Marriage of inconvenience brings New York City FC, Yankee Stadium together

New York City FC will call Yankee Stadium home in 2015. It isn't a great fit for NYCFC or the Yankees.

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NEW YORK

No matter how beautiful the ceremony, how stunning the setting or how nice the words from the invited guests, this will be a marriage of inconvenience. Peering through the veneer of fancy New York City FC-emblazoned pins and scarves and t-shirts, the second New York Major League Soccer franchise playing its first few seasons in Yankee Stadium is a sub-optimal outcome to a pesky, if avoidable, issue.

In a press conference at the iconic Bronx venue on Monday morning, the new soccer club confirmed that it would indeed be starting out its life as the second tenant of a non-soccer facility. Yankee great Mariano Rivera accepted the first season-ticket, which, of course, went on sale the instant the venue was confirmed.

And, naturally, nobody on the crowded dais – a common occurrence after two global sports brands, the New York Yankees and Manchester City FC, conspired to start a third club – was worried about the arrangement in the slightest. In a room packed with dozens of carefully-groomed people in expensive suits and skirts – whose actual jobs for the start-up club are impossible to divine – there existed no doubts. Only the confidence of some too-big-to-fail mega corporation, with a script to follow and a line to toe best exemplified by Yankees president Randy Levine’s repeated utterance: “We know what we’re doing.”

“We couldn’t be happier about it,” NYCFC chief business officer Tim Pernetti cooed. “We’re going to create a tremendous experience at Yankee Stadium. … What better place to do that than Yankee Stadium? No better place.”

Hold on. That statement isn’t quite so self-evident as it is meant to sound. Because there are questions. So very many questions.

ALL THE PERTINENT DETAILS

Firstly, there are the plainly problematic logistics. MLS and Major League Baseball run more or less concurrently, with the former starting in mid-March and ending in early December and the latter beginning in early April and playing through early November. The outfield at Yankee Stadium isn’t big enough to hold a soccer field. Part of the infield has to be covered up with sod. And the pitching mound, just outside the soccer sideline, will have to be flattened for each of at least 17 NYCFC home games, plus potential playoff matches and international friendlies.

It will take three days for the stadium to be converted from baseball to soccer – or two and a half in a pinch, say the Yankees – and three days to turn it back to baseball. That makes for tough scheduling, given that the Yankees play 81 home games per year, not including the expected trip to the playoffs. And come post-season time, the tail-end of the Yankees’ championship campaign could intersect with that of NYCFC’s. Conflicts seem inevitable at a time of year when there’s no predicting the schedule.

“We can work it in, we’ve analyzed it, we’ve tested it against existing schedules,” countered Yankees chief operating officer Lonn Trost. “We will make sure the games will not be getting in the way with our regular schedule.”

The Yankees say the mound will be rebuilt on a base, which can be wheeled away and re-attached later. And they may well have the technology to do this without it bothering the pitchers. But then there’s the toll paid by the grass. Will the outfield get torn up by the soccer cleats and be unplayable for baseball and the infield, with its temporary rolls of rootless sod covering the dirt, unplayable for soccer?

If the Yankees have a long home-stand coming up, will the grass be spared the punishment of a soccer game on a rainy day? Will the soccer team be a second-class citizen holding no more than glorified squatters’ rights? Trost said the club will experiment with glow lights to allow the grass to grow and recuperate at night.

“We have the best grounds crew in the world,” added Levine. “We have the best stadium operations people in the world.”

ORLANDO CITY WAITS, TOO

Okay, but what about the crowd experience? The top two rings of the almost 50,000-seat facility will be closed to cap capacity at 33,444 for soccer games. But will that make the venue feel cavernous and quiet and empty, the way it does at other non-soccer specific MLS stadiums? Whatever Pernetti says, this is a stadium designed to watch a sport that mostly takes place in a narrow corridor of a small diamond in a corner of the field. And the seats closest to that action will be furthest from the soccer field.

When they will move to more proximate locations remains uncertain. There is no timeline for NYCFC to move into its own facility. Pernetti and Levine refused to confirm the 3-year stay at Yankee Stadium reported by the New York Times last week. This is an open-ended couch-crashing.

You can’t help but feel that perhaps MLS is taking a step back here. That in this ongoing expansion boom, the question must be asked whether the league is letting its hard-learned lessons slip from its fevered mind, whether the carefully calibrated standards are falling away at the prospect of expansion fees worth many tens of millions of dollars. The recently announced franchise in Atlanta was granted to an owner who will shove the team into an NFL mega-stadium where soccer can’t but be a sideshow. Miami, which will also get a team, isn’t even close to getting a stadium deal done. Orlando City’s stadium won’t be ready until a year after it joins the league.

Not so long ago, we were told that the requirement of a soccer-specific stadium – or at least a fully-funded and approved plan for one – was ironclad in the allocation of a franchise. Now it just feels like so much malleable putty.

In the years that commissioner Don Garber has been in charge, MLS has been scrupulous with its risks, keeping rhetoric of a bright tomorrow high and overhead costs low. But you wonder now, if things are moving a little too fast. If all involved parties wouldn’t be better served holding off on this round of expansion until all the (soccer-specific) stadiums were built and ready to exploit to the fullest.

All of those keen investors would probably still be around. But the risk that has swallowed so many failed soccer leagues in this country whole might have been defrayed.

If nothing else, this league has proved sustainable on the strength of its patience. Why lose sight of that just as the stated objective of being one of the world’s biggest leagues is, at long length, not seeming so silly anymore? Where’s the fire? Or – better question – where are the stadiums?