The search for a stadium location for the New York City Football Club (NYCFC), which has been kicked around for more than two years, may be the only soccer match with a resolution less satisfying than a shoot-out.
Reports surfaced earlier this month that New York City Football Club was considering a possible stadium site in a current parking lot of the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. The latest stadium pitch comes after the demise of multiple plans to develop in other locations within New York City limits. The story behind NYCFC's search for a city stadium has elements of dogged determination and a little Quixotic dreaming. At the end of the day, though, sports economists said the club's goal, and the sport's business model, are difficult to align with the reality of urban planning, political power brokers and local community interests.
It's easy to understand NYCFC's determination in the face of so many missteps. "The 'New York' part of NYCFC will be a legitimate part of the branding and help differentiate them," said sports economist Raymond Sauer of Clemson University. In fact, the New York City branding appeal remains the club's linchpin, Sauer said.
Of the latest plan to build in the Aqueduct campus, an article in the Queens Chronicle quoted a source as saying, "This sounds more like a trial balloon than an actual in the works plan. I don't doubt they are serious about this, but it's very, very early."
NYCFC—whose majority owner is the City Football Group, owner of Manchester City and a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi United Group, and whose minority owner is the New York Yankees—initially had their sights set squarely on a site in the publicly-owned Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. That plan collapsed in the face of opposition from local politicians and civic groups who objected to the loss of already scarce parkland.
The club's focus subsequently shifted to the Bronx, where a ground in the immediate vicinity of Yankee Stadium was in the works. This plan fell through after a local tenant who occupies the site the club had hoped to use decided not to vacate.
Early indications are that NYCFC will run into similar roadblocks in the Aqueduct location in Ozone Park. Local politicians have already expressed ambivalence over the idea, which in some cases is likely to evolve into outright opposition, given prior experiences in the city.
And even if the club is given a green light to develop, the site is less than ideal. The Aqueduct Racetrack, in the immediate vicinity of JFK Airport, is an hourlong subway ride from Times Square. In addition, the two A train stations, as is, are likely unable to handle game-day crowds. Such issues compelled the former Metrostars and the NASL New York Cosmos, who both considered the site, to move on to other locations.
A good question to ask at this point is: Why does NYCFC continue to pursue an increasingly wide area of the city when another soccer club has found an audience within 11 miles of Manhattan—in New Jersey?
Indeed, Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., is already both geographically and logistically closer to most of Manhattan than the proposed site. And with the coming opening of a $256 million PATH station in Harrison, the trip across the Hudson will likely get even faster than the one to Ozone Park.
"It's not entirely clear that the Giants' and Jets' brands have been injured by the fact that they haven't played in New York since the 1970s," said sports economist Victor Matheson of the College of the Holy Cross, adding, "The Yankees don't play in the middle of Manhattan, either."
The experience of other professional soccer teams across the U.S. suggests that a stadium beyond a city center is no death knell for a club. Philadelphia Union's PPL Park (20 miles from the city's center) and Sporting Kansas City's Sporting Park (16 miles from downtown Kansas City), which both opened in 2010, are regularly full in spite of their suburban locations.
Nevertheless, "it seems highly unlikely that they'll cross the Hudson River like the Red Bulls did," Sauer said.
Its recent experiences in Philadelphia and Kansas City notwithstanding, the MLS has generally pressed expansion clubs to more heavily consider downtown sites. A Miami club, whose rights were purchased by former Los Angeles Galaxy star David Beckham, will not begin play unless the league finds a suitable location.
"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."
If not within the five boroughs or across the Hudson into Jersey, where else? Aqueduct isn't the only aging New York City–area racetrack in the mix.
"The most obvious site is the Yonkers Racetrack, next to the Empire City Casino," said sports economist John Vrooman of Vanderbilt University via email. "It is currently owned by the Rooney family, which also owns the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers."
"The Yonkers location would give the club access to the diverse fan demographic in Westchester, Queens, Northern Jersey and Southern Connecticut. The key element would, of course, be the political expedience from the private funding of the venue by the New York Yankees and the (Manchester) City Football Group," Vrooman said, adding, "This new Empire City Arena would easily pay for itself." (It would be on the same grounds as the Empire City Casino.)
And in stark contrast to the perpetual political roadblocks posed by both city and borough governments, a professional team might be welcomed in Yonkers with open arms. Mayor Mike Spano tweeted on April 9 that "Professional soccer would be a game changer for Yonkers resulting in increased visitors, revenue, and entertainment venues."
For a non-NYC option, Yonkers may be the best bet. The New York Cosmos of the second-division North American Soccer League currently play in Hempstead on Long Island. The Cosmos, whose desired membership in MLS fell through largely due to their rejection of the MLS's "single-entity" system, plan to open a 25,000-seat stadium on the Queens-Nassau County border near Belmont Park. Whether or not that project falls through, NYCFC itself will likely seek to avoid a Long Island stadium.
Problems exist with a Yonkers location, too. A trip from midtown Manhattan to a Yonkers stadium would be considerably longer than travel to and from a more centrally located stadium (though no longer than the Aqueduct transit). But the real reason that Yonkers seems a long shot is not a matter of logistics; it's again the most obvious and overriding element of the stadium search dilemma: NYCFC has explicitly branded itself as a New York City club, unlike the New Jersey-based New York Red Bulls.
In the meantime, the club will play on a makeshift field in Yankee Stadium, likely for at least the next three years. The MLS season overlaps with Major League Baseball's, and officials anticipate that it will take three days for groundskeeping staff to convert the field from one sport to another. Yankees president Randy Levine wasted no time upon the groundshare announcement to state that "the Yankees are the primary tenant. The schedule revolves around the Yankees."
The Yankee Stadium solution is a stopgap solution at best, even for a team that is partly owned by the Yankees.
"The main problem is that a soccer team wants to control all revenue sources," Matheson said. "For example, Colorado Rapids want that $2 million a year from Dick's Sporting Goods. Back when Chicago Fire were playing in Soldier Field, their rent and other expenses were so high that when they sold a jersey, they didn't make a cent."
Vrooman pointed to the recent struggles of the soon-to-be-former Chivas USA as the second tenant in LA's Stub-Hub Center in Carson. "Playing in a soccer-specific stadium could increase the value of the club by 25 percent," he wrote in an email.
MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche referred questions about the status of the stadium search to NYCFC but added, "We do know that fan response has been very positive about Yankee Stadium."
Matheson was less sure that enthusiasm will be evident on match day, saying, "The soccer experience in a baseball stadium is terrible."
—By Nicholas Duva, special to CNBC.com