NYCFC: The New New York Team
The rejection of MLS and NYCFC by The Borough Boys left space for a different set of would-be fans to begin their own grassroots efforts to support the new MLS club when it was announced in May 2013. The franchise arrived, almost entirely as a blank slate, with its most prominent identifiers being its connection to Manchester City and the Yankees. The supporters group that formed, eventually known as The Third Rail, valued the franchise’s association with MLS and the city itself. While the team that had a name, an ownership group, and a start date in 2015, it lacked a stadium and an identity. As the franchise moved forward from its genesis in MLS headquarters on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, supporters took their cues from the team and its owners as they established their own relevance.
On the same day as the announcement of NYCFC, potential fans began to organize online to support it. They set up blogs, opened Twitter accounts, and announced their dedication to the team in forums and the comments sections attached to articles on the new franchise. These fans were met with a mix of derision and acceptance from Red Bulls and Cosmos fans. Some welcomed the rivalry and its potential to grow the sport in New York City. Others attacked fans for embracing a new team that they saw as an affront to the existing professional soccer culture in the area and the grassroots fan movement for a second New York team that had been led by The Borough Boys. They theorized that the franchise was little more than a branding exercise for Manchester City and a cash grab by the league rather than team with its own distinct local identity. In short, they questioned whether the establishment of NYCFC was good for the game, the league and the sport in New York and the country.
As the NYCFC fans organized, these criticisms would be part of the process of establishing their culture alongside the team’s structure. The supporter group that emerged, first called New York City Supporters Group and later The Third Rail, was indeed primarily made up of fans who had no previous affiliation with local professional soccer in New York. They had only followed the game abroad or not at all. Part of the attraction of the new team was its lack of a connection to the past.
“MLS has given fans in New York an amazing opportunity to get in on the ground floor,” wrote The Third Rail’s first president Chance Michaels, on NY is Blue , the blog he established on the day of the NYCFC announcement, “How many Yankee fans got to experience their team’s early days first-hand? Our pro sports teams have histories stretching back decades, if not a century or more. NYCFC is that rare chance not only to watch a top level sports club begin in our city, but to help build that club’s culture from the ground up.”
The other primary driver behind these initial fans’ support was the team’s intention to play within the city limits. In contrast to the New York/ New Jersey MetroStars’ beginnings, NYCFC emphasized its place in the city’s five boroughs from the start. Its initial fans would gravitate towards this premise as the first top level soccer team in New York City proper. The Red Bulls were named for the city, but had played every home game in their existence in New Jersey. The Cosmos had once played in the city, but the rebirthed franchise was based on Long Island. NYCFC promised to call the city itself home, a point of pride for denizens of the city who saw it as distinct from the region surrounding it.
In addition, The Third Rail’s initial organizers believed that the success of NYCFC was critical to MLS and Commissioner Garber’s stated ambition to reach the level of financial and onfield success of the sport’s most successful leagues in England, Germany, Spain, France and Italy. The franchise was an opportunity to bring the high level of soccer that these fans had enjoyed on television to the United States. The wealth and prestige of Mansour and others like him was essential to obtaining this goal.
Nick Chavez, one of the early organizers who also wrote for the local publication Soccer Newsday, explained, “Local professional clubs must be supported in the US in order for America’s domestic leagues, and therefore US Soccer, to thrive, and that will be very difficult to achieve if American soccer fans are overly concerned with which entities invested in and established the local club.”
As NYCFC fans began mocking up badges, kits and dream stadium plans, the practical work of finding a playing ground met a series of obstacles. The Queens plan that had been touted by Garber and Bloomberg prior to the NYCFC announcement was derailed by community opposition and the fact that it relied on a partnership with the Wilpon family, the owners of the Mets, and the Yankees’ baseball rivals. In July, Bloomberg made and then retracted a statement that the team would play in the Yankees’ baseball stadium. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz lobbied for a facility in the Bronx, but then backtracked in January 2014, when newly elected populist mayor Bill De Blasio and the area’s City Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito stated their opposition to giving the team any public subsidies. Despite this, the team proceeded with negotiations with GAL Elevator company which owned a parcel of land close to Yankee Stadium. But those talks broke down as well.
In November 2013, NYCFC began significant fan outreach. Their initial advertising campaign featured Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and a number of other Manchester City players kicking a ball in various locations in the city. They spent significant marketing dollars on billboards and press inserts throughout the city using phases tying the club to New York like “Your City, Your Team” and “5 Boroughs, 1 City.” In February 2014, the franchise made its first direct appeal to potential fans by soliciting the public for badge ideas that would be used as inspiration for the team’s designer. A month later they reached out to New York based supporter groups of foreign teams, including many of Manchester City’s English rivals, with a formal letter seeking to “open a line of communication.” The email from the Ticketing and Fan Services department stated, “This club is going to be about the fans and we want to start discussions now because you will help shape our direction and future. We are going to be a team for all New York soccer fans and the first team in a long time that will actually play within the five boroughs.”
For their part, organizers like Michaels and a handful of other fans began talking amongst themselves and with the front office about forming an organized supporter group similar to the others in MLS. Unlike the Empire Supporters Club, which had formed out of the New York City Firm, or the Borough Boys and the Sons of Ben in Philadelphia who had organized around the idea of bringing a club to their city before they had a team, the Third Rail brought together individuals with no affiliation to each other aside from the newly established franchise. The team and its identity led the supporter club’s identity. The supporters even invited club officials to their first meeting in February 2014. The team, however, turned them down.
“NYCFC declined because it does not want to be directly involved with the organic establishment, development, and direction of any NYCFC supporters’ group, besides providing moral support and sharing news regarding the supporters’ groups’ activities and opportunities for NYCFC’s fans to get involved via social media,” explained Chavez. “The new NYC club prefers that the supporters’ group, and those that might be created in the future, all be independently formed and remain an impartial voice of NYCFC fans.”
The first meeting was held at the Football Factory at Legends Bar in Midtown, the home bar for Red Bulls supporters on away days. It was scheduled to take place one hour before such a game. Alongside the excitement and camaraderie that came along with meeting face to face for the first time, the primary concerns for the few dozen fans surrounded the potential problems of creating atmosphere at Yankee Stadium (which remained the most likely home for the first season) and the importance of establishing a “strong brand” for the team and the supporters club that would appeal to fans who followed international teams other than Manchester City. The club viewed these fans as critical for the development of not only the team, but the sport in general in the US. The leadership was encouraged that many meeting attendees announced an affiliation to an European club, but only one named Manchester City. Despite these concerns, the group agreed to hold off on creating their own identity until after the team established theirs.
The results of the franchise’s outreach for badge designs produced two crests based on city symbols, but only after a week long delay over trademark concerns of the Yankees. More than 100,000 votes were cast for the winning design which incorporated the sky blue of Manchester City, the navy blue of the Yankees, and the orange of the city flag into a circular badge based on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s retired subway tokens. Members of the supporters club took part in the official unveiling of the winning design on March 20, 2014 and would become an invited fixture at other key events in the young franchise’s evolution. The most significant was the press conference in April when the team’s owners announced that it would play for up to three years in Yankee Stadium.
In order to make soccer work at the baseball stadium, the top decks and the club seats behind home plate would be closed for game days. The pitcher’s mound would be removed for every match and the soccer team would work around the baseball team’s schedule. “Baseball is clearly the No. 1 priority,” said Yankees president Randy Levine at the press conference. “We wouldn’t do anything to put anyone at any risk; there’s a major investment here in the players.” The Third Rail raised no protest to this development. Their president Michaels wrote on his blog, “Obviously, sightlines will be an issue. And a baseball stadium isn't a great permanent home for soccer. But still, Yankee Stadium is an iconic building, the most important sports arena in the area. There's something very cool about starting out there. It will always be a part of our history, even after we move to a permanent home.”
NYCFC: New Manchester City?
The symbiotic relationship between the franchise and the independent supporters club continued throughout the summer. The team would announce each of the club’s meetings and in turn the club was invited to every team event, as the official supporters club of NYCFC. Once the club decided on the name The Third Rail, they worked with the team’s in-house designer to create a logo. Fans who joined The Third Rail received exclusive access to the franchise’s public events and other team related perks. Together the team, the club and other unofficial fan groups designated four sections of the stadium for the organized supporters with general admission prices. In a compromise, the group agreed to sections in the second deck where they would be less likely to disturb other fans and allow the team to sell the seats behind the goal, where American supporter groups traditionally, sit for higher prices.
Meanwhile, the team’s aggressive marketing campaign had taken hold in the city. They capitalized on the success of the US national team at the 2014 World Cup which had led to unprecedented crowds at watch parties throughout the city. The team and The Third Rail cosponsored a well-attended event at a bar to watch the Netherlands Argentina semi-final.
Spaniard David Villa and Englishman Frank Lampard ignited local interest by signing with NYCFC with the team hosting a splashy public event to announce Lampard’s arrival. The team also made an effort to establish local roots by partnering with eight youth leagues to provide access to the franchise’s resources for hundreds of the city’s children. By December 2014, 11,000 season tickets had been sold. The Third Rail’s close relationship with the team helped them sign up more than 1,000 paid members for $30 apiece. NYCFC Chief Business Officer Tim Pernetti told the Wall Street Journal in November 2014, “They participated in what the badge was going to look like; we let them choose where they wanted to sit at Yankee Stadium. That’s the culture we’re trying to create. I think supporters are growing because they have access to this club.”
Despite the close connection, one of the initial concerns of The Third Rail continued to come to the surface: the team’s relationship to Manchester City and its impact on the franchise’s culture and the team’s roster. In December 2014, the franchise revealed its first home uniform, which along with the badge, is the most essential part of a team’s visual identity. The jersey was a near carbon copy of Manchester City’s, incorporating the exact hue of sky blue as the English club and emblazoning the same logo of shirt sponsor Etihad Airways across the front.
While the badge and the fan input solicited prior to its creation had been praised both by the Third Rail and the American soccer community at large, the kit drew mockery from the press and the first signs of discontent from the Third Rail. It gave credence to the criticism that had followed fans from the inception of the team, that it was little more than a way for Manchester City to expand its global brand. Chavez wrote an editorial on the Empire of Soccer website, in which he called the team’s jersey decision disrespectful to New York City, “The thousands within the Third Rail and other NYCFC fans seem unanimously disappointed with having a nearly identical home shirt as Manchester City in their inaugural season. Some even angry. But, to their credit, they’ve tried to be positive about it and have been defiantly declaring their loyalty — even though many feel betrayed.”
The fans reasoned that the jersey could be changed in the second year with little fanfare. But they found themselves on the defensive again when the exact relationship between Manchester City and NYCFC was revealed on the final day of 2014. City Football Group, the entity that owns both clubs, announced that Lampard, who had been loaned from NYCFC to Manchester City following the announcement of his signing in New York, would be staying in Manchester for the remainder of the English season preventing him from playing for NYCFC for the first half of the team’s inaugural season. This came a month after the announcement that NYCFC’s preseason training camp would take place in Manchester in order to accommodate the aging midfielder. A day later, Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini told The Guardian that Lampard might stay with his team for the following season and it was soon revealed that despite the high profile event announcing his arrival, his appearance in NYCFC’s marketing, and the sale of replica jerseys with his name, Lampard had never signed a contract with the team. On the day of Lampard’s announcement that he would stay in England, NYCFC tweeted a photo of him scoring for Manchester City.
All of this took place with the context of Manchester City facing stiff penalties, including expulsion from the European Champions League, for its violation of Financial Fair Play rules that are connected in part to the amount a team spends on player salaries. At best, City Football Group and MLS had misled NYCFC supporters about Lampard’s contract, at worst; the owners had used their American affiliate as a financial workaround for the benefit of their English one with the consent of the league. The Third Rail issued a public statement criticizing the situation.
“Many fans, including our members, decided to support the team, committed to season tickets, and bought merchandise under the impression that Frank Lampard would be playing for New York City Football Club, not Manchester City,” they said in a statement released on their website. “Many of those fans are rightly outraged by this decision, and we support any course of action they take to voice their discontent over this decision. Our support for our ownership group has been unwavering until now, but this we cannot support. We reject out of hand any suggestion that NYCFC is in any way secondary to Manchester City FC, regardless of the source, and are disappointed that City Football Group would give such an appearance.”
Their faith in the team, however, remained unchanged. In the same announcement they stated, “we trust that this decision will be an aberration.” Given the choice between abandoning the ownership group on principle and staying loyal to the franchise’s broader goals of fielding an MLS team in New York City, The Third Rail chose the latter.
The reaction elsewhere was less forgiving. In dozens of editorials, the American soccer press reasoned that decision set a poor precedent for the team.
“New York City FC is its own club minus unique and original jerseys, minus a stadium, and despite the fact that it can lose players to its parent club whenever they decide for nothing or very little in return,” wrote Brian Sciaretta on American Soccer Now. “It’s nothing new for the biggest clubs in the world to get their way but in normal circumstances the small teams get compensated in the process. Here, NYCFC just gave it all away willingly—due to its inherent nature as a subsidiary. Why would anyone want to be part of this farm team?”
MLS vs. The Supporters As NYCFC fans struggled to come to terms with their secondary status within the City Football Group empire, across the river, the members of the Red Bulls’ South Ward learned that fan favourite coach, Mike Petke had been fired, two years after winning the only trophy in team history. The decision led to the formation of protest group made up of mainly of members of the South Ward, called #RedBullOut. #RedBullOut sought to force the ownership group to sell the team, beginning with a campaign to donate their replica gear to charity. They purchased a billboard near the stadium to publicize their discontent and pledged not to attend matches at Red Bull Arena.
“There has always been a disconnect between the fanbase overall and Red Bull ownership,” said Mike Vallo, a member of Empire Supporters Club and one of the organizers of #RedBullOut. “By its very nature the interests of Red Bull run contrary to this team's fans. We want a team with a local identity that represents us, not a cookie cutter identity intended to market drinks. There are a lot of examples of this disconnect but some of the worst are the firing of Petke and Arena and the teasing of a big name trialist that turned out to be one of Red Bulls racecar drivers coming to visit the team for a day. The vast majority of the members of the team's largest and oldest supporter's group sing 'Metro' rather than Red Bull, that says a great deal about how the fans feel about our owners.”
In response to the negative response to the firing of Petke, the franchise organized a town hall meeting for season ticket holders. The meeting began with a profane shouting match between the team’s executives on the dais and dissenting voices in the crowd, but eventually evolved into a measured back and forth between long-time supporters and new coach Jesse Marsch and new sporting director Ali Curtis. The decision to fire Petke had laid bare the insecurities that continued to haunt the franchise, 20 years into its existence: the coaching turnover, the lack of onfield success, the lack of an identity beyond the Red Bull brand, and perhaps most poignantly the lack of options for supporters who had stuck with the team through its myriad identities and onfield failures.
Longtime supporters had invested significant emotional capital in the franchise, only to once again be let down by its leadership. Their choices were to either to stop attending games or continue to back a team that ignores their concerns. They have little to no leverage because the franchise is protected from true financial hardship by MLS’s single entity structure. They do not have the choice of turning away from the team completely and forming a viable rival, as the fans in England, in places like Manchester and Wimbledon have done.
“The idea of breaking away and doing something on our own is a great one, but ultimately I think it's unrealistic,” said Vallo. “We don't have the same league system as England to accommodate a start-up team nor is our fanbase large enough to support it financially. “This offseason, after the [Red Bulls] spent whatever currency they had with the fans by firing Petke, I think there is a sizable group of fans who are staying away. The diehards won't root for Man City USA but they won't give Red Bull money. They were here before Red Bull and will be here after.”
2015: A Historic Home
Opener The question facing the supporters groups of the two New York franchises mirrors that of fans across the league as unprecedented wealth in the form of television money pours into sport. They seek to figure out how and when to exert their leverage when the controlling interests of corporate leadership and the league office make decisions that are contrary to their interests. On the eve of the 2015 season, the fan grievances of representation, overall quality of players in the league, and establishing unique club identities through the breakup of the single entity system found a potential flashpoint in the labour negotiations between MLS and its players.
The league faced the very real prospect a player’s strike over the league’s prohibition of free agency. On March 3, three days before the start of the season, players representatives voted 181 in favour of a walkout if they were unable to reach a deal with the league and the franchise owners. The Independent Supporters Council, an umbrella group of American organized supporters groups that includes representatives from most MLS affiliated groups including ESC, released a statement in full support of the players.
“[The players] are the ones for whom we sing songs and whom we ask to give their all for the teams we love. We believe the players are not asking too much in demanding a fair share of the revenue they generate from us, the fans. Supporters groups, much like the MLS Players Union, see past the claims of poverty made by MLS and the various owners, who have recently received $240 million dollars in expansion fees from NYC FC, Orlando City SC, and Atlanta. A new television deal between MLS, ESPN, Fox, and Univision Deportes will bring MLS $720 million over the next 8 years. On top of this, there are millions in undisclosed sponsorship dollars, ticket sales, and concessions dollars each season. When one adds to this the associated revenue from such profitable ventures as Soccer United Marketing, the claims of poverty and loss by MLS and ownership ring hollow to everyone but MLS and team owners. The Independent Supporters Council also recognizes that many of the things the players are fighting for mirror what we have been fighting for with MLS for years: transparency, respect for those who helped build the league, and clarity.”
The ISC urged supporters to go to grounds, even if there were no games as a form of protest against the league. Less than 24 hours later, the players made a deal with the owners, allowing limited free agency, but keeping most of the league’s structure intact. The supporters concerns of transparency, respect and clarity were left unaddressed. Twenty years after ESC had been ignored by the MetroStars and two years after MLS had rejected The Borough Boys efforts to bring the Cosmos into the first division of American soccer, the supporters groups were now being treated as an essential part of the league’s brand, but one that could be ignored when it interfered with the profit margins of the enterprise. The league had once again sent a clear message that if supporters were willing to cheer on the team, promote the franchise and remain inclusive and non-confrontational with the front office, they were welcome to join the crowds at the stadium, but would not share a role in the governance of the teams.
With the strike threat past, the remaining option for the supporters of the New York clubs to show their influence was to use the high visibility they retained during the opening home games of the 2015 season. The games at Yankee Stadium and Red Bull Arena would be the featured as national broadcasts. On March 15, The Third Rail filled all four supporter sections for NYCFC’s home opener, but any concerns about the jersey, Frank Lampard, or the team’s identity that had surfaced over the winter were put aside as they embraced the pageantry of the event. Aping the tradition of supporter clubs across the league, they marched into the stadium in unison and raised a tifo with one of the team’s marketing slogans “Our City. Our Club.” Protest was limited to three fans dressed as Where’s Waldo with Lampard and a question mark on the back of their shirts.
The franchise made every effort to emphasize the ground-breaking nature of the occasion. Mayor Bill De Blasio issued a proclamation designating, March 15, 2015 as “NYCFC Day” and the team sold out of scarves emblazoned with the words “Historic Home Opener.” Just before kick off the high definition video board screened a sepia toned short film called “The History of New York Soccer” with actor Michael Rapaport referring to the city’s ethnic teams in the past tense and occasionally mispronouncing their names: Brooklyn Field Club, Brooklyn Robins Drydock, New York Hakoah, Brooklyn Saint Mary’s Celtic, Brooklyn Hispano, Saint Eichatadt of New York, New York Ukrainians, and the Brooklyn Italians. There was no mention of the Centaurs, the Red Bulls, or the Cosmos or the fact that the Italians were preparing for their own 2015 season.
Influenced by the environs, the atmosphere of the day belied the steady hum of soccer songs and instead gravitated in favour of the sporadic chants and crowd wide cheers of a baseball game. With all but a few fans set far back from the playing surface and the Third Rail’s instruments limited to a single handheld base drum, the supporters group led the stadium through arrhythmic chants of “Fuck New England” (the day’s opponents) and “Let’s Go New York,” but at times found themselves out sung by the Revolution’s away section. Toward the game’s end, a 20 NYCFC win, a rendition of “Take Me Out The Ballgame” made its way through the supporters section. Many fans spent a significant portion of the game in line at the teeming merchandise shops where the franchise set a league record with more than $500,000 in business. The announced attendance at Yankee Stadium was 43,507 slightly less than 46,826 the New Jersey/New York Metrostars than had drawn to Giants Stadium for their inaugural game in 1996.
A week after NYCFC’s first home game, the Red Bulls played their first game of the season in Harrison. A rumoured Empire Supporters Club protest that would have left Section 101 in the South Ward empty at kick off did not materialize. Instead, the South Ward raised a tifo that included the jerseys of four famed franchise players, including Mike Petke, and the words “Legends Define Our History.” As the game began, ESC raised a banner that read “Legends Deserve Better” and led the less than capacity crowd in a 10minute refrain of the fired coach’s name. They stayed in their section and cheered the team on to a 20 win over DC United.