New York City FC: The stunning simplicity of MLS's marketing marvel

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New York City FC: The stunning simplicity of MLS's marketing marvel
New York City FC: The stunning simplicity of MLS's marketing marvel

NEW YORK – Three hours before the big game, the platform more than 50 miles north of the stadium was mobbed, just as the train itself was packed. Most all the fans riding down to Yankee Stadium wore some kind of New York City FC merchandise. Sightings of the New York Red Bulls' logo were rare – on this route, anyway. Mostly, they were Mix Diskerud and David Villa jerseys.

On Sunday afternoon, 48,000 packed into the baseball cathedral for the showpiece of Major League Soccer's breathlessly branded, relentlessly hashtagged "Rivalry Week" – replete with corporate naming-rights sponsor, of course. The game had generated such buzz that it was bumped from ESPN2 to the main channel. The Empire State building was lit up in blue the night before the game, after NYCFC's fans had won some kind of fan vote.

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A swelling of anticipation leading up to the game delivered a crackling energy throughout it – even if the visiting Red Bulls claimed a 3-1 come-from-behind win. Regardless, NYCFC continued to build on the momentum generated through this maiden season – in terms of attendance and market relevance, anyway.

Because as it turns out, successfully launching a professional soccer team isn't all that complicated when you're in the right and most convenient location. As such, NYCFC continues to present a difficult disconnect with the accepted wisdom of the American soccer community.

There exist certain notions about what's supposed to work and what isn't inside the soccer bubble, an echo chamber of analysts, "voices" and outspoken players or coaches. But they are sometimes badly out of touch with what's actually going on in a sport whose growing customer base still consists of many more casual fans than committed ones.

Going by that belief system means letting rivalries develop organically, just as they do elsewhere in the world – where the enmity is ancient, tribal, cultural or sectarian and often a matter of class; where differences are re-litigated again and again in leagues a good deal older than the two decades that MLS counts. The teams, meanwhile, are supposed to be built traditionally – which is to say, developed from within and slowly accumulated, until all the pieces fit into the system and ideology. This is how healthy and sustainable clubs are built. And of course, for anybody to show up, a team should be a winner.

This is the Right Way.

But what we, the soccer community, think will work and what actually works tend to be different things. Neither New York team, as it stood heading into the game, would be going to the playoffs. It was an unseasonably cold day, much of which had vanished in the haze of a drenching summer drizzle. Yet there was scarcely an empty seat in the house on Sunday.

Andrea Pirlo will be NYCFC's third desginated player. (Photo by @MLS)
Andrea Pirlo will be NYCFC's third desginated player. (Photo by @MLS)

Even though NYCFC had bought expensive, aging stars, perpetuating the loathed "retirement league" label. In addition to Villa, 33, Chelsea and England stalwart Frank Lampard is supposed to finally arrive soon. Italian legend Andrea Pirlo is reportedly next. The latter two have a combined age of 73. Both were shown sitting in the stadium during the game, sending the crowd into a frenzy and causing the NYCFC fans to chant "We want Pirlo!" Never mind that both of them, not to mention Diskerud, are attack-minded midfielders, posing the question who will help out on the other side of the ball.

If, or when, those signings come through, NYCFC will rack up a payroll of some $20 million, the highest in league history. Ironically, the Red Bulls gave up on just such a model this season. They were the league's original star-hoarders but have pivoted to a team-first philosophy, with solid early returns.

But none of that seems to matter to the customer. In a small – and extremely informal and unscientific – poll of fans before the game, their primary reason for frequenting NYCFC games wasn't star power, let alone ideology. It was geography, which sets it apart from the Red Bullsa, whose arena is magnificent but a joyless 40-odd minute PATH ride into New Jersey from Midtown.

"It was about the locality," Nicole Fusco said of her reason for becoming an NYCFC season-ticket holder. "It's accessible from New York – a New York team being in New York."

"We love soccer," added her husband, Paul, "and it's New York City."

Plenty of fans have echoed this. "[Red Bull Arena] is a beautiful stadium but it's hard to get to," Matthew Brunson-Cline said. And like others, he brought up the new club's clear identity and unambiguous city personality. "We used to go to Red Bulls games because there was no other choice," said Matthew's husband, Noah. "But this feels more like a New York team."

"And it's not sponsored by an energy drink," added Matthew, speaking to the cross-town alternative's rebranding from the MetroStars in 2006. "It's a little lame, the energy drink thing."

NYCFC appeals simply because it's easy to get to, has a strong brand, and was well and aggressively marketed at its inception. "They advertised it very well, as a legitimate New York City team," Luis Vazquez said. "I just had to get on board. What did it for me is they were playing in Yankee Stadium and it's so easy to get here. That helped a lot. I can actually go to these games."

If that team happened to have some famous players any would-be fans had heard of, so much the better. But the formula is straightforward and hardly new. The league's consistent leaders in attendance and market traction tend to play either downtown or in very well-planned and fan-friendly venues in its outskirts.

As for the rivalry, which has gained immediate traction – Sunday's attendance was almost double NYCFC's very respectable season average of just under 27,000 – it seems that its easy recognition as a big game outweighs its blatant lack of history. Participants, of course contend that this rivalry happened naturally.

"You never want to force something that's not there," Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said before the game. "But the way it's happened, it was all organic. It feels real."

That isn't quite true. A month and a half ago, these teams had never played each other. That they did at all wasn't because two soccer clubs happened to be started in the same area and accidentally wound up competing each other, as in most rivalries. It's because MLS was hell-bent on having a second team in New York so a rivalry could be ignited.

Because MLS figured there were enough soccer fans there to fill two stadiums, even though Red Bull Arena is just 13 miles from Yankee Stadium, where NYCFC will spend the first few seasons of its life until a stadium of its own is built. Indeed, the Red Bulls have seen no significant drop-off in attendance.

"We knew that this market would support two teams," MLS commissioner Don Garber said – failing, of course, to mention the re-launched New York Cosmos of the competing North American Soccer League.

Which all seems to underscore that the key to commercial success in pro soccer boils down to finding an eager market and satisfying it with a solid product and minimum of fuss to the customer. These are elementary business principles. Running an MLS club, like soccer itself, apparently isn't as complex as all that.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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