The New York City soccer scene has been abuzz with the news that the latest owners of the Cosmos brand – New York Cosmos LLC, an international partnership lead by the new chairman of the New York Cosmos, a successful Singapore-based sports marketing entrepreneur named Seamus O’Brien – have finally emerged from the shadows. O’Brien appeared in a photo with North American Soccer League (NASL) Commissioner David Downs to announce that the Cosmos would field a team in the league’s 2013 season.
Two years ago on Aug. 1, the previous owners of the Cosmos used the final of their newly acquired Cosmos Copa NYC amateur tournament to announce their intent to join Major League Soccer (MLS). Received with the same fanfare as last week’s announcement (and many of the same headlines), the original relaunch of the Cosmos kicked off what could politely be called a series of often well-intentioned missteps that took them from Times Square to Singapore, Manchester, and almost Las Vegas – sporting both blackout and whiteout “collections” along the way – and playing a few PDL exhibition matches before imploding in mass layoffs and the abandonment of their youth academy under threat of litigation.
Loyal Cosmos fans have stood by them throughout all of the shenanigans, myself included. There were rumors of new owners, beginning with the Jeddah-based sports marketing firm Sela Sport, which appears to have been part of the original ownership group led by Paul Kemsley. And then, in the wake of Kemsley’s swift departure, the addition of O’Brien, the chairman & CEO of World Sport Group, a Singapore-based sports marketing and event management firm. Yet these new owners chose to remain in the shadows, leaving a handful of staff in their suddenly spacious New York offices to manage the brand’s loan remaining property, the Cosmos Copa NYC tournament, and deal with guys like me.
Then efforts by MLS to build a stadium in New York City gave Cosmos fans a burst of new hope. With the global popularity of the Cosmos, fueled in large part by Kemsley’s marketing machine, many believe that MLS would be foolish not to award America’s best known soccer brand a franchise. And when the league identified their first stadium target, Pier 40 in Manhattan’s Hudson River Park, many – save those who live in Queens – were ecstatic. But the politicians representing the neighborhoods near Pier 40 failed to amend the act that governs development within the park, which meant that MLS would have to wait until the fall before the issue could even be debated.
A week after that watered down Pier 40 amendment failed to gain the favor of Albany’s finest, MLS had reset its sights on a new target in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, near Citi Field in Queens. Once again, Cosmos fans were filled with hope – especially the ones from Queens. And rumors of a site inspection there later this month have stoked the ongoing optimism.
Now the Cosmos 3.0 have emerged, declaring their intent to field a team in the 2013 NASL campaign. True, it is second-tier soccer. But it is a step in the right direction – that is to say, towards MLS – right? And the fact that O’Brien has finally emerged from the shadows, acknowledging that there is indeed a new ownership group, which he leads, should be a good sign that these guys are serious about securing a MLS franchise in New York City for the New York Cosmos, right? Not so fast, folks.
The Next Cosmos Messiah?
If you’ve been reading all the stories about “the return of the Cosmos,” you get the sense that people like O’Brien a lot more than they did Kemsley. Personally I never met either man, but clearly those who have met both seem to favor O’Brien for his “sensible” and “conservative” approach to relaunching the brand.
There are, however, some interesting similarities and differences between the two men. Both are Englishmen, and self-made businessmen. Kemsley had experience managing a professional football club (Tottenham Hotspurs, the team O’Brien followed as a youth), whereas O’Brien – at least according to his bio – has none. In fact, O’Brien’s experience has largely been on the marketing side of the sports world, and yet his leadership has already been celebrated by journalists who have branded Kemsley’s Cosmos as nothing but a marketing ploy.
Yes, the previous iteration of the Cosmos engaged in an exorbitant amount of marketing and merchandising. But to claim that it was all they did would be an admission of ignorance – or denial. The problem, as best I can tell, was that the organization had two teams – marketing and soccer – which weren’t always playing on the same pitch.
Marketing came tearing out of the gate with aggressive advertising and ambitious merchandising campaigns, chewing through money faster than John Terry’s legal counsel. The football side did make some progress, establishing a youth academy - though probably not on the most favorable terms - and eventually fielding a team in the Player Development League (PDL). But they never managed to secure a stadium site, which was essential for a MLS franchise bid. And anyone who faults them for coming up short on that front should give MLS commissioner Don Garber a call and ask him how difficult it has been to find a stadium site within New York City.
Some will say that the real franchise-blocker that kept Kemsley’s crew in limbo was the league’s dislike of the man and his approach to business. That may or may not be true, but O’Brien seems equally ambitious – though arguably far more tactful. Like Kemsley, he’s already talking about becoming the best team in North America and a global powerhouse on par with Manchester United and Real Madrid – all before he fields even a youth team. O’Brien has also talked about creating a worldwide Cosmos TV and developing apparel deals. And yet reporters are calling him more realistic and pragmatic than Kemsley?
Those who cite a start in the NASL as evidence of O’Brien’s realistic and pragmatic approach would be wise to review the facts. The Cosmos had been in talks with the NASL before O’Brien even got on board. In 2011, realizing the difficulty in securing a stadium site, Kemsley’s Cosmos announced their plans to field a PDL team the following season, in hopes that it would serve as a stepping stone to MLS. Considering the turmoil surrounding the NASL at that time, arguably that was the more realistic road to MLS for which everyone is now crediting O’Brien. The Cosmos did play some exhibition matches in the PDL that season, but the financial bottom fell out by year’s end and that was the end of it.
Reasons for Hope
At this weekend’s Cosmos Copa NYC group stage, I had a chance to speak with a number of the remaining Cosmos staff, including marketing manager Sofia Sanchez, social media manager Chris Thomas, and academy director Gio Savarese. I was able to look them in the eyes and ask them about O’Brien and his plans. They’re good people, and I respect their views. Sure, it’s their job to convince folks like me that he’s the real deal. But I believe they are genuinely convinced that he is, which gives me a measure of hope.
The next few weeks – and months – will be critical for the new Cosmos. O’Brien is on a 12-hour time difference, so his first step will likely be hiring additional New York staff – including a general manager. Then appointing a coach. And if Diego Maradona lands either position, we’ll know he’s not serious. But, in all seriousness, those appointments will say a lot more than anything he’s said so far.
Reasons for Concern
However, what I’ve read about Cosmos 3.0 has already raised a number of concerns. The first is that O’Brien might not be as focused on MLS as everyone seems to think. True, he’s stated that he wants to play at the highest level, but he has also cited the league’s shortcomings – MLS’s single entity structure, which controls contracts, caps salaries, and shares revenues…including lucrative media rights - as a factor in his decision to play in the NASL. Does O’Brien plan to play in the NASL until MLS reforms? I’ve always believed that the league will ultimately change those policies someday, but I’m not sure I’ll be around to see it.
And some are starting to wonder what O’Brien might mean when he talks about becoming part of the global soccer community. Does he envision a future in which clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid, and the New York Cosmos will play each other in a super league – some sort of worldwide version of the money machine that is the UEFA Champions League? Given his sports marketing background, it’s not a dream that can easily be dismissed. Especially since the other option would be that he hopes that the NASL – with its far less restrictive structure – might eventually supersede MLS as the dominant league, enabling the Cosmos to play at the highest level without the financial shackles of MLS.
But that could easily have been a simple miscommunication. Perhaps what he was trying to convey is his hopes that MLS will evolve, and the Cosmos with it, becoming a league on par with Europe’s best. Again, that will take some significant reform, as the best leagues have the best players, and the best players demand the best wages – something salary caps won’t allow.
It’s hard to say, because O’Brien has been trying to not reveal more than necessary, a mistake often made by his predecessor. But what he hasn’t said – namely that the goal is to ultimately play in MLS – might say more than many of the carefully chosen words he has said. Clarity aside, one could find comfort in knowing that O’Brien is a shrewd businessman, and his success with World Sport Group – a company he founded and built into a regional powerhouse – demonstrates that he knows how to make sports ventures profitable.
Speaking of which, another concern is whether or not this version of the Cosmos has the resources to make it to MLS. I’ve often wondered how the league will go about awarding a second New York franchise, considering that it is planning to build the stadium itself. Would it add the cost of the stadium to what is already believed to be a $100 million franchise fee? Or will it risk an auction, among the several other interested bidders to which it keeps alluding? Red Bull Arena cost $200 million to build back in 2006-10, so who knows how much a stadium in New York City will ultimately cost in the next few years.
Of course, like Kemsley, O’Brien insists that his ownership group has ample resources. And yet he’s also noted that they’d be interested in additional investors.
The Trouble with Hofstra
The most pressing concern for many is the apparent choice of Hofstra University as the Cosmos home stadium for the NASL. The Cosmos have been quick to argue that nothing is set in stone yet, which I found hard to believe. After all, what league would award a franchise to a team that didn’t have a signed contract for a home stadium? Well, the NASL. I checked with league officials, and they do accept a team if they have presented a reasonable plan for a home stadium, which they have assured me the Cosmos have.
Denials aside, Hofstra was first reported as the 2013 NASL home field for the Cosmos by Jack Bell in The New York Times Goal blog, and he’s about as accurate a source as you will find. Now I’ve never been to Hofstra, which is in Hempstead, New York, out on Long Island. And apparently neither has O’Brien.
The problem is that Hofstra is hardly accessible to most New Yorkers. There’s no public transportation between Hofstra and New York City, though a few have suggested that the club might run shuttle buses from the nearest Long Island Railroad station on game days. And for those of you outside of New York, keep in mind that many of us don’t own cars, given the city’s excellent public transportation system.
Sure, I could always rent a car to get out to the stadium for games. Avis would charge me $148 plus taxes and fees for a subcompact for the day…not including gas and tolls. But the distance from New York City to Hofstra University is 25.8 miles, which supposedly should take you 45 minutes without traffic (at least another 30 with traffic). The distance from New York City to Red Bull Arena is only 9.7 miles, supposedly 20 minutes without traffic (and 10 more with).
For those of you eager to argue that Hofstra is only a 44-minute drive, relax. I used Mapquest to calculate these times, and a variety of factors – from location in the city to time of day – will make it either a shorter or longer drive. But you get the picture: Red Bull Arena, which can be reached via public transportation, is a lot closer to New York City than Hofstra. And it’s more accessible, and more affordable, for more New Yorkers.
I’m also obliged to point out that the New York Red Bulls are playing in MLS. That’s top-level soccer in the US. And they have a pretty good team, last I checked. Haven’t lost a home game all season. Some guy named Henry. French, I believe. Shows plenty of promise. Worth a look.
The Need for a New York Team
I cannot deny that my heart is with the Cosmos. My dad used to drive us from our home at Colgate University down to the Meadowlands or up to Rochester just so we could see them play. And the only real problem I’ve had with the New Jersey – excuse me, the New York – Red Bulls is that they’ve largely ignored us New York City fans. The club has historically done little to market itself in the five boroughs, so I’ve never really had a sense that they are – whether I like it or not – my current hometown club.
I’ve tried to embrace the Red Bulls. I’ve tried to drink the Kool Aid. As a soccer writer, I’ve repeatedly tried to get on their media list – a database to which they send press announcements – but have been consistently ignored. As a fan, I purchased a partial ticket package this season, just so I can see more games. But it’s been a struggle to stay engaged with them (and MLS in general, but that’s another matter entirely). The bottom line is that, if it’s not a gameday for me, there is little in New York City that will remind me that the Red Bulls even exist.
Many of my friends and colleagues have been adamant about supporting a team that plays in New York City, one with a stadium that’s located in one of the city’s five boroughs. I certainly agree with that. And, like many of them, I’m hoping that team will eventually be the New York Cosmos.
But I don’t share a lot of the enthusiasm I’ve seen over the past few days about the Cosmos playing in the NASL next season, at least not if they are out in Long Island. Yes, one could argue that the NASL is a stepping stone towards MLS, if that is indeed their intention, but Hofstra is further away from the city – and a lot harder to get to – than Red Bull Arena. And wasn’t that the issue for so many Cosmos fans?
Signs of Troubles to Come?
What really concerns me is the decision-making process that selected Hofstra. Could you imagine a worse choice, other than wherever Sky Blue played in New Jersey? Frankly, I’d rather see them play at Red Bull Arena, but that wouldn’t sit well with fans on either side of the Hudson – and is about as likely an option as Natalie Portman birthing my babies.
If O’Brien and his people had spent more time in New York City, or even listened to the staff they have on the ground here (or, dare I suggest, talk to some of the fans – their future customers), they’d have quickly realized what a folly Hofstra will be. Some may think I’m making too much out of this. And, if the Cosmos surprise me in the next few weeks with news that they have found an alternate venue that’s more accessible, then I will be duly impressed.
But, as it stands, the Hofstra decision hardly instills confidence in the new Cosmos leadership. No, it’s not like they’re adding a red dragon to the logo with the words fire and passion. But it’s clearly the mistake of someone who doesn’t understand the New York market.
Sure, Long Island is a hotbed of soccer. And it’s easy for an outsider to opt to play there, just as someone might have looked at northern New Jersey, another hotbed of the game, and decide to play there. But if the Cosmos want to build a fan base here in the city, Hofstra is a mistake.
And mistakes happen. At least that’s what I thought when Kemsley’s Cosmos did stuff like establish a West Coast Academy and sign a deal with Umbro – two moves that made no sense for a team trying to join MLS. But such mistakes could also be a sign that this effort will be no more successful than the last. Frankly, I’m a little more wary this time around. And you should be, too.
Proceed with Caution
I need to see more before I get on the Cosmos bandwagon one more time. It will be interesting to watch how this all plays out. On one hand, we have MLS appearing to make progress towards securing a stadium site. The politicians in Queens sound a lot more enthusiastic than some of the ones around Pier 40 did. But talk is cheap, especially when it comes from politicians.
On the other hand, you’ve got the New York Cosmos, reconstituted yet again. They say the third time is the charm. Though I can’t help but wonder if they are on their way to becoming the Larry Kings of professional soccer. Will this be the one that sticks?
It’s hard to argue that the NASL isn’t a step in the right direction for the Cosmos at this point in time, especially if they have genuine plans to field an MLS team in the near future. And there is already talk of reestablishing a youth academy, which is the other end of the player development pipeline from a NASL side.
And the Hofstra selection as an NASL venue? As Bell pointed out, the original Cosmos did a stint there in their first few seasons, back when the NASL was the top league, so one could consider it a good omen. And perhaps it’s a reasonable foothold for a few seasons, until MLS can build that stadium.
But the last iteration of the Cosmos struggled to get fans up to Columbia University for a few PDL exhibition games last summer, and that was a readily accessible venue for New Yorkers (a simple subway trip). Hofstra is a big ask, for a team that may not have much more talent than the old PDL side featured. Plus, they’ll be charging admission, whereas those PDL games were free.
And speaking of talent, the Cosmos made their name by signing big-time stars. O’Brien has hinted that the NASL team will have a few recognizable players, but it’s hard to believe anyone of sufficient merit is going to come play second-division soccer in America. The real question is how will a far more modest team – at least compared to the orignal Cosmos dynasty – ignite the passion of New Yorkers, especially out there on Long Island?
Sure, I’ll be there. But diehard fans like me are the exception. Casual fans have proven reluctant to travel 10 miles for first-division soccer. It will take more than fond memories to get them to travel 25 miles for second-division soccer. And until O’Brien embraces that reality, or proves it flawed, we’re all just going for another ride on this rollercoaster.
Yes, I’ll confess to a restrained form of excitement about Cosmos 3.0. With MLS getting some love from Queens politicos and now the Cosmos planning to play in the NASL, this month has brought us the most promising news in quite some time – perhaps since Kemsley’s crew met with the Borough Boys, the Cosmos supporters club, back in March 2011.
And I know how difficult it is to find a space to play in New York City. In fact, I recently did a story about how a local rec league is muscling a youth soccer charity program off its field in Harlem. There aren’t a lot of options that are available, accessible, and can accommodate a NASL team. Times are tough, and you’ve got to play where you can.
But given all the shenanigans we’ve witnessed over the past two years, I’m cautiously pessimistic plus about this latest news. I want to believe. I really do. From everything I’ve heard, O’Brien sounds like a great guy, completely capable of pulling it off. But until they field a team here in the city, I am going to have to call them what they are: the Long Island Cosmos, and a long way from the dream of a MLS franchise in New York City.