SBJ/May 8-14, 2017/Franchises

Cosmos try some New York attitude

Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso: “I have a long history of persevering, staying steadfast.”
Photo by: ROB CARTER / PK NETWORK
Few teams in North American professional soccer can claim the history of the New York Cosmos, a star-studded legacy featuring Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.

When Pele himself announced the club’s return in 2010, many hoped this new incarnation would find its way to MLS.

Former Chairman Seamus O’Brien, however, made a bet instead on the reborn NASL in 2013, with a view toward regaining global prominence and building a $400 million stadium development at Belmont Park alongside his One World Sports network. But even three league titles couldn’t deliver relevance in the New York market, and a temporary suburban location on Long Island produced an average attendance of just 3,536 in 2016. The Cosmos reportedly lost more than $10 million last year.

Then Rocco Commisso stepped up to the give the club a third act.

“My involvement in the Cosmos today is me giving back to the game that has given so much to me,” said Commisso, the founder, chairman and CEO of cable company Mediacom, who bought a majority stake in the team early this year. “I didn’t want to see an iconic club like the Cosmos shut down, and while this is plenty of money lost, I can afford it frankly.”

Commisso, 67, has deep ties to the sport. Growing up in Calabria, Italy, he played on the streets with a ball made of rags. After moving to the U.S. when he was 12, his soccer talent got him a full scholarship at Columbia, where he also received an MBA. His name now adorns the university’s soccer field, and he remains a generous donor to the program.

Commisso said the last time he watched a live game in the U.S. was the Cosmos in the 1970s, preferring to watch Italian club Juventus or national team competitions. He said he’s had opportunities to invest in MLS clubs, but the level of investment and the idea of building something away from his New York business did not interest him.

The Cosmos were different, though.

“The Cosmos are the most recognizable American soccer franchise worldwide,” he said. “I think we can compete on the world scene. Can the Cosmos succeed in New York City, too? Yes, but do I have a path right now that I could delineate? Absolutely not, but give me time.”

Just about eight weeks ahead of the 2017 NASL season when the deal closed, the Cosmos essentially had to start over. They had no television rights, no stadium deal, no jersey provider, and no tickets sold.

“I wouldn’t even say we were at zero, probably more like negative five,” said Cosmos Chief Operating Officer Erik Stover, who stayed on under the ownership transition. “We had tried to just take things apart brick by brick in hopes of a new investor allowing us to stay on our path, but now we had a very short time to put it back together.”

The changes came quickly, many with Commisso’s fingerprints on them. The Cosmos moved from the suburbs to MCU Park in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, where the New York Mets’ Class A short season affiliate plays. They signed their first over-the-air broadcast deal in more than 30 years, airing on Tribune Media affiliate WPIX, as well as a deal with MSG Networks to air the remainder of its games. NASL has a national deal with BeIN that will feature many Cosmos games. “At Mediacom, we have expertise and relationships, and sometimes relationships are more important than expertise,” Commisso said.

Stover said the front office has had to quickly adjust to the new market, but thanks to Commisso’s industry contacts and knowledge it has been one of the most successful runs for the team.

Already the club has sold more season tickets than ever, and it sold more individual tickets for its home opener than for any game last year, Stover said. While MCU Park only seats about 7,500 for soccer compared with nearly 12,000 at the team’s previous home, the Cosmos now receive concession revenue and have suites to sell, as well as a heightened sense of demand due to the small capacity, he said.

The Cosmos have also tried to reach out to their new Brooklyn neighbors, rolling out advertising across the five boroughs on the subway and buses. Commisso is quick to tout his New York roots, noting that he’s the only owner among the three professional soccer teams in the area who is local.

Commisso noted that he still needed time to chart out his full plan, but that his business history should provide some insight.

“I have a long history of persevering, staying steadfast and staying around — I hope to do the same thing with soccer,” he said. “When people ask what will the league do or what will the Cosmos do, I say, ‘Let’s wait and see because Rocco is on the scene.’”


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