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Opinion: Is NYC FC's stadium deal a black eye for MLS?

Jason Iapicco looks at NYC FC playing in Yankee Stadium. Is it a bad idea?

Mike Stobe

Let's gets this out of the way, as a fan of the New York Red Bulls, I do not agree with MLS adding a team to the New York market when the Red Bulls aren't selling out their stadium on a regular basis. From a perspective of the league, I understand the move; Manchester City & Yankee money can bring a lot to the table and having a second New York team puts you up with the NFL, MLB, NBA for the same honor. My approach to this piece is to be as objective in my opinion as possible, so if I come off sounding like a homer, I'm sorry, it wasn't intentional. That aside, MLS really screwed up with NYC FC, and yesterday's announcement of playing at Yankee Stadium in 2015 will cost them.

Prior to the announcement of NYC FC joining the league last year, MLS (with a few exceptions) was trending towards having all of its teams playing in Soccer Specific Stadiums (SSS). The Red Bulls opened Red Bull Arena in 2010, the same year PPL Park and the Philadelphia Union joined the league. After a very extended road trip to start the year, Sporting Kansas City opened Sporting Park in June of 2011, and the Houston Dynamo followed the same pattern before opening BBVA Compass Stadium in May 2012. The Portland Timbers joined the league in 2011 with a modified Jeld Wen Field (now Providence Park) that was converted from multipurpose to be Soccer first. The San Jose Earthquakes broke ground on their new stadium in 2012 and plan to open the facility next year. Currently, 13 of 19 MLS teams play in Soccer Specific Stadiums, with the exceptions being the Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution, D.C. United, Vancouver Whitecaps, and the Earthquakes.

Also prior to the announcement of NYC FC, Don Garber had made it clear he wanted any new teams coming into the league to, at a minimum, have a solid plan for a Soccer stadium. In fact, Orlando City was told as much back in 2012 when they were in discussion to join the league. However, it seems that Garber was swayed by the $100 million expansion fee paid by Man City and the New York Yankees, and let that requirement fall by the wayside. MLS even stopped pursuing the idea of a stadium in Flushing Meadows, opting to let the team handle it. That idea seems to have been scrapped completely, likely due to the Yankees wanting to keep things in the Bronx. Even in two teams announced this year, one in Miami, and the other in Atlanta, Don Garber has seemed to ignore a requirement he had a few years prior. All of this leads to the official announcement.

Yesterday, NYC FC officially announced that they will be playing their inaugural season at Yankee Stadium, and it's rumored that they will actually play there through 2017. Here are the stats (courtesy of Empire of Soccer):

  • Field Dimensions will be 110 yards long by 70 yards wide, the exact width of the original Jeld Wen Field layout.
    • FIFA dictates a length of 100-130 yards, and a width of 50-100 yards.
  • The Pitcher's Mound will not be in play, but will need to be evened out as it'll be near a sideline.
  • Capacity will be capped at 33,444. The current capacity is 49,462, so NYC FC will only use 67.6% of the seats available.
  • Conversion from baseball to soccer will take 3 days, and the same goes for soccer to baseball.
  • Yankee stadium will stay a grass field.
  • No word on how MLB & MLS will handle October & November. October is playoffs for MLB, and the World Series goes into November, which coincides with the start of MLS playoffs.

NYC FC certainly isn't the first team to share a stadium, or even a baseball stadium for that matter. Here's a quick list of current and past examples:

  • Seattle Sounders share with the Seattle Seahawks (CenturyLink Field - NFL Stadium)
  • New England Revolution share with New England Patriots (Gillette Stadium - NFL Stadium)
  • Sporting KC (then KC Wizards) shared with the Kansas City T-Bones (CommunityAmerica Ballpark - baseball stadium, 2008-2010)
  • D.C. United shared with Washington Nationals from 2005 to 2008 (RFK Stadium - multipurpose)

Speaking of D.C., I spoke to Adam Taylor of our sister blog Black & Red United about 2005-2008 when RFK was shared by the Nationals.

OaM: Prior to the 2005 season, what was the initial feeling in D.C. about the stadium sharing agreement?

I actually wasn't around DC before 2005, but I do know that there is resentment towards the Nationals today from some D.C. United fans. Some of that is due to the perception (probably accurate) that MLB's fleecing the city with the full cost of Nats Park is the big reason United's plans at Poplar Point back in 2007 fell through, but it also has to do with the removal of the end line seats and now-useless dugouts that were installed to make RFK baseball-friendly.

Note: The seats Adam is talking about are the dark red seats in this picture.

OaM: How did RFK being built specifically to be multipurpose help in how both sports were handled from 2005-2008?

The famed bouncing stands of RFK's loud side could move to complete the diamond seating arrangement (indeed, the fact that those sections are on rollers is the very reason they have the give that allows them to be used as the world's greatest concrete trampoline). But the stadium, for all its character, is more of a jack of all trades and master of none. The sight lines for baseball were fine, but there were no outfield seats except for the upper deck. For soccer, the lower bowl remains too low-pitched (i.e. flat), putting fans farther away from the field rather than higher up.

OaM: How did the conversion from baseball to soccer and back affect the field?

It certainly wasn't a positive. There were seams where the permanent grass of the outfield would transition to the new sod over the infield, and the pitcher's mound, even flattened, was always an obstacle.

OaM: Did the field wear down quicker because of the added stress of baseball being played?

Probably somewhat, but not that I really noticed. The temporary grass was more of a problem to my eye.

OaM: The Nationals never made the playoffs at RFK, but were there any known plans on how to handle scheduling between MLB & MLS for the playoffs?

I honestly don't know.

OaM: Which sport was given the higher preference, soccer or baseball?

I don't know the inner-workings, but it certainly felt like baseball got first billing, even though United had played at RFK for longer. As I mentioned, some popular seating sections were removed (forcing the relocation of one supporters' group, La Norte), and the dugouts changed the locker room access for players, as well.

Now, the D.C. situation isn't exactly the same since RFK was modified to account for the Nationals, but it's a close comparison. Soccer being treated as the second sport? Check. Grass that has obvious seams because of laying down new sod? Check. Bad sightlines? Check. I'll give NYC FC some credit though. Yankee Stadium is easy to get to because of the public transportation options. They probably won't pay any rent (or a nominal amount) since the Yankees are part owner. However, in my opinion, the negatives outweigh the positives.

Part of the reason RFK is not well liked as a stadium is because of the sight lines. Not only are the seats on a very slight incline, but they are also well removed from the field. At Yankee Stadium, the seats will be removed from the field for many reasons, the current right field wall is an obvious one. The left field wall means spectators won't be at field level. The bullpens will create even more separation for those sitting in the bleachers. The backstop at Yankee Stadium is one of the deepest in MLB so the seats down the baselines for the most part are farther back, and some will even be facing in the wrong direction because of the baseball setup. Aside from fans that become dedicated to the team, who is going to want to go sit a stadium with terrible sight lines? Yes, the international friendlies held in the past few years have draw good crowds, but those were one offs. RFK drew in 47,359 for a US friendly vs Germany last year, but D.C. can't constantly draw in over 13,500.

Aside from sight lines, what about how it'll look on TV? The Red Bulls currently deal with this when the most expensive seats, those shown the most on TV, aren't full. Imagine a constant stream of the empty area behind the benches. Going back to D.C., there's a reason they show the supporter's behind the field. Games at Yankee Stadium will play worse on TV than most Red Bull games. I can't imagine FOX Sports or ESPN being happy with that scene, especially if the reported $70 million fee is correct.

Additionally, while the idea is for NYC FC to use the stadium as a temporary home, I can very well see the Yankee ownership (depending on how the field transition goes) wanting to keep the team at Yankee Stadium. Having 17 games a year plus friendlies, playoffs, US Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League dates would mean a lot of extra revenue in terms of parking and concessions without having to pay the cost of another stadium that would sit idle a lot of the time.

Lastly, the one thing I really haven't seen anyone talk about, is how this will affect the Yankees, the first, and more important team in the stadium. Depending on how MLS & MLB scheduling pans out, we could see the field converted 34+ times a year (17 home regular season games multiplied by 2 conversions on each side). That's a lot of wear and tear, and introduces a very big issue, the pitcher's mound. The plan for the mound, is to put the mound on a steel plate, which would be lifted off of the field and moved. This would reduce the need to build the mound back up every time, but it would still affect the quality. When the plate is put back, it'll need to be placed right. Dirt will need to be filled in around the plate to hide it and create a smooth transition to the rest of the field. While the pitchers right now may say it isn't an issue, you could bet almost even money that we hear a complaint from a Yankee pitcher within the first 2 months of the season.

This deal with Yankee Stadium might just be temporary, but it still hurts the image of MLS. Fans of the league are almost constantly defending or promoting the league to so called "euro snobs". Having a "proper" stadium or "Soccer Specific Stadium" is one of the things that helps get people interested. NYC FC might be able to come in, tap into the Man City academy/reserves and do well in the league, but will people be interested if they can't enjoy the game.? There's the condition of the field after it's converted, the small field dimensions to preserve part of the baseball field, the look on TV, and how it will affect the Yankees. I hope I'm wrong because I want MLS to succeed, but all of these things seem to point to the situation being a bad one for NYC FC and MLS.