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Stage Five, Acceptance: NYCFC forced to accept Yankee Stadium as long-term home

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How political and business missteps have forced the Boys in Blue to embrace the South Bronx

MLS: Philadelphia Union at New York City FC Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

For the casual fan, one of NYCFC’s unique qualities is the fact that team currently plays on the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium. For die-hards and opposing fans alike, playing in the shadow of New York’s most successful team is a source of ridicule. After three years of treading water, however, it appears that there is no solution on the horizon. Although the club has tried to avoid settling in the Bronx, repeated front office errors and political struggles have forced New York City FC to accept Yankee Stadium as their semi-permanent home.

Even before the club’s existence, the MLS announced and began pursuing its intentions to bring a second team to the New York City area. Unlike the Harrison, N.J. Red Bulls, this new team was actually supposed to have a home within the Five Boroughs. In 2012, the MLS announced its plans to construct a new stadium adjacent to Hudson River Park in Manhattan, preferably at Pier 40. This plan had countless problems from the outset – all of which the MLS seemed to ignore. The Hudson River Park Trust, the legal group responsible for park and pier maintenance, needed over $100 million in repairs; yet only had $25 million in its reserves. The MLS eventually ditched the Pier 40 plan, instead settling on a potential Queens stadium.

The MLS set their sights on the Mets backyard, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. This initial 2012 inquiry aimed to complete construction by 2016. This plan, like both its predecessor and successor, was doomed from the outset. The plan stalled and eventually fell through, largely due to the proposed usage of public park space for private enterprise. The Mets also played a role, actively lobbying against the plan, primarily over concerns that a neighboring stadium would siphon potential profits. In April 2013, MLS Commissioner Don Garber admitted that if the Flushing Meadows plan were to fall through, “there is no plan B.”

Despite the Commissioner's admission, NYCFC began its own search for a permanent, soccer-specific home once officially founded. The first plan was to build a stadium in the directly adjacent to Yankee Stadium – with a planned completion date of 2018. In June 2013, Bronx Borough President Rubén Diaz, Jr. wrote an open letter to Commissioner Garber, advocating the consideration of the Bronx as a potential stadium location. By December 2013, optimism swelled, as the team and then-Mayor Bloomberg were reportedly close to agreeing on a $350 million, 28,000 seat stadium in the Bronx.

Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in January 2014 and promptly opposed the plan. De Blasio, an often-anti-business progressive, rebuffed the deal due its massive tax breaks, reliance on public financing, and the requirement of the sale or leasing of public land.

As his spokeswoman, Lis Smith, told the NY Times: “We have real concerns about investing scarce public resources and forgoing revenue to support the creation of an arena for a team co-owned by one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, and will review any plan with that in mind.”

Largely due to de Blasio’s unwillingness to capitulate, NYCFC abandoned the Bronx plan in 2015.

The club then turned its focus back to Manhattan – this time, uptown. NYCFC reportedly explored the construction of a new stadium within Columbia University’s Baker Athletics Complex. Rather than publicly announce their intentions, this plan was leaked by the New York Times, leading to an onslaught of negative responses from both the press and community. The proposed plan would have demolished Lawrence A. Wien stadium and replaced it with a $400 million, 25,000 seat stadium to be used by both NYCFC and Columbia.

For NYCFC, Columbia’s value was the preexisting stadium – and the following property tax exemption. The potential cost of replacement, however, would’ve been massive. Further complicating the plan was a July 1st letter stating that Columbia’s Wien Stadium was approved under New York City zoning law as residential – an “R7-2” building, to be exact. For a stadium project to move forward, this classification would have to change.

The plan, however, was unpopular both politically and within the community.

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez summarized this animosity, stating that: “The news about a possible new soccer stadium in the Inwood section is deeply troubling,” adding “any group with a real intention to develop any possible project should start by engaging the surrounding community that will be directly impacted by the proposal and its elected leaders.”

After the Times broke the Columbia stadium story, Councilman Rodriguez was quickly swarmed with emails from both average citizens and members of the Manhattan Community Board. NYCFC, the catalyst of this discord, clearly never pacified Councilman Rodriguez nor the Community Board. It appears that the club essentially handicapped the plan by failing to effectively liaise with community and political leaders.

It is likely, however, that the club never have considered Columbia a legitimate option, as NYCFC and Columbia do not mesh politically.

NYCFC is owned by City Football Group — a group whose majority control belongs to the Abu Dhabi United Group. Abu Dhabi United Group is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family and the current Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. To put it bluntly, NYCFC is therefore essentially controlled by a Middle Eastern oligarch – a fact that is unlikely to sit will with Columbia’s politically active, liberal student body. Male homosexuality is punishable by death in the UAE. The nation has arrested female gang-rape victims for the crime of “extramarital sex.” Columbia’s student body, in refuting a potential NYCFC stadium on their campus, would undoubtedly take issue with the clubs close ties to a regime pushing such abhorrent policies.

On the other side of the aisle is Robert Kraft. The namesake of Wien Stadium’s field, Kraft is a deeply pro-Israel figure, a Columbia graduate and a massive donor to the institution. The United Arab Emirates has demonstrated a continued intolerance towards the nation. Kraft, due to his pro-Israel stances, would likely oppose the Abu Dhabi United Group’s profitable presence on campus. Columbia is therefore not only a flawed home for NYCFC for issues surrounding New York City housing laws and potential replacement costs, but due to the international political discord the plan would catalyze.

NYCFC has garnered solid attendance and revenue in its two years – leading to an estimated valuation of $255 million. $255 million is paltry, however, especially when compared to the New York Jets, the most recent team to fail in securing a New York City stadium.

The Jets are worth $1.23 billion. Their proposed “West Side Stadium” failed; despite political support, financial backing, the support of the Olympics, the promise of a yearly college football bowl game, and the power of the NFL. Unlike NYCFC’s repeated failures, the project was politically popular, receiving support from Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Congressman Charles Rangel, Reverend Al Sharpton, and a lengthy list of local politicians. Unlike NYCFC, the Jets and other supporters of the project actually engaged the community and offered to make the necessary concessions. For example, the Jets satisfied Rangel, Sharpton, and other officials by committing to hiring minority construction workers and contractors. The Jets even promised to pay $1.6 billion themselves – more than any other professional team ever.

The West Side Stadium had the backing of the New York Jets and its $1.3 billion, the Governor, the Mayor, and the district’s Congressman. The stadium was even the promised centerpiece of New York’s 2012 Olympic bid. The stadium, if built, would have hosted Super Bowl XLIV, along with a yearly college football bowl game to be known as the “Big Apple Bowl.” Despite these high-profile promises and endorses, the stadium dream died in 2005, as the New York State Board refused to approve the $2.2 billion project.

Even in failure, the Jets satisfied local concerns, promised significant job creation, liaised with and secured the support from politicians, and offered to pay for more than 3/4th of the project. NYCFC has done none of the above.

The club has instead opted to pursue their goals secretly, leading to inevitable public discomfort when the plans are leaked. The club has failed to secure any semblance of political support or partner with any potential backers with whom the stadium could be shared. The West Side Stadium, on the other hand, was Mayor Bloomberg’s pet project, particularly as a stepping stone towards his end goal of securing the 2012 Olympics. Mayor de Blasio, a progressive Mayor with no plans to indulge private industry, is not an ally, and will not help the club in their pursuits.

NYCFC has performed inadequately in its pursuit of a soccer-specific stadium. Upon founding, fans of the fledgling club were promised the eventual construction of a stadium, yet repeated political and business missteps by the organization have handicapped even the most meager attempts. When asked where he sees NYCFC in 10 years, club President Jon Patricof, in October 2016, claimed that he would “expect us to be in our own home in the five boroughs.” Earlier in that same interview, however, he admitted that although “we are working on it…there is nothing new to report.”

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz recently came out in favor of a potential stadium, simply stating: “Let’s consider a soccer stadium at Willets Point.”

A 2015 Times report indicates that NYCFC could build a stadium in this location in exchange for a substantial donation to an official city housing fund. It would, however, do NYCFC fans well to remember that the Mets opposed the MLS’ original plan for a Flushing Meadows stadium. Since that proposal, the New York Yankees have bought a 20% ownership stake in the team – a move which is unlikely to appease the Mets.

Although Borough President Katz indicated a preference for a soccer stadium, her focus remains on getting a stadium; regardless of the sport it will house. NYCFC fans will therefore not be happy to hear that the New York Islanders are in talks with the Mets over building a hockey arena in the area. Much like the failed Flushing Meadows stadium, Willets Point is still an unlikely solution to NYCFC’s stadium woes.

Despite Jon Patrictof’s optimism, it appears that NYCFC has no long-term plan. MLS Commissioner Don Graber essentially confirmed as much in 2013 when he admitted that “there is no Plan B.” In 2017, it looks like the Commissioner was right.

The question can be raised – does NYCFC even want its own stadium?

Yankee Stadium, for numerous reasons, can be seen as an ideal location for NYCFC. The stadium is easily accessible from Manhattan, for a diverse community of fans from the Upper East Side, Harlem, and truly anywhere else in the borough. Furthermore, Yankee Stadium’s soccer capacity can be expanded to 49,469 if necessary, although the upper deck is normally closed, instead reducing capacity to 30,321. In 2015, versus the New York Red Bulls, the upper deck was opened, and 48,047 fans streamed into Yankee Stadium. As the team, and the MLS continue to grow in popularity, there is a potential for increased attendance. Although 30,000 fans spread out in the vast seating of Yankee Stadium fails to demonstrate the same intensity as 25,000 packed into Red Bull Arena, more seating means more attendance, which means more revenue in ticket sales. Although fans and players deserve a soccer-specific stadium, it’s clear that business interests will push the team to stay in the House that Ruth built; at least for the time being.

Although numerous articles have been written on the issues Yankee Stadium creates for NYCFC’s actual soccer strategy, it appears that they do not resonate with the team’s front office. Yankee Stadium is currently NYCFC’s home and will likely remain as so for the foreseeable future – largely due to business interests, as the stadium is in an ideal location and provides a potential for revenue growth in ticket sales. Although fans were promised a stadium, the team, thanks to front office mismanagement, political difficulties, and complacency with the current situation, appears to have moved on.