ratings and further increases in attendance.

This isn’t entirely Beckham’s fault though. Upon his arrival, new franchises like Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers entered the fray and briefly propped up TV ratings due to their boisterous fan bases. Half of MLS’s national TV audience simply wanted to hear drunk Pacific Northwestern-ers sing in unison. This was, after all, part of the appeal of watching teams in other countries play. The atmosphere was fun to take in, even on television.

Now there are loud whispers that NBC will not renew its current deal with Major League Soccer as it turns its attention to the English Premier League. These rumors, coupled with the departure of Beckham, have left MLS with nothing traveling circus act to make people pay attention. With no form of promotion/relegation and countless financial/personnel restrictions, teams cannot grow their presence organically. Everything must be force fed.

Enter New York City FC.

A team within the Five Boroughs of New York City will try to become the latest “attraction” for MLS. So powerful is this move, that it was announced without a permanent home for the team or even official colors and a logo. We know absolutely nothing about this mysterious new team other than they will have owners with deep pockets. But what good are said pockets under the MLS rules. Yes, they can go out and find 3 Designated Players, but will any of them garner the star power that Beckham brought? What aging international stars will come collect their pension from America’s top professional league?

These questions are all part of the “mystique” that will accompany NYCFC when they finally do take the field in 2015; reportedly at Yankee Stadium. The mystique may last for the first full season, but teams like Columbus, FC Dallas, Colorado Rapids, and Chicago Fire will not benefit directly from the existence of this 20th team. The money will not trickle down, even under the current single entity structure of the league as a whole. They may sell out their home match with the new guys from New York in 2015, but unless they bring the likes of a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo with them the “effect” will only last for that one season. Houston and Kansas City soccer fans will not suddenly consider NYCFC “must-see TV” and tune in with increased numbers.

The league will continue be stagnant and there will be little overall growth.

This is what happens when the league and the people who run make short sighted decisions (like this sudden announcement of a 10% complete team) and try to grab short term success with a long term plan in place. These are the same men who thought it was a good idea to give “their” league rules and procedures (mandatory shootouts and backwards counting clocks) that were fundamentally different from the universal laws of the game that the rest of the world abides by. These are the same men who milked an aging superstar for a few jersey sales and a temporarily successful national TV deal.

Even if New York City FC takes over the Five Boroughs and has a “Cosmos Effect” on the city itself (something that is hardly a certainty) it won’t help promote the rest of the league. It won’t help New England Revolution and DC United find their own soccer specific homes. It won’t produce a lucrative national TV deal. It won’t help grow the game at a grassroots level.

It is a band aid for a league that is really in need of surgery.

But none of that will matter. The league will milk its latest sideshow attraction for a couple years and come right back to square one.

Then what?

Adam Uthe

VP of Content Development for GFT and proud supporter of Columbus Crew (MLS) and Liverpool FC (EPL). @AUtheGFT

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