(by Grant Wahl si.com 1-16-13)
Is the New York City area big enough for three fancy soccer stadiums?
That's the billion-dollar question after the second-tier New York Cosmos announced Wednesday that they want to build a privately-funded $400 million complex including a 25,000-seat stadium in Belmont Park, located in Nassau County on Long Island. The recently revived team's plan came in response to a request for proposals for the land from the state of New York.
"I made it clear from the start: We'll look to build our own home," Cosmos chairman Seamus O'Brien told SI.com. "We'd evaluated a number of sites within greater New York City. ... It's a state tender, so we're responding to an RFP, not trying to stick the stadium somewhere else. It's in a neighborhood that's effectively zoned as a sports facility with great transportation linkage, road and rail straight in, and a huge car parking [area]."
In a metro area that already includes the New York Red Bulls' MLS stadium in Harrison, N.J., the Cosmos' plan joins another high-profile proposal by MLS for a privately financed $300 million soccer stadium in the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park section of Queens. The MLS stadium plan has gotten the support of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others.
MLS has said it wants to add a second New York City-area franchise as the U.S. top-flight league's 20th team, and commissioner Don Garber said there are four interested ownership groups that could compete in an auction to bring an expansion fee of as much as $100 million. (The winning ownership group would also fund the MLS stadium.)
But the Cosmos are increasingly looking like a competitor and not a prospective member of MLS.
The legendary NASL club that featured Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer in the 1970s was revived in 2010 -- largely to sell merchandise -- but the leadership of that revival was more talk than action and was replaced in 2011 by O'Brien, a veteran of the European and Asian sports industry. The principal owner of the Cosmos is the Saudi Arabia-based outfit Sela Sport.
In July, the Cosmos joined the revival of the NASL, which is now the second-tier U.S. pro soccer league. The team will begin play this fall, with home games at Hofstra University on Long Island. There is no promotion and relegation in U.S. pro soccer, preventing the Cosmos from rising to MLS on the field of play, and the Cosmos' stadium proposal shows that it's not willing to wait on MLS' stadium plan.
"I'm not going to comment on what MLS want to do," O'Brien said. "All I know is [a stadium plan] would make us a more compliant owner than we may or may not be now. We have a soccer-specific stadium. So surely they'd have to be delighted, wouldn't they?"
It's fair to say that MLS is hardly delighted by the news, however, considering its own separate plans. MLS executive VP Dan Courtemanche did say this in a statement:
"Major League Soccer continues to work with the city of New York and local elected officials on our quest to build a soccer stadium in Queens and are making progress with the project. We are in discussions with a variety of potential ownership groups, all who are very interested in being involved with the division I soccer league in North America. MLS continues to support the development of the lower leagues."
O'Brien did answer some other pertinent questions. For starters, would the Cosmos' proposed stadium really be entirely privately funded?
"Yes," he said. "From the ownership. We've got the resources to fund this stuff. That's the first bridge we had to cross. That wasn't an issue. We've called a fantastic team of architects, engineers and master planners in a short period of time."
When would the Cosmos stadium be ready?
"The idea would be playing there in the 2016 season," O'Brien said.
And, in the end, is the New York City area big enough for three fancy soccer stadiums? Why, even Red Bull Arena has had disappointing crowds.
"I think soccer from the facilities point of view has probably been undeserved in the area," O'Brien said. "I think Red Bull Arena is a fantastic development. If we can complement that on the other side of town, terrific. If somebody else [read: MLS] wants to build one down the road, I'm not scared of competition. It isn't going to stop us building our home for the Cosmos.
"We're responding to a proposal from the state. We think it meets all the objectives of the RFP. It's funded. It provides construction jobs and over 3,000 full-time jobs. It creates a brand-new park for the community. It's got retail and restaurants and a hotel, all the things the state required. We think it's a compelling proposal. Obviously, there are a lot of negotiations and discussions to have. We're only at the first part. But we're excited, and we hope the state feels the same way."
Needless to say, the New York soccer stadium boom story has a lot of twists ahead.