- MLS team remains in search of full-time stadium after being tenants at Yankee Stadium since 2015
- Scheduling issues has meant club must play two games at home of bitter rivals New York Red Bulls
- ‘I feel the pain and our staff feels the pain of our fans,’ admits NYCFC chief executive Brad Sims
New York City FC’s lack of a full-time stadium has been put under an intense spotlight this season, with the Major League Soccer team being forced to stage two games at the home of bitter league rivals New York Red Bulls.
It is an issue that has caused embarrassment and anger among NYCFC fans, who have longed for the team to find a permanent home in New York City’s five boroughs.
When NYCFC, which is jointly owned by Manchester City parent company City Football Group and Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees, debuted in 2013, it was intended that the team would play at Yankee Stadium for just three seasons. NYCFC, however, has been based at the Yankees’ ballpark for six seasons since joining MLS in 2015, and it remains uncertain when, if ever, it will move into a stadium of its own.
Last month, the New York Times reported that City Football Group, a group of local developers, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and various other bodies were nearing a deal that would allow the team to build a privately-financed, 25,000-seat stadium in the South Bronx.
The planned facility would be part of a $1bn mixed-use development project that would also include a school, hotel, retail stores, a waterfront park and affordable housing units near Yankee Stadium.
According to the report, the earliest NYCFC could move into the new stadium would be 2024. However, no deal has been reached and discussions remain ongoing.
The ongoing facility situation has severely impacted NYCFC’s commercial strategy, due to the inability to secure significant stadium-related revenue streams. It can be argued that it has also affected NYCFC’s stature within MLS, with a number of subsequent expansion teams gaining widespread plaudits for their own state-of-the-art facilities, including Orlando City SC (Exploria Stadium), Atlanta United (Mercedes-Benz Stadium), Minnesota United (Allianz Field), and LAFC (Banc of California Stadium).
NYCFC fans, meanwhile, have been inconvenienced because the team has been forced out of Yankee Stadium on numerous occasions due to various scheduling issues. The team has already played two MLS games at Citi Field, the home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets, and one at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. Four more games at Citi Field are planned this season, in what has been dubbed the “The Citi Field Series.”
But it has been the enforced decision to play at Red Bull Arena, in Harrison, New Jersey, in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League (SCCL) this season that has particularly angered club supporters. This situation arose due to Yankee Stadium and Citi Field not being available due to winterization and construction, and other venues in the New York area being rejected by regional governing body Concacaf.
Last month’s SCCL round-of-16 game against Costa Rican club AD San Carlos was played in front of an almost-empty Red Bull Arena, with NYCFC fans taking up just 2,730 tickets out of more than 4,000 that were distributed. The team will return to the 25,000-capacity venue on March 11 for a quarter-final tie against Mexican club Tigres UANL.
NYCFC chief executive Brad Sims spoke to SportBusiness about the how the team ended up playing two home games at Red Bull Arena and how MLB schedule changes have made life worse for the club.
How would you describe the current situation that New York City FC finds itself in playing in multiple venues this season, including Red Bull Arena?
The stadium is our No.1 challenge, our No.1 priority. It’s not a new situation, we’re in year six of the club now, and we’re still working through it. It’s well documented that we’re playing in multiple venues. I’ve been part of numerous new-builds or major renovation transformations throughout my career, these are the type of projects that I’m attracted to. Honestly, this was something that was attractive about this opportunity here: to be part of the group that’s able to build the first soccer-specific stadium within the five boroughs of New York City is a legacy project.
These are the types of things that excite me about this role in the long term. In here and now, it’s a pain. I feel the pain and our staff feels the pain of our fans. They are very hungry and anxious to have a permanent home and so are we. Playing games at Red Bull Arena doesn’t give us a higher sense of urgency, we had maximum urgency before that. We feel positive [about the permanent stadium planing] but we also are a little cautious. We don’t want to get everyone too excited as there has been a lot of these starts and stops over the years but we do feel like we’re moving in a really good direction.
How has the team’s stadium situation changed since joining MLS in 2015?
We’ve had issues with finding places to play in the past. The issues have been tougher in the past year or two as the Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer schedules have gone through changes. In 2019, soon after I joined NYCFC, I looked at the MLS schedule and we played a couple of home games in March, I think we played one in April and then we didn’t play a home game until mid-June, and then in September we had three home games in seven days.
Unfortunately, the trend for us has got worse and worse and worse: more weekdays, more of those long gaps and it’s mainly driven by Major League Baseball making a concerted effort to have fewer long homestands and fewer long road trips, which is better for baseball fans and teams and worse for us. We really can’t play a home game at Yankee Stadium unless the Yankees are on the road for seven consecutive days because they want three days to convert it from baseball to soccer, one day to play the game and three days to convert it back. There are fewer of those seven-day spans than there have ever been, so that’s provided a bigger challenge.
Our fans were unhappy with more and more weekday games, it’s gone up from three or four in 2015 to eight or nine now. This year we would have had 10 Wednesday games if we hadn’t made any changes. This was a driving force to drive our own destiny in this situation [to play at Citi Field for the Citi Field Series]. We’ve played there twice now and we’ve had high marks on the venue from our players, coaches and fans.
How exactly did NYCFC end up playing home games at Red Bull Arena?
The [Concacaf] Champions League has presented a whole new set of challenges. It’s our first time in the competition, it’s February and early March for the first two rounds and we’ve never had to face that before. Both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field go through a winterization process where they flush out all the water of the pipes. We listed 60 to 70 potential stadiums that were in our territory, which were fully vetted in terms of the dimension of the field and whether the lights worked and so on. Red Bull Arena was not in that list, in our mind it was always automatically disqualified.
We went through a process with Concacaf and we gave them a list of four venues in the five boroughs: Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, Belson Stadium at St John’s University, and MCU Park in Brooklyn. They vetted all four with things we needed to fix essentially. Yankee Stadium and Citi Field lists were two pages long, MCU Park was four pages long, and Belson Stadium was seven pages long. We felt we did everything we could to get Belson approved. The seven pages became three pages and then one page. But in the end we didn’t get approval. It’s unfortunate.
Do you feel that some of the momentum of NYCFC joining MLS has gone because a lot of the attention is now on the likes of LAFC and Atlanta United who have stadiums of their own?
Let’s talk when they are in their sixth season. It is typical with new teams in every league that there is a lot of pomp and circumstance and there is a honeymoon period with fans. Then you get to a point where you see where your core fanbase is. From that point, there are flashpoints in your history going forward where you can really elevate the brand: such as signing major players, winning championships and building infrastructure, like new stadiums or renovations.
For us, we have to remind ourselves that we are in a good place. We averaged 21,000-plus fans a game last year. Our total attendance and season-ticket base is on a par with or higher than the New York Knicks, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, or Brooklyn Nets. I know their buildings are a certain size, but they don’t sell out every single game either. And those clubs have had a lot of history.
Do we think there is opportunity to grow this thing much higher than it currently is? Definitely. But we’re actually doing pretty good and I think we have to check ourselves in the mirror. We have high expectations where we think this club can and will go and I don’t think it’s fully tied to the stadium. But when that stadium comes, that will really be a game-changer.
MLS commissioner Don Garber recently said that one of the aims this season is for MLS teams in major markets to become more relevant. How difficult is the challenge in New York when there is so much competition for attention?
New York has the best market in the country, but it’s very crowded and tough to cut through the clutter. That’s the challenge for us to be creative. It’s not cost-effective to paper the town with advertising and TV and radio spots. You have to be more creative and smarter in the way we target fans and introduce fans to our brand.
We’ve been hiring a lot of smart people and putting a lot more focus on data analytics. We’re building a new business intelligence team, which is focusing on data-focused decision-making for us to be smarter about how we are targeting fans, who we’re marking to, where we’re spending our marketing dollars. A head of that group is being hired soon and we’re going to ramp that up in the next three to six months with a team.
It’s not easy, there is no silver bullet. But there are so many business here and so many soccer fans and it’s only getting bigger. Our [youth] camps and clinics business has been off the charts in terms of growth and that is planting seeds for long-term growth, rather than an overnight thing. For us this is a growth play and we’re confident that we’re heading in the right direction.