Hudson River Blue sat down with New York City FC CEO Brad Sims for an exclusive interview in the schoolyard at PS 184M Shuang Wen in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where members of the first team and city dignitaries gathered for a ceremony to inaugurate the 50th mini-pitch the New York City Soccer Initiative built in 5 years.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Hudson River Blue: Are you tired of people asking you about the stadium?
Brad Sims: No. It kind of goes with the territory, you know. Is that the question?
Sims: [Laughs.] Because it’s number one when I wake up every day, and go to sleep every day. It’s number one on my mind, I know it’s number one on the minds of so many people throughout our club, and our fans. They want updates. The challenge is the day-to-day things change so quickly, or not at all, that it’s challenging to give updates.
We want to provide a sense of hope, you know? We want everyone to know how important it is to the club. Sometimes people hear the same kind of talking points over and over, but they’re true: The most important thing for this club and for the health of this club long term is having a soccer-specific stadium in the five boroughs.
We have a team that works hard on it every single day, and we’ve invested millions and millions of dollars already into this. It’s one of these things where come hell or high water there’s going to be a successful outcome for New York City Football Club in terms of getting a stadium done.
But I understand everyone’s frustrations because we all share those frustrations.
HRB: You can’t give a blow-by-blow account of every conversation, every negotiation. On the other hand, fans at times feel left in the dark and wish they knew a little more. How do you navigate that?
Sims: It’s not easy. What I appreciate about our fans is the level of passion is unbelievable. I worked for 15 years in the NBA and before that I worked in baseball. It’s not even remotely close. The level of fandom and how passionate our top fans are versus the biggest fans of NBA clubs or Major League Baseball clubs is just not comparable.
When you’re that into something, when you’re that passionate about something, you want to know everything. You can get all-consumed by it. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to know everything, and I wish that they had a seat at the table so they could hear everything.
The way to ultimately have success in a project like this one is to focus, as we say “keep the main thing the main thing.” For us, the main thing is ultimately having success in getting this stadium done. If you look at it though that lens there’s a cadence, and there are people you need to bring in. I said this before, but you can’t get something done if it’s not something that the community wherever we’re going place that stadium really truly wants, and sees, and believes—if they don’t see the benefits that the stadium and whatever other development might come with the stadium are fully aligned.
It’s like negotiating in the media for players and agents. For us, that would be detrimental to overall to our ultimate chances of success. Certain people need to be aligned, and we need hear their feedback, we really need to understand their concerns and what they want to see out of the project. If they’re hearing things not first hand that can be challenging.
We have to have meaningful conversations with the community, elected officials, community leaders, community boards, etc., because without their support, with a shared vision and alignment on what the project is going to look like, it’s not going to happen.
And it shouldn’t. It’s no different, by the way, on a much smaller basis than what we’re doing here today. We don’t just call up and say, hey, we’re going to put a mini-pitch on your school or on your playground. It’s a similar process. What are the benefits to it? We need to get votes from community boards. There’s a lot of background work and you need to make sure the community wants it, in this case that the school wants it, and you got to hear their feedback, and this just for a five-a-side mini-pitch.
When you’re talking about a 25,000-seat stadium, it’s a whole other thing.
In a perfect world I’d love to be able to share everything about the club with every one of our biggest supporters, but ultimately we have to keep the main thing the main thing. In regards to the stadium that means putting us on a path that’s going to give us the best chance for success.
And that’s actually what our fans want. Our fans want us to have success ultimately. I appreciate their patience, and I hope they can trust us that we’re doing everything in our power.
HRB: What is the number one issue for the front office?
Sims: The stadium is number one.
Outside of the stadium, I would say ticket sales. How do we grow the fan base? How do we expose our brand to more people? The best thing we about our football club is we have New York City, we have the biggest market in the country, with hundreds of thousands, millions of soccer fans in our market. The toughest thing is also that we’re in New York City and it’s very challenging to cut through the clutter from a marketing standpoint, get your positioning out there. It’s both our biggest opportunity asset, and our biggest challenge at the same time, but that’s what we’re focused on every day.
From an attendance standpoint we have to maintain our City Member base, that’s number one. In the last two years we had our best years in terms of retention, with well over 90% retention each of the last two years. It’s crucial in order to be able to grow. I’ll use round numbers, and we’re well north of this, but if you have 10,000 members and you renew 90%, which is fantastic, it means you also lost 1,000.
We need to generate more than 1,000 new members to grow. How do we get new fans? Hopefully we work them up the ladder. They come to one game and get hooked, now how do we get them to support the club for the whole season? How do we make sure our current City Member shave the greatest experience possible and never want to leave, that they want to support this club forever?
Those are the biggest things ultimately in terms of he health of our brand, the health of our club. Having butts in seats and supporting the team
HRB: If the number one issue is the stadium for you and the front office, what do you think the number one issue is for fans and supporters?
Sims: Aside from the Stadium?
HRB: Including the stadium.
Sims: Based on all of my conversations with fans, and like you said you started off asking if I get sick being asked about the stadium, that’s the first thing everyone asks about and talks about.
The second thing is winning. They want to see us get a trophy, they want to know if we’re doing the things necessary to put ourselves in the position to challenge for trophies and championships. That’s what we’re trying to do. Our Vice-Chairman put it in his remarks today, that from when this club was started the question was how do we become a perennial contender to lift trophies.
We’re in our sixth year in a row in the playoffs, I think that’s the third-longest streak—I know it’s the third-longest streak in MLS right now. That’s easier said than done. For us that’s the minimum expectation but it’s harder than it looks.
You have LAFC—two years ago broke the record for most points, won the Supporters’ Shield. Fans asked, why can’t you be more like LAFC? This year LAFC missed the playoffs. Still a great organization, by the way. My point is it’s not easy. We take it almost for granted that we make the playoffs every year, and that we’re a team that realistically can compete for the championship.
HRB: Here’s the most important question, what’s the scoreline on the game on Sunday?
Sims: My prediction for the score? Oh boy. I’m not one to predict.
I don’t want to give any unnecessary bulletin board material for Atlanta United, but I fell confident. We should feel confident. This year at Yankee Stadium we have a 25-4 goal differential on the season. We only had six losses in our last 70 games at Yankee Stadium. We have lots of reasons to feel confident.
I like our chances. And I like our chances beyond that game as well.