The news of Eric Cantona's hiring by the New York Cosmos to become their new Director of Soccer has sent a ripple through the soccer world and has the famous old North American Soccer League team name in the news again. Brian Straus has a great lead to his story for Fanhouse.com.
Members of the New York Cosmos' office staff -- the only people currently employed by the soccer club without a team -- began arriving at their Manhattan headquarters at 4 a.m. Wednesday.
Selling a product that doesn't exist is mighty hard work.
By that time, the British media already was in a lather over the late-night announcement that the company/logo had hired former Manchester United forward, Nike pitchman, occasional actor and dime-store philosopher Eric Cantona as director of soccer.
Straus goes on to talk about how this is a validation of how far MLS has come. Indeed stories from all over the world on this topic tend to focus on the rise of the MLS and how the recent hires of Eric Cantona and former Los Angeles Galaxy pro Cobi Jones show just how hard it is to get a club these days and just how serious the New York Cosmos are dedicated to being the 20th MLS team after Montreal joins in 2012. One thing I don't see anyone discussing has seemed like a very distinct option to me with every new celebrity hire and every new glitzy ad blast: Perhaps the goal of the New York Cosmos isn't to play in Major League Soccer at all...
Last Halloween, I wrote three parts to a series that I'm keeping open called 'MLS Nightmare'. You can read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 at their respective links. Basically the story is a fictionalized me covering 2011 MLS Cup weekend where Donald Trump has bought the New York Cosmos and everyone thinks he is going to then announce that the Cosmos are the 20th team in Major League Soccer or affectionately referred to as 'MLS20'. What he does instead is announce that the New York Cosmos are re-launching the North American Soccer League and setting up a direct challenge to Major League Soccer. Sound ridiculous? Allow me to potentially change your mind.
1. Every major sport in the United States has faced a direct challenge at one point in time
In 1972, The World Hockey Association launched to challenge the National Hockey League. The NHL had been around since 1917 but it wasn't until 1967 that the league expanded from 6 teams to 12 teams. The WHA took advantage of the fact that the NHL was not in all of the major markets, was missing some Canadian markets, and put teams in very large markets like my hometown of Chicago. Yes Chi-town readers, the Chicago Cougars are not only to be found on Rush Street and in Lincoln Park, they exist in the WHA history books as well. The WHA had seven seasons before some of the franchises were folded into the NHL (Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, New England Whalers, and the Quebec Nordiques) and the league ceased operations in 1979.
In 1967, the American Basketball Association set up shop to go up against the National Basketball League. The ABA had 11 teams while the NBA had 12. The ABA never came to Chicago although Joliet born, DePaul alum and NBA Hall of Famer George Mikan was the first commissioner of the ABA. The ABA popularized the three-point shot but also the New Jersey Nets and inspired the movie Semi-Pro so it's a mixed bag for sure. Eventually the aforementioned New Jersey Nets, Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, and Indiana Pacers joined the NBA and the ABA ceased operations after 9 seasons in 1976.
For a challenge to Major League Baseball, we have to go way back to the 1915 Federal League, but don't forget that the National League and the American League worked jointly together rather than being one official league all the way up until 2000. History could be very different if the WHA and the NHL and/or the ABA and the NBA worked jointly instead of partially merging. You can't argue that the jointly together and then merge after 100 years was unsuccessful for the MLB.
Chicago history timeout. Wrigley Field was originally built for the Federal League's Chicago Whales in 1914, and the Chicago Whales won the championship in 1915 meaning that the Whales, Chicago Sting, and Chicago Bears have all won championships while calling Wrigley Field home. As a Cubs fan, I'll let you finish the thought yourself.
Last but not least we have the National Football League who not only had the American Football League to deal with between 1960 to 1969 but also the United States Football League between 1983 and 1986. At the time the AFL launched in 1960, the NFL had 13 teams. The leagues announced they were going to have a merger in 1966 and that cultivated in the Super Bowl where the winner of the AFL played the winner of the NFL even though the leagues would not officially merge until 1970. By the USFL's arrival in 1983, a merger was totally out of the question as the NFL had 28 teams. While the AFL stayed between 8-10 teams, the USFL had 18 teams at its high point in 1984. Owners eventually spent themselves out of business and the unsustainable growth of the USFL went away after 4 seasons. Of course, I must mention that the Chicago Blitz existed for two seasons with mixed success.
Since every league has seen a challenge, it would only make sense if Major League Soccer got one too.
2. Major League Soccer does not exist in all of the major population centers or urban areas in North America
Major League Soccer only has 6 teams with stadiums in the urban city that makes up the heart of the top 50 metropolitan areas in the United States of America. The New York team is based in Harrison, New Jersey. Chicago is in Bridgeview, IL. The two Los Angeles teams are in Carson City, CA. The Dallas team is so far north it is faster to get to Oklahoma from the stadium than it is to get to downtown Dallas in traffic. Philadelphia's team plays in Chester, PA. The Boston team is closer to Providence, RI. The reigning MLS champions play in the historic city of Commerce City, Colorado. San Jose plays in Santa Clara. Tiny Salt Lake City even plays in Sandy, UT. The 6 teams in the United States with stadiums inside the city limits are Houston (6th), Washington D.C. (8th), Seattle (15th), Portland (23rd), Kansas City (29th), and Columbus (32nd). To MLS' credit, the Canadian metro areas/cities of Toronto and Vancouver have stadiums located in the city borders and their metro areas would be placed 9th and 25th respectively if they were US cities. Montreal will join the league in 2012 with a city stadium and they would rank 15th among U.S. metro areas, just above Seattle. Canadian expansion has served MLS well (at least Toronto ticket sales are very strong and Vancouver pre-season season ticket sales are going quite well) but the population fall between Vancouver to the next big Canadian metro area, Ottawa, is like going from Portland, OR to Birmingham, AL except for the fact that Ottawa already has the Ottawa Senators and is getting a Canadian Football League team in 2013. As they say, that well has been tapped out.
That would suit a new league just fine as they could focus on being a truly American league. Start with the New York Cosmos, aim for a team in the No. 2 through No. 5 metro areas (Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia) and be located near public transportation. It would not be hard to siphon off fans who like accessibility or don't make it to as many games because they don't like trekking out to Bridgeview, Chester, or Oklahoma for matches. In addition, while MLS has arrived at the point where draft picks now talk about their favorite MLS teams and players while they were growing up, some of the teams have also had time to alienate certain groups of fans. Some clubs are worse than others but quite frankly it is a cost of doing business in anything. Disenfranchised fans are not numerous enough to run a second club in a soccer city but it is possible to quickly get some die hard supporters who like soccer but just don't like team X anymore.
After getting into the biggest cities, the trick would be to find 5 or 6 owners who would from other top markets that have been left out of MLS with perhaps an exception being made for Seattle. I mean they love soccer so much who says they couldn't support the Seattle Aces? Top targets would be Detroit who already have a group positioning for a MLS team. Boston, a city that has half of its population as students and again the Revolution play closer to Providence than they do Fenway Park. San Diego, the largest two-sport area, Cincinnati another two sport metro area, San Antonio the largest one-sport town, and Las Vegas which is the largest no sport town. In between you have cities like Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Francisco, Minneapolis, all sorts of cities to draw from for a ten team league.
3. Major League Soccer is pricing themselves out of expansion
Now why would a team like the New York Cosmos go on the absolute insane route of starting their own league? Well how about saving $75M? From a recent article by Mark Ogden of the The Telegraph:
Stiff competition from the New York Mets baseball team, who are also pursuing the MLS licence, and a fee approaching $75 million to secure the franchise are initial obstacles for Kemsley and Cantona to overcome.
The bolding is mine. Explain to me why the New York Cosmos would want to pay close to $75M before paying anything else, especially when MLS teams are consistently rumored to be losing money. Wouldn't that money be better spent on your own team? What about an insurance pool to attract new investors into a new league? That brings me to another point that once you join MLS, you are bound by their rules because it's a single entity company. Most MLS fans who read this will know this already but it's an important part of the argument.
The limitations of joining a single entity company should be obvious and are all laid out very well in this article on Fake Sigi. In fairness, Fake Sigi also lays out the benefits of single entity status and that deserves a look too. Single entity has almost surely allowed MLS to get to where it is today. However, I'm more in agreement with MLS Player Union President Bob Foose when he says
We believe it's now time to take the training wheels off and give MLS clubs the freedom to truly compete against each other and other clubs outside of the league in a manner that is consistent with what occurs everywhere else in the world.
Some teams may fail or fold but I think that would make the league stronger in the end. If you look at the other major sports leagues around the United States - indeed around the world - it is better when the strong teams survive and teams that are managed through incompetence either go bankrupt or get relegated to a different level. One of the main critiques I'm sure this will open up is that there isn't enough money and interested owners out there to put teams in all of the cities that I'm mentioning. I'm making teams out of thin air. Who would put a team in Cincinnati for example?
Well Chad Ochocinco probably but his potential for interested investment partners would be limited. Do you think Mark Cuban wants to pay $75M to fold into a league where the commissioner's office directly dictates his overall team finances and sharply ties up his player signings? He barely gets along in the fairly open structure of the NBA. I think potential owners like Mark Cuban would be much more willing to join a league where they had more control over the finances for their team and didn't have to worry about over a dozen different ways of acquiring a player based on the year he was born in, the country he plays for internationally or the college he did or did not attend. The ability to have total freedom over player acquisitions is a crucial part of the business especially when the talent pool is so vast around the world. Plus those are the rules we think are in place. If you would notice that at the top of this link:
* The 2010 roster regulations are still being finalized by the MLS Competition Committee. The following information pertains to 2009 only and will be updated as soon as possible.
The 2010 season came and went without that page being updated. That's how much they appear to be worried about complying with their own rules. That's how vulnerable they leave themselves to a competing league that would promise transparency. 'As soon as possible' is MLS speak for 'Give a couple of years and we'll keep you posted'. Open books and fair player guidelines should not even be an issue in this day and age of instant news but there it is 'The following information pertains to 2009 only'. At the end of the day, how do you get even a tiny fraction of potential owners out there interested in joining the game when they don't even know the rules of how to play?
4. The New York Cosmos are making quite a splash just to get a MLS team
Does it strike anyone else as odd that the New York Cosmos bought all that advertisement space in Times Square? Even just a little bit? Doesn't it seem strange that Eric Cantona's return to conventional soccer since 1997 is to be the Director of Soccer for an organization that doesn't even have a soccer team? Have you wondered why Cobi Jones would leave the Los Angeles Galaxy, the only American club he has ever known, after 13 years with the team to join an organization that doesn't have any professional players?
Is it that the people behind the New York Cosmos are just making sure this happens beyond a doubt? I can admire that. The ultimate professionals who leave no risk that they won't get the job done always deserve high praise. However, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber has leaned so hard towards MLS20 being in New York, he's practically fallen over. It seems to me it would be enough to make professional hires, find a stadium, and build up the academies. That would trump anything the New York Mets group seems to be bringing to the table and you could save your advertising splash money for a later date. Instead, the New York Cosmos managed to get mentioned on MLSSoccer.com's Morning Kickoff, get a full feature on the MLS website and the MLS Facebook page put the Times Square photos in front of their almost 125,000 followers. This is not to mention the numerous articles, photos, videos, and other media impressions created throughout the world from the Cosmos ambitious moves. All that just to enter 42nd Ranked League in the World? I'm not sold. As the second Broadway run of New York Cosmos continues to unfold, it seems the cast that is being brought in would only do so if grander intentions were at hand and the producers are making Hollywood moves instead of Vaudeville.
In conclusion, I admit math was never my strong suit way back when I was in school. It is very possible that I am underestimating what it takes to get into Major League Soccer while adding up things to equal a sum that isn't there. Blame the Chicago way of 'Make No Little Plans' for living eternally in this city's citizens' hearts and souls... but I think it could happen and maybe most crazy of all, it could work. There would be many mountains to climb and the argument isn't quite complete but let's hear criticism if you've got it. It wouldn't be the first time I've been marked down for not showing my work.