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What now for the New York Cosmos?

Aug 4, 2013, 4:05 PM EST

Fort Lauderdale Strikers v New York Cosmos Getty Images

The New York Cosmos’ long-awaited return was always likely to garner significant attention, and the sellout crowd of 11,929 at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium ensured that, for one night, the hype would be justified. But after an event fueled more by nostalgia than any quality reported on the field, a difficult, uncertain future has finally arrived for the reborn club. As the buzz from their opener dissipates and the realities of second division soccer set in, the Cosmos are going to have to do more. They’re going to have to augment their history to establish relevance with a new generation.

That’s what’s striking about the Cosmos’ revival. For the most part, the hype around the team has been churned by the generation that experienced the original franchise’s success. Among younger fans — the demographic soccer is leaning on to try and achieve its mainstream success — the Cosmos brand just isn’t as strong. With some of the most prominent voices in the previous generation now occupying places in the media (people like Shep Messing), the message has been laid on a little thick. We’re being told the Cosmos are big — much bigger than their league or standing suggests — but we’re not seeing a proof of concept.

That’s not to say the Cosmos’ return isn’t big in other respects. That such a storied brand is making its competitive return is historic. But their time between competitive games was almost 30 years. The youngest people who have a relevant memory of the NASL are already into their late 30s and 40s. This might literally be your grandfather’s soccer team,  with the contention that a team is automatically relevant based on brand alone reflecting another New York-based team: the Harlem Globetrotters.

As the Globetrotters show, in sports you just can’t get by on marketing alone. You can perhaps transcend athletics and go into show business, but if you’re going to be a major sporting brand, you have to be relevant in product (on the field) and in context (a compelling league). The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Cowboys – they wouldn’t be their sports’ biggest brands without huge success in their sports’ biggest leagues, and as the toil of women’s sports as shown, the start power of people like Mia Hamm aren’t enough to make their teams or leagues significant. Team success and league profile are necessary.

Both of those are problems for New York. For an NASL team, the Cosmos have put together a compelling roster, though they’re unlikely to find major success in the fall season. The league’s more established clubs just have too big start for Giovanni Savarese’s team to be an overnight success, a struggle that bled through the cracks of their 2-1 opening night win against Fort Lauderdale. As Strikers’ head coach Günter Kronsteiner implied after the game, the Cosmos aren’t actually that good, yet. And until they can dominate second division clubs, they’re unlikely to find relevance on the New York sporting landscape.

Then there’s the league and that problematic second division existence. Unfortunately, in turning his back on MLS in July 2012, New York owner Seamus O’Brien has probably capped his club’s potential relevance, particularly with the full weight of Major League Soccer behind the 2015 arrival of New York City FC. Whereas at one time you could see the Cosmos being incorporated into Major League Soccer, now their existence is firmly tied to second tier. Owning a significant portion of the league’s marketing rights, O’Brien has a vested interest in the NASL’s success, while slow changes in league management and urged by the Cosmos mean more crucial decisions are originating in New York, not the NASL’s Miami offices.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Cosmos COO Erik Stover outlined the club’s vision. Is it to be promoted to MLS, he was asked? Not necessarily. The team needs to improve, though they’re not intent on doing it by outspending their NASL opposition. Training facilities, stadium, youth academy – there were a number of parts to the club that need to be put in place. But eventually they want to win U.S. Open Cup. They want to get into CONCACAF Champions League. They want to play in Mexico, where Stover noted Major League Soccer teams have yet to have relevant success. Is a potential appearance in a Club World Cup within the grandiose vision of this restart?

Still, let’s conjure a hypothetical and consider a world where the New York Cosmos reestablish their relevance. In that world, they’d then be a viable competitor with Major League Soccer, if not on a league level then certainty to the relevance of NYC FC and New York Red Bulls. At that point, doesn’t Major League Soccer start fighting back? And when that happens — when MLS starts meaningfully competing for fans, marketing with their new competitor in mind, competing for players — how do the Cosmos win that fight? What is a conception of success where they don’t have to spend themselves into the ground to gain traction against MLS?

Anything’s possible, but after yesterday’s opener, the Cosmos have reached their first summit. Inevitably, there’s going to be a dip in interest, one that will test their staying power. But lacking on-field success or league relevance commensurate with their self-manufactured hype — with so much of their relevance still tied to an incarnation that expired 29 years ago — it’s unclear what a viable end game is for this old team’s new addition.

Perhaps if he’s lucky, O’Brien can establish a new brand, entice a buyer, and recoup some of what he’s put in. That’s a more realistic goal for the Cosmos.

  1. dfstell - Aug 4, 2013 at 4:28 PM

    Here’s what I think could be wrong with this analysis. I think the hardcore soccer community in the US is a little too close to the situation to understand how weak of a league MLS is from a financial and branding standpoint. I mean, those of us who write blogs or cover the teams or bother to contribute in the comment sections, WE know all about MLS and who the current expansion candidates are and how the DP rule works, etc. But outside of our hardcore fringe community, nobody knows anything about MLS. In chatting with my friends on my rec league team, they know almost nothing about the league. They know about the LA Galaxy because Beckham played there and they know what DC United is, but beyond that….nothing.

    So, I think it’s a mistake to treat MLS like the established, 500-pound gorilla and the NASL as some puny weakling that is doomed to fail. The more proper analogy might be that MLS is a rat and NASL is a mouse. Now that Cosmos are in NASL, it is like the mouse took some steroids. I dunno….can a mouse on steroids beat a rat?

    It really doesn’t take much to trump what MLS is doing. To run a better team than most MLS clubs you only need $15MM/year. That is really chump change. A-Rod or Wayne Rooney or Kobe Bryant could run an MLS club with part of their salaries.

    I don’t think it’s likely that NASL (and Cosmos) overtake MLS, but I can easily see how they compete. If they buy a competitive team and win championships in NASL, the NY market will love them. Nobody up there will give a crap that the other NASL teams aren’t as good. These are the same fans who have cheered the Yankees for years. NY fans love being the big dog. Then if new owners like the unfettered NASL environment better than Don Garber, they might throw in with them. It could be that in 15 years, some new league is resurrecting a few MLS brands as new teams.

  2. footballer4ever - Aug 4, 2013 at 4:52 PM

    Cosmos did not join MLS because they want to run their club as they please and benefit themselves only. MLS does not need a club whose mentality is stuck in the 70′s and their heads stuck under the ground. NASL accepted them because they need to use any spotlight they can get. Not many people are fan of the single entity league, but it was a necessary evil to have in order for the league to survive and to eventually grow. The next step MLS must overcome to get rid of the single entity system is for a successful tv revenue contract and for the constant viewership support from all football fans.

    • dfstell - Aug 4, 2013 at 6:26 PM

      Yes….they need a better TV contract, but they also need to come up with some way to be inclusive to all the fans of lower league clubs. I think the best way to do that is promotion/relegation, but there could be other ways (although I’m not sure what they are). Right now they have a model that excludes everyone who isn’t deemed acceptable. I’m happy to see Cosmos take a shot at doing it their own way.

    • troy2 - Aug 4, 2013 at 6:33 PM

      Good analysis. I think your read of the situation with the Cosmos is right on.

      I read somewhere that Cosmos didn’t like the idea of losing control of the brand like they would have to to enter MLS. Also the controlled budget. Although this squad doesn’t seem to be rivaling any cap MLS has. Building an expensive stadium out on Long Island just seems like attention-grabbing rather than serious.

      @dfstell: MLS has all the media for soccer in the US and sorry Hofstra isn’t Giants Stadium. In trying to find the score from the Cosmos game I had to search Twitter because none of the sports sites had it up. Nor do any of them have any (obvious) link to NASL scores or news. I agree that the Cosmos brand is stronger than any MLS team, save the Galaxy, but that hardly gives them enough power to rival MLS. I say it would give them clout to join the league later down the road.

  3. footballer4ever - Aug 4, 2013 at 8:58 PM

    @dfstell

    A solid profitable tv revenue contract is one step, but what matters is for the MLS football fans and any fan of the beautiful game to tune in constantly to the matches on tv regardless if it’s their local football club or not. Mind you, i am in a non -MLS city, but i support the league by being a fan in purchasing MLS live, tune in to the football matches on ESPN/WatchESPN and via /NBC-NBCSN-NBcLiveExtra as much as i can.

    As far as the relegation topic goes, that is beating on a dead horse and i won’t get into that anymore except that is daydreaming. If Cosmos want to do it their own way to be the big fish (chuckles) in a small pond named NASL, so be it…..lightning might strike twice on the same spot. As a fan of football, the beautiful game, i wish every team/league/footballer success, but when it comes to top league football, MLS has been thru the thick and thin to earn their stripes to be the main US league. Cosmos, you could have been part of the sport/MLS league, but you choose to care for your own agenda and your own wi$he$ above any league and the sport you seem to represent. $hame on you!

  4. mcny - Aug 4, 2013 at 11:14 PM

    Wow i’m really impressed with your article Farley…you, somehow, were able to put this out while firmly having your face up Garber’s rear end.

  5. adiaz9201 - Aug 5, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    The cosmos are not in MLS because they couldnt come up with the $100 Million fee and yes, they had they own agenda that wouldn’t fit with MLS rules. That being said its a huge mistake for MLS not to pursue even harder in obtaining the name cosmos in to their league, just think about it, i was watching their game saturday and on the the field their brought in their past legendary players, pele and company, can we even imagine Pele endorsing MLS the way he is doing for NASL is huge miss opporutnity. The cosmos are legendary like the Yankess, NASL can one day give MLS a run for their money, they better do soemthing about it before it becomes a mess, remember the ABA and NBA AFL and NFL. It could happen.

  6. bilgihan2013 - Aug 7, 2013 at 3:58 PM

    Cosmos last their chance to be an MLS team. They can’t get in without a stadium.

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