Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Cosmos Conundrum

If you are a fan of American soccer, then by now you have heard that the New York Cosmos, arguably the most fabulous brand in the history of American soccer, are re-booting the franchise and making noise about becoming the 20th expansion team of the MLS.  With five NASL trophies, the Cosmos to this day remain the most successful professional domestic US soccer team ever (compared with DC United's four MLS trophies).  And yet, despite all the hooplah and noise surrounding the re-launch of the Cosmos brand, the franchise has yet to secure a spot in the MLS, announce any kind of stadium plans, or hire even one player.  For all the whiz-bang marketing flash presently surrounding the 'club' (can we call them that yet?), the absence of any visible concrete progress towards actually fielding a team is curious, to say the least.

A bit of history is in order.  When the old NASL folded in 1985, the victim of its own excess (with the Cosmos leading the way in over-spending), the club's manager G. Pepe Pinton secured the rights to the team and, for many years, was the custodian of the Cosmos legacy.  Over the years Mr. Pinton refused several overtures to re-launch the franchise as an MLS side, believing that the new league would not honor the Cosmos legacy.  But that changed when the MLS began reviving some of the other old NASL teams-- such as the Sounders, Timbers, and Whitecaps-- which convinced Mr. Pinton to finally sell the franchise to Mr. Paul Kemsley, the former vice-chairman of Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League.  Mr. Kemsley has publicly stated that he intends to re-launch the franchise as an MLS team, much to the delight of American soccer fans everywhere.

The problem is, since announcing his intentions last year, there have been absolutely no concrete signs of progress towards that goal.  So far, its all been marketing.  Sure, Kemsley did bring in former Cosmos superstar Pele as the club's Honorary President, and Giorgio Chinaglia as its "International Ambassdor."  He also brought on former Manchester United Star Eric Cantona to be the new Director for Football Operations, and he signed LA Galaxy star Cobi Jones to the role of Vice-Director.  Cosmos youth camps have been established in both New York and in California, and Kemsley has purchased billboard advertising in Times Square and (oddly) launched some major marketing efforts to promote the brand in Asia.  All of this gee-whiz stuff is great... but what about the stadium?  What about actually fielding some players?  So far, the whole enterprise has been one giant marketing exercise, with no actual football in sight.

This raises legitimate questons about what Mr. Kemsley's intentions really are.  For his part, Mr. Kemsley has certainly sent mixed signals.  Yes, he has said that he wants to 'play nicely' with the MLS and its league-centric way of doing things, which is encouraging for MLS fans; but he has also said that he wants to make the Cosmos the "Number 1 soccer franchise in the world," which is exactly the kind of talk that freaks out MLS executives.  We must not forget that the MLS league-control operational model was instituted precisely to avoid the kind of financial excess that sank the old NASL, so this kind of big talk from Kemsley does not endear himself to MLS commissioner Don Garber.

For his part, Commissioner Garber has made it very clear that he wants the league's 20th expansion franchise to be in New York.  With the New York Red Bulls already competing in nearby New Jersey, the advent of another New York side would create an instant and hugely profitable New York Derby, to the benefit of the Cosmos, the Red Bulls, and the league as a whole.  So on many levels the rebirth of the Cosmos as an MLS side makes sense.

But its not a done deal yet, and there are other suitors in the hunt.  The owner of baseball's New York Mets, Mr. Fred Wilpon, is also rumored to be interested in an MLS franchise, and from the league's perspective he may be a safer bet for an expansion franchise than the big-talking, free-wheeling Kemsley.  And there are other problems too-- both Kemsley and Wilpon are rumoured to have financial problems (with their core business investments all losing money these days), which may prevent either of them from actually being able to afford the MLS expansion fee (up to $100 million by some accounts), or the cost of building a new stadium in pricey New York City.  So, despite all the hopeful news and the presence of Pele and Chinaglia and Cantona and Jones, nothing seems 'real' quite yet.

So what is Kemsley up to?  I think the signs point to him being serious about standing the club up again, but I am not sure what his end-game is.  Will it really be the MLS?  Or could it be, as some other bloggers have suggested, that he actually will end up dodging the hefty MLS expansion fee in favor of joining the newly-reborn NASL?  Financially speaking the hurdles for joining the reborn NASL are certainly much lower than for an MLS franchise, so there is some logic there.

Bu this too presents a problem, because it seems clear that Mr. Kemsley's ambition is far grander than merely standing up a Division II side, especially for this franchise.  I think that if the reborn New York Cosmos end up in the NASL, there will be a big push to jump-up the NASL to Division I status, leading to direct competition with the MLS.  This would be Very Bad News for American soccer: two rival leagues, one with a league-centric operational model, and one with an owner-centric operational model, in a nation that scarcely supports even one top-flight soccer league.  The NASL would be free to spend spend spend and that would certainly put butts in stadium bleachers; but haven't we been down this road before?  As I recall, that story did not have a happy ending.

For my part, I think the only way that a two-league situtation plays to the advantage of American soccer, would be if it led to an MLS-NASL merger and (more importantly), a promotion-and-relegation system, which almost every American soccer fan I speak to is in favor of.  The absence of a promotion-and-relegation system is one of the real weaknesses of American football.  But on the other hand... hazarding the fortunes of American football merely on the possibility of an eventual merger seems quite irresponsible, even if it potentially saves Mr. Kemsley a ton of money.  It looks like a bad bet for US soccer overall.

I think, at the end of the day, Mr. Kemsley must curb his ravenous ambition, pony up the money to play as an MLS side, build a new stadium in New York (however expensive that may be), abide by the MLS operational model, and then do his level best to milk the New York Derby for maximum profit.  As much as I am delighted to see the rebirth of the NASL-- and as much as I would like to see my beloved Fort Lauderdale Strikers as an MLS side-- the potential for disaster if the Cosmos go anywhere but the MLS, seems too great to risk.

The MLS model has succeeded where the old NASL failed.  The MLS has been in existence for 18 years now, compared with the 16 year history of the old NASL.  We live in a country where soccer has only fringe public interest, and has to compete with a great many other professional sports leagues.  Under those circumstances, any movement backwards towards an owner-centric operational model would be a BIG mistake.  This isn't Spain or Britain where football is the only big-league sport to watch.  Let's not mess with success. 

If Mr. Kemsley does this right and the Cosmos end up as an MLS side, he will be a hero and the rebirth of the most famous soccer team in American history will be a beautiful, wonderful thing.  We'll all cheer and I'll be happy to join in.  But if Mr. Kemsley's ambition and his financial limitations lead us down the path of inter-league competition, he may well earn a legacy as The Man Who Ruined American Soccer.  Let's hope he becomes a hero and not a goat.

Message to Mr. Kemsley:  Don't fuck this up, or the American soccer community will rise up in outrage and run you out of the country.  And stop playing these silly marketing games and either get on with it, or sell the franchise to someone who will.