*This article was originally published in The National.
May 23, 2013
NEW YORK // In a sun-drenched parking lot outside Citi Field in Queens, NY, thousands of baseball fans poured out of the elevated trains and made their way over to the brick and glass stadium of the New York Mets.
It was a sight every sports team owner longs to see and it may be a glimpse into the future for potential supporters of the New York City Football Club (NYCFC), the recently announced collaborative project of Manchester City and the New York Yankees, who hope to build a home for their new major league soccer club barely a stone’s throw away.
Queens, one of New York City’s five boroughs, is considered one of the most ethnically diverse places on the planet, which makes it ripe territory for a football franchise in a country that has traditionally left the sport on the sidelines of domestic attention.
Yet news that the new football club was interested in building its stadium in Queens was met with mixed reaction from locals. Some are excited by the prospect of a high-profile sports team coming to town. Others are concerned that the owners’ desire to build a large facility in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the borough’s largest outdoor public area, could negatively effect one of the quality green spaces in this peripheral area of the Big Apple, near the end of the city’s sprawling subway line.
“I don’t think we need another stadium here,” said Mina Vianueva, who raised her children nearby, and now brings her grandchildren to play in the park. Flushing Meadows is not only home to Citi Field, it is also the address of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the US Open is played every year.
Victor Lonchuk, a 26-year old amateur footballer and personal trainer originally from Argentina, disagreed. “I think it is fantastic. It will have a huge effect on the city because of the multicultural community we have here.” Victor is a fan of the MLS but currently has to go all the way to the neighbouring state of New Jersey to watch New York’s other team, the Red Bulls, play their games. He is excited by the prospect of supporting a club much closer to home in Queens, but is also aware that they could be taking valuable space from the fields where he coaches young kids how to play the game. “I hope they will work to build some fields for the youth nearby the stadium, like the Yankees currently have around theirs.”
Flushing Meadows park is a massive recreational space larger than Manhattan’s Central Park, yet not as scenic or well kept. It is replete with tree-lined fields, large ponds, football fields, tennis courts, a pitch-and-putt golf course, picnic areas and playgrounds for children. It is also home to the Queens Museum of Art, the New York Hall of Science, a zoo and a botanical garden, among many other amenities.
Manchester City has coveted the space since it began entertaining the idea of building a team in the US, but the club is also aware that success is not guaranteed. Ferran Soriano, Manchester City’s chief executive, said that the most important thing is finding a place where they will be fully accepted by the people who live there. “We need to first listen to the community and the stakeholders and make sure that wherever we decide to build the stadium, we are embraced by the community and we can be family,” he said.
Dan Andrews, the press officer for the president of the Queens Borough, said that there are still many things that need to be considered before a new stadium would be embraced in Queens.
“We haven’t taken a position yet on the building of the stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. We still have more questions about that than we have answers.”
Mr Andrews does see the benefit in bringing a sports franchise with the type of resources that Manchester City and the Yankees bring to the table.
“We see benefits, certainly. For one thing it creates jobs,” he said. “There are a lot of soccer fans here and those fans represent a multitude of countries. So there is certainly a market here for soccer. But as far as the stadium goes, that involves the community. The community surrounding the park has to deal with the flux from the stadium more than anyone else.”
On one of the football fields in Flushing Meadows, a group of nearly thirty men crowd half of a battered turf pitch while they play an intense game. They are wearing a colourful array of football kits, mainly from South and Central America. Only one of them wears the shirt of an English club, Manchester United, the crosstown rival of Manchester City. English is scantly heard anywhere in the vicinity of the match.
Resting off the pitch, Luciano Santa Cruz, a bulky man with a shaved head and various facial piercings, waxed philosophically on the fate of the MLS in a country already dominated by other sports.
“Soccer won’t work here,” he said. “The American sporting year is divided into three seasons: baseball, [American] football, and basketball.”
Santa Cruz does admit, however, that if a team can be successful anywhere in North America, it is in New York. “It is a country inside a country,” he said.
New York’s diversity may make the city one fertile ground for a sport loved around the world, but the MLS has been growing steadily throughout the United States since its inception in 1996. The ManCity-Yankees collaboration will be the 20th team in a league that is boasting its highest attendance rates in its history.
Indeed, the entry of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed’s well-heeled Manchester City franchise into the MLS may encourage other investors to take a serious look at the American league and its growing market.
But first, the new team will need to get its stadium up and running. At the entrance to the park, Tommy Chan operates his concession stand, serving ice cream, hot dogs, and cold drinks to park visitors. If the new stadium does get built in this area, Tommy sees his business’s future as limited.
“They will probably kick me out,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They will go for the big vendors. Do you think the little guy has a chance against that?”
Asked whether he would join any organised opposition to the stadium being built at Flushing Meadows, Mr Chan said no.
“I wouldn’t get involved. I am too small. Who is going to listen to me?”
A new stadium in the area could also bring large economic gains and new jobs. Nonetheless, whether the stadium will be built on this stretch of green is uncertain in the short time before the new team is set to take the field for their inaugural season in 2015.
“I’m not too worried about it,” mulled a train operator helping Mets fans find their way out of the subway terminal and towards the stadium. “Whenever there is change, there will be a conflict of interests. It’s just politics.”