By Paul Gardner
I'm with Seamus O'Brien. The chairman of the New York Cosmos. Make that the New New New York Cosmos. For this is the second attempt to revive the legendary team of the 1970s.
The first rebirth, in 2010, was financed by Saudis and run by Brits. It quickly disintegrated into a hopeless shambles as the Brits displayed, yet again, their utter ignorance of the American soccer scene.
O’Brien -- another Brit -- has picked up the pieces. The Saudi backers are still in the game, but half the money is now O’Brien’s. His credentials are impressive -- a 20-year career in the Far East, the founder of World Sports Group, touted as “Asia’s largest sports marketing company.” Now comes the Cosmos challenge.
On Saturday the New (x3) York Cosmos will take the field for their first game in the North American Soccer League -- playing at Hofstra University’s stadium, exactly where the original Cosmos played their second season in 1972.
The new team is coached by Giovanni Savarese. An enormously popular figure in New York soccer, Savarese looks like an inspired choice as coach. He’s been signing players -- they include the 37-year-old Marcos Senna, but he’s an exception, the rest are far from being world-class stars.
So let’s take a look at how the Cosmos will do against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. But immediately O’Brien -- to my displeasure -- is extolling the business side of the Cosmos project. “This is a unique opportunity,” he says, “I would have regretted passing this up.” Hell, is this the way soccer discussions must begin these days? I’m afraid it is, so my displeasure is of little consequence ... the soccer will have to wait. We must talk money first.
O’Brien: “Soccer is a global game, part of the global economy -- and this team wants to be a part of that.” And “We’re in the business of sport -- and sport today is a brutally competitive business.” And “Sport is about economics, not the ability of the players.”
Gulp. Gulp!. But O’Brien’s view of the future is interesting. Possibly even visionary. An electronic view. One in which television money becomes even more important ... this is subscriptionTV he’s talking about, not conventional TV. “Changes are going on now,” he says, “revolutionary changes.”
O’Brien and his partners have founded their own media channel, One World Sports, which will carry Cosmos games. A channel that not many people know about and even fewer can receive -- but start-ups are like that. I was around when ESPN began. It was no big deal.
Then there’s more electronic stuff to digest -- “We’re investing heavily in our website.”
O’Brien’s visions for the Cosmos may seem to float airily above reality -- well, visions do, don’t they? -- but beneath them lie some very real problems. Forget the global scene. How do the Cosmos make an impact on the American -- or the New York -- soccer scene?
After all, the aim of the New New York Cosmos was to be awarded a franchise in MLS -- to become the league’s second New York team.
“We said from Day One that we want to be an MLS team” -- thus Terry Byrne, the New New York Cosmos vice chairman, in October 2011. Which made sense. Where else would the Cosmos play, if not in the No. 1 league, MLS?
Byrne is history, and his view of things does not make sense to O’Brien -- “I’m not aware of any statement made by us about being an MLS club,” he says. True -- “us” being the New New New York Cosmos. Which means that the arrival of New York City FC as an MLS franchise -- a move that would appear to have gazumped The Cosmos chances of an MLS franchise -- is of little concern to O’Brien. He dismisses it with “I couldn’t give a ...” and pauses for a suitable, and printable, expression of nothingness.
The Cosmos have joined the second tier North American Soccer League. From the O’Brien side of things, it seems that the Cosmos have snubbed MLS, rather than the other way round. This was a choice, emphasizes O’Brien, not something forced on him: “We’re happy with the decision we’ve made. The MLS model is not for us. The structure of that league doesn’t suit this club.”
He’s referring to the single-entity structure of MLS, with the centralized control of its clubs and its salary restrictions. For O’Brien, with his global vision, that will not work for the Cosmos. Right -- in fact, I can’t see it working for MLS, which will have to abandon or radically revamp the comforts of single-entity if it wants to join the global soccer economy and fulfill Commissioner Don Garber’s aim of being one of the world’s top leagues by 2022.
In the NASL, says O’Brien, things are decentralized and “we are able to do things like running our own licensing program. The success of the league [NASL] is important to us -- we expect the league to be in 18 cities by 2018.”
Which lets us know that O’Brien’s vision of the future is medium term. He sees the process of Cosmos regeneration and the coming of age of the NASL as a 10-year process.
All of which raises the possibility of two competing leagues -- something we had back in 1967 -- a disastrous situation in which the two leagues (the USA and the NPSL) very nearly put each other out of business after just one season.
O’Brien shrugs that off: “Sport has learned a lot in the last 30 years. A collapse [like that of the old NASL in 1984] wouldn’t happen again. Lessons have been learned from the demise of previous leagues.”
We are back to strictly business talk -- because O’Brien’s confidence is grounded in his view of the USA’s financial strength: “The USA is the biggest economy in the world. This will be the biggest soccer market, the biggest soccer economy, in the world in my lifetime. There’s room here for 30 or 40 teams, maybe with promotion and relegation ...”
Well, 40 teams does not sound impossible -- and if the upstart AFL was able to muscle in on the established NFL in the 1960s, who’s to say something similar cannot happen in soccer?
I’m doubtful -- because my frequent dealings, over the past decades, with second-tier soccer investors tell me that they are invariably people who have money, but not bigmoney. It is big money that will be required. The Cosmos it seems, have that; they are a massive exception to the norm. Could it be that the magic of the Cosmos name will attract big-time owners to the NASL? Surely that is what O’Brien envisages when he proclaims that investing in an NASL franchise is, right now “probably the biggest business opportunity in sports.”
On that point, quite probably, rests how the future will judge Seamus O’Brien and his American adventure. Celebrated as the visionary who got it right ... or forgotten as just another Brit who got it wrong?
Oh yes -- the soccer. We’ll get back to you on that, after that Cosmos-Fort Lauderdale game. A match-up from yesterday that carries a teasing hint of tomorrow.