Can Raul have an impact in the ever-evolving New York soccer landscape?
After the rumors, then the announcement, Raul was finally unveiled in New York this week, at a carefully orchestrated Four Seasons news conference of the sort the franchise had once used when parading Pele. It was a choice of venue that invited us to think of the Cosmos as part of the city's heritage -- emphasizing the continuum of the 70's phenomenon with the 2014 version.
But the soccer landscape, let alone the city itself, is in a very different place than the Cosmos heyday. When I spoke directly with Raul, after the news conference, he told me about wanting to get "a full grasp of the entire complexity of the game here in the U.S." so he could "work out how best to help." And indeed his involvement on the strategic side of the Cosmos plan, in particular youth development, is at least as interesting as the prospect of another superannuated legend making curio appearances on American fields.
But as Raul will doubtless grasp fairly quickly, the complexity of the game in New York, let alone the U.S., is tough to track and rapidly evolving. Far from being the only credible team in town, the Cosmos are now one of three -- and that's if you just count New York pro teams.
Because we're at a specific moment when it's not just the inter-league bickering between MLS and an increasingly voluble NASL (who recently moved their league offices to New York) and their flagship Cosmos team that defines the City, it's the competing claims of European behemoths.
Manchester City already have their toe in the water of course, with NYC FC, though sublimating all their efforts into that club is far from the extent of the parent club's ambitions within the U.S., or in its leading media market. Manchester United have long had a discreet presence in the city, largely pursuing commercial partnerships, or their ever more fragmented sponsorship portfolio (one of the few remaining areas where they are an undisputed world leader on these initiatives). Bayern Munich too, have just opened an office, alongside an aggressive marketing push from the Bundesliga in general.
And that's to name but a few, and without getting into the regular participants in the International Champions Cup, promoted by Charlie Stillitano's Relevent Sports. Every couple of weeks I get an email from a club or a foreign journalist making enquiries about the local scene or in the latter's case following up on a story that the club is making some kind of promotional foray within New York.
New York status as a battleground for all this is in some ways less significant in terms of direct audience building as in perception -- just as in the finance sector, within the media sector the symbolism of a healthy New York presence has a certain value and arguably never more so than right now. Indeed, many of the key parties believe that the coming decade, as much as the last two that have seen the sport slowly regain traction in the country at large, will be the most significant one for the domestic game.
The TV market for the sport is growing and growing, and MLS are, as they have historically done, fighting for their share, but doing so in the context of a youth-driven audience for the sport that is growing up, and soon becoming not just consumers, but influencers, ad buyers, sponsors, media programmers. Those key positions will be filled by a generation as literate and immersed in the sport as there has ever been in this country. And that will be a significant shift.
As anecdotal as this is, I remember interviewing the NBC exec who made the decision to purchase the Premier League rights and him mentioning seeing his teenage son, who'd never get out of bed on a weekend morning, downstairs on the sofa watching Liverpool vs. Manchester United one Saturday at 7 a.m. -- what struck me was not the slightly pat example itself, but the fact that it chimed with numerous other personal and professional examples people had mentioned to me over the last few years.
Pretty soon the young people growing up with on-tap access to live soccer from around the world, plus local teams, should they choose to engage with them, will not just be fetching coffee or taking notes at TV meetings, but setting the agenda for those meetings.
It's a truism that the media landscape that generation will be inheriting and shaping will also have been transformed, but what's not always discussed is just how crucial and central sport will be for corporations hoping to retain any sort of centralized control as mass media atomizes ever further. The shift from destination viewing to on-demand is gathering pace every day, and sport is one of the few areas networks can build a destination market around -- literally assembling at the whistle.
But for everyone to get to meet at those coveted "destinations," the product on the field has to compete, and the local New York scene has been as busy as ever this week shaping the next phase of that competition.
A day after Raul arrived in the city; a local rivalry began to take shape with the MLS expansion draft. Jason Kreis and Claudio Reyna drafted in New Yorkers Chris Wingert, Tommy McNamara and Jason Hernandez for NYC FC on Wednesday and by Thursday had taken Red Bulls reserve keeper and Bronx native Ryan Meara on loan for the year.
The Red Bulls, for their part, had done an about face on their previous decision not to run a USL Pro team in 2015, taken NYC FC's expansion draft acquisition Sal Zizzo in exchange for Meara, and had signed up homegrown player Sean Davis, while shaking out their roster elsewhere.
It felt like the week when the battle for New York began to take shape in earnest. The challenge for all these local teams now is to ensure their rivalries do not become a parochial afterthought to more global turf wars taking place in their back yard.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.