A duo of megalith sports franchises, the New York Yankees and Britain’s Manchester City Football Club, announced on Monday Major League Soccer’s 20th franchise and second foray in the tri-state metropolitan area: New York City Football Club.
As officials from MLS, the Bronx Bombers, Abu Dhabi-owned Man City and Mayor Bloomberg congratulated each other during a Tuesday press conference rolling out the franchise, there was one notable absence: the Unisphere, which had become ubiquitous in the league’s push to build a home in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
Sources say the league and club owners plan to slowly suffocate talk of a Flushing Meadows stadium through a series of distractions meant to push the mythical arena to the sports pages. There it will likely die a quiet death, where MLS hopes the Bloomberg administration will be spared the embarrassment of yet another ambitious failure. The process has already begun.
The new club will merge two of sports’ richest franchises, with the Steinbrenners’ wealth and affiliated cable network partnering with over $4 billion in estimated largesse from Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who owns Manchester City.
The league made much hay of locating its next franchise in Queens’ flagship park, noting the mass transit and demographics in play.
MLS officials such as Commissioner Don Garber and President Mark Abbott at various points put an all-or-nothing air around a proposed $350 million, 25,000-seat stadium at what is currently the Pool of Industry. The administration played ball, lauding the soccer stadium in the mayor’s State of the City address and giving MLS the political backing necessary to continue its push.
Instead, the league unveiled a club that will literally be homeless for its inaugural 2015 season, with the use of a temporary home until a permanent location is identified and built.
How could a proposed location presented as something of an inevitability fall by the wayside so quickly?
As recently as last week, Bloomberg defended the proposed location of the stadium and suggested the old Flushing Airport site could be used as replacement parkland.
Then things began to crumble.
On Monday, all parties involved acknowledged the need to consider other possible locations. And nobody rushed to defend FMCP as a potential site.
“It’s pretty clear that the league’s preferred site was Queens,” Garber said during a conference call announcing the new franchise. “That’s why we worked so hard on that. But there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done by Man City and the Yankees to get out in the community and meet with folks and then perhaps look at other options.”
Parks advocates welcomed the newfound timidity towards Flushing Meadows.
“What was obvious to us from the beginning was that the MLS proposal was simply another attempt by powerful billionaire friends and business associates of Mayor Bloomberg to steal our parkland,” said Paul Graziano of Save FMCP, a group formed to stop projects proposed for the park.
According to sources who requested anonymity to maintain ties to the project, FMCP’s precipitous drop from essential to optional is fueled by a mixture of feasibility issues, unexpectedly strong opposition and face-saving on the part of all involved. The Pool of Industry site, it turns out, is fraught with regulatory and practical headaches, and the public needs its attention drawn away from a billionaire owner from Abu Dhabi.
The stadium, however, reportedly carried the extra weight of being labeled a “legacy project” by the Bloomberg administration. Ditching the location in FMCP would invoke the mayor’s ire, but was a necessary repercussion.
Sources said Bloomberg has expended significant political capital in trying to make MLS’s expansion franchise a reality. The potential scuttling of the FMCP stadium would add to the mayor’s list of failed proposals, alongside the failed West Side Stadium, part of the infamously flawed push to host the Olympics in 2012.
The political capital is paired with nearly $2 million in literal capital MLS spent lobbying for the stadium.
Scrutiny of the site revealed over a dozen regulatory hurdles stood between the stadium concept and reality, including six borough community boards and elected officials at the city and state level. Throw into the mix the needed approvals of up to a dozen federal, state and local agencies.
The required replacement parkland also proved problematic. Early reports indicated the league was eyeing the dingy coastline next to the Flushing River. But ecological studies showed the cost of remediation to be prohibitive, a source said, leading MLS to look elsewhere.
A new location, the old Flushing Airport, was then proposed. But lawmakers and community groups blasted the site, calling it too far removed from the community FMCP serves.
“The airport would provide park space in a community that could certainly use it,” said state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), whose support is integral in making the FMCP stadium a reality. “But it’s too far away from families in Corona, Flushing, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst to make up for the loss of open recreational space in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.”
The lawmaker promised to oppose any alienation that substitutes acreage in Flushing Meadows with Flushing Airport.
Then came reports of Sheikh Monsour’s now clear ownership, tying him to the dubious human rights and ethical practices of his United Arab Emirates home.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park began looking like a stadium too far. According to sources with close knowledge of MLS’s plans, a gambit was needed to give the franchise a fresh start. Cue the pinstripes.
The inclusion of the Yankees came as a surprise to many. Manchester City and the Bronx Bombers already had an established business partnership through Legends Hospitality, the Yankees’ sports and entertainment company. The Yanks serve dual purposes. Sources said the Bronx Bombers let the league save face, legitimizing a project otherwise burdened by the anti-gay, anti-woman habits of the UAE.
Garber stood by Monsour, saying, “We as a league have lots of great owners and go through a very comprehensive process to vet and ensure all of our owners are abiding by the rules of the league and are aligning with the vision and positioning of Major League Soccer.”
Yankees President Randy Levine comes as part of the deal, bringing the expertise of having successfully navigated a parkland-for-stadium swap in the Bronx to create the new Yankee Stadium. He acknowledged the value of his acumen in a conference call with reporters.
Activists like NYC Park Advocates and Save FMCP’s Geoffrey Croft point to Levine as reason for caution to anyone thinking it’s time to sit back and relax. The fight for those looking to stop the stadium is not over.
“You don’t want to let up,” Croft said. “At the same time, MLS seems to be very aware, as well as the mayor, that the Flushing Meadows site is not going to happen.”
The game plan going forward, according to sources, calls for a focus on team-related news. It already began with the appointment of former U.S. Men’s National Team captain Claudio Reyna as NYCFC Director of Football. Sources say the media push will continue, with overtures to Queens, and perhaps a token offer of good will in the form of rejuvenated soccer fields — part of the original bait for the stadium proposal.
“I think what you heard is a lot of work has been done in Queens,” Levine said during the Monday conference call. “We’re just going to step back for a second — I’m not going to step back, I’m goint to take a step forward. The Yankees and myself have been doing this for a while. We’re just starting and give us a little time.”
Step back indeed. Levine’s words were the last time Queens was mentioned in regards to NYCFC in two public events since the revelation of the club.
A day later, the Mayor, Garber, Man City and Yankee officials gathered to fete the new franchise. None uttered the words “Flushing Meadows Corona Park.”