By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – Once one of the most glamorous names in North American sport, the New York Cosmos are today living on soccer’s Skid Row, a fourth division club playing on school grounds left behind, largely unwanted and forgotten.
On April 29, the team that lured soccer royalty like Pele and Franz Beckenbauer opened their National Premier Soccer League season with a 4-0 win over Boston City FC in front of a handful of spectators at Malden Catholic High School.
It marked a low ebb for a team that routinely played in front of roaring crowds of 70,000 in the 1970s and brought global attention to the original North American Soccer League in its heyday.
Yet cable television billionaire Rocco Commisso saw enough residual value in the Cosmos to buy a majority stake in 2017 and has ambitions of not only resurrecting a dead league and its flagship franchise but also rattling the establishment with the introduction of promotion and relegation.
“There’s no team in North America that’s got the historical reputation the New York Cosmos has,” Commisso told Reuters.
“We’ve won more than anyone else, we’ve been in more countries than anybody else.
“There is no name in Europe or anywhere else that is as recognised on the American landscape as the Cosmos and that’s what they wanted to destroy.”
Commisso was referring to the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the sport’s national governing body, which stripped the second division sanctioning of the modern North American Soccer League (NASL) last year.
The NASL have in turn launched lawsuits against USSF, casting doubt on whether the parties can come together for the common good of North American soccer.
Commisso has pledged to inject $500 million, half of it his own funds, to relaunch the NASL in some form with second division labelling.
The USSF, however, has not jumped at the opportunity.
Feeling ignored, Commisso tossed a Hail Mary last month by leaking his proposal to the media in an attempt to nudge the newly elected USSF president Carlos Cordeiro towards talks.
The USSF told Reuters they were not dismissing any proposal and welcomed an opportunity to sit down with Commisso.
So far, according to Commisso’s communications team, talks have amounted to no more than a few email exchanges.
With the federation focused on the U.S., Mexico and Canada bid to land the 2026 World Cup and the start of the Russia finals next month, local business has been pushed to the back burner.
For Commisso, however, the clock is ticking. He wants to have his 10-team league up and running for 2019.
The USSF informed Commisso that the board would not be able to consider his proposal until after the June 13 vote to award the 2026 World Cup.
In a summary of his proposal seen by Reuters before it was to be made public on Thursday, Commisso said that in an effort to salvage the plan he would be willing to extend his deadline if the USSF provided a list of interim meetings followed by a yes-or-no vote no later than June 29.
Commisso’s half-billion dollar pledge comes with conditions, including a “10 year runway” which would allow for ownership of multiple franchises by a single investor and a promise by the federation not to impose regulatory roadblocks.
“I have $250 million I am willing to put at risk as long as you don’t go out and destroy that investment by making arbitrary decisions after that investment has been made,” Commisso told Reuters. “I want to play in 2019.
“I am willing to put a lot of money at risk to frankly give something back to soccer that doesn’t exist today, promotion and relegation, the way soccer should be played, in my opinion.
“Let’s see what they do now. Here is a crazy guy that wants to put all kinds of money and see what they do now to keep me from playing.”
While Commisso would accept a division two designation, his ultimate goal is to develop a league that can challenge Major League Soccer’s status as North America’s premier circuit.
Second division status, however, connotes a product that is second rate for many North American sports consumers, while promotion and relegation is as foreign a concept in the U.S. as socialised health care.
Securing sponsorship and a TV deal will be a challenge.
“It is not a question of how we are going to be sanctioned,” said Commisso. “Over time our aspiration is to be competitive with the MLS.
“What will ultimately make the league successful are the television and the sponsors’ money.
“Ideally, I want to have promotion-relegation and set it up similar to the way it is in Europe because I feel that that is the way we are going to get a jolt to our system.”
(Editing by Ian Ransom)