Football gives New Yorkers its best pitch

Yankee Stadium Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The best seats in Yankee Stadium were not behind the home plate

Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Derek Jeter, and David Villa.

The odd-one out is of course the latter, Spain's talismanic striker, known more for his ability to hit a football into the back of the net than for knocking a baseball out of the park.

Yet it was Villa, and ten of his new teammates, who were welcomed on Sunday by a 40,000-strong crowd at the cathedral of New York's most-popular sport - Yankee Stadium.

They were playing for the freshly minted New York City Football Club franchise (catchy nickname yet to be picked) - the Big Apple's latest attempt to build on the surge in support for soccer, as the game is known stateside.

A joint venture by Manchester City and the New York Yankees, NYCFC was rumoured to have cost $100m (£68m) to set up, and enters a market already jam-packed with sports brands, including two other football teams, the New York Red Bulls and New York Cosmos.

'Limited time, limited money'

Critics point out that previous attempts to instil football into the hearts and minds of the city's nine million inhabitants have not fared well.

For example, the Cosmos, which once counted Brazilian legend Pele among its ranks, only started playing again in 2013 after folding in 1985, while few teams in the US top-flight league, Major League Soccer (MLS), actually turn a profit.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Almost 30 million Americans watched the USA play Portugal in Brazil last year

As Jason Kreis, NYCFC's head coach and an MLS stalwart, admits, selling football to the US public is still an uphill struggle, particularly in a city with many other distractions.

"It was a concern of mine when I came to New York," he says, standing beside NYCFC's makeshift training pitch a day before the team's inaugural home match.

"There's limited time, there's limited money. There's so many things to do in New York City that people are making a very difficult choice to come to our matches.

"We have to feel that we are responsible to capture their attention and to hold their attention."

More fans than the UK?

Mr Kreis' players may have to work hard to win the loyalty of the city's football fans, but they needn't worry about the sport's broader appeal.

A survey carried out prior to the 2014 World Cup suggested the US has 70 million soccer fans - more than the entire UK population.

Indeed, New York's residents are no strangers to the beautiful game. Scottish club Celtic played a team of all-stars from the American Soccer League way back in 1931, and global giants such as Real Madrid and Manchester United have played exhibition matches in the Bronx to sell-out crowds.

Image copyright AP
Image caption LA Galaxy's Gyasi Zardes is one of the MLS' most successful home-grown stars

Then there is the US national team, which has qualified for the last seven World Cups, and as fans in New York are keen to emphasise, fared better than England in Brazil last year.

It wasn't just a sideshow either. The team's 2-2 draw with Portugal was the most watched football game in US history, drawing 27 million viewers.

And while the MLS still struggles to attract more than a few hundred thousand TV viewers per game, lagging well behind traditional US sports, namely: American football, baseball, basketball and hockey, its fixtures do attract sizeable crowds - averaging roughly 25,000 per match.

Home-grown fans

No wonder then, that the MLS is expanding rapidly, with new teams in New York and Orlando, and planned franchises in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami - the latter an investment by MLS fan favourite David Beckham.

Plus, as MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche points out, professional soccer is the "second most popular consumption sport [read: watching and buying merchandise] among the millennial audience - that's 18-30 year olds - in the US, and similar studies have shown that up in Canada, where we have three clubs."

Nathan, a 20-something Brooklyn resident who arrived at Sunday's inaugural home match decked head-to-toe in NYCFC kit, is a case in point.

Image copyright AP
Image caption David Villa is proving to be NYCFC's greatest attraction, both on and off the field

"I played soccer growing up," he says. "I was very excited about the MLS when it started. Every World Cup I get more and more addicted to this game.

"I was excited to have a team that I can just get on the subway and come to - it's nice to have team in New York for real."

Retirement league?

But North American football fans are still more interested in watching football from the UK's Premier League, Spain's La Liga and other highly-competitive championships, than they are in watching home-grown talent.

The US's 55 million residents of Hispanic origin, who, as Mr Courtemanche quips, "don't need to be taught how to love the game", prefer watching South American football teams. Mexico's Liga MX still attracts the most TV viewers of any soccer broadcasts in the US.

In order to attract such fans, MLS has imported bankable stars reaching the end of their careers at high-profile international clubs, such as Spurs legend Robbie Keane and Brazil's Kaka, gaining itself a reputation as a "retirement league".

Image caption Fans endure long queues to get their hands on NYCFC merchandise

Having a team full of footballers of that calibre, however, may never be possible due to the nature of MLS' economics.

Aside for a handful of designated players, MLS teams are not allowed to spend more than $3.1m on salaries, with a maximum salary for any one player of $387,500.

Rising through the ranks

David Beckham recently joined the chorus of those criticising the MLS' salary cap, but the league's leadership insists there are no plans to lift the limit.

Instead, the MLS is spending up to $40m on developing more home-grown talent, and has instituted a rule allowing for higher salaries to be awarded to players from a team's development academy.

The plan is beginning to bear fruit. California-born striker Gyasi Zardes rose through LA Galaxy's youth teams to become the highest scoring home-grown player in MLS history with 16 goals last season.

He has also received a call-up to the national team, and is earning almost $200,000 per season.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Pele, here with George Best, playing in the US in the 1970s, is an earlier star to have played in New York

And while headliners like David Villa will always draw crowds, fans at Yankee Stadium on Sunday were also familiar with Mix Diskerud, a fringe member of the US squad, and Patrick Mullins, who scored the second goal in the team's 2-0 win against New England Revolution.

NYCFC has already sold 15,000 season tickets, and the club plans to move to a more permanent, custom-made home with a capacity of roughly 28,000, just as soon as they find an site agreeable to New York authorities.

"There is no real telling what this league could be like in five or ten years," says Claudio Reyna, a US soccer legend (and ex-Rangers, Sunderland and Man City player) appointed as NYCFC's director of football operations, after Sunday's win at Yankee Stadium.

"In my opinion it is the league with the biggest room for growth in the entire world."

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