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Rocco Commisso wants to make American soccer great again. And his quest begins right here at home, with the revitalization of one of the sport's most storied franchises. In December the 67-year-old media mogul purchased the New York Cosmos, a formerly star-studded squad that once dominated U.S. soccer but had since sunk to the minor leagues and was on the brink of failure for the second time in its colorful history. To start rebuilding the brand, Commisso moved matches from Long Island's Hofstra University to Coney Island, where the team lost its April 1 home opener at MCU Park, the 7,000-seat venue where baseball's Brooklyn Cyclones play.
But resurrecting the Cosmos is only part of Commisso's plan. His bigger goal is to shake up the entire U.S. soccer business.article continues below advertisement
On the surface, professional soccer doesn't seem in need of shaking up. After decades of fits and starts, the sport appears to at last have a thriving league, with area teams—New York City Football Club and the New York Red Bulls—that average better than 20,000 fans per game. The men's national team has qualified for seven consecutive World Cups and is increasingly competitive against more highly rated European and Latin American squads. But Commisso says that U.S. soccer is nowhere near where it should be. "Everyone is bragging about the great job we're doing," he said. "The peak of American soccer was in 1930, the only time the U.S. made it to a World Cup semifinal. Here we are, 80 years later, and we have no professional teams in the top 10. What kind of crap is that?"
Commisso himself is a great New York success story. At age 12, he immigrated from Calabria, Italy, and eventually settled in the Bronx. He scored a soccer scholarship to Columbia University, where he co-captained the team. After getting his M.B.A. in 1975, he landed a job at Chase Manhattan Bank making loans to a new breed of enterprises called cable television companies.
In 1995 he launched his own, building Mediacom Communications Corp. into the nation's fifth-largest cable system by acquiring dozens of providers in small markets such as Death Valley, Calif., and Keokuk, Iowa. Today Mediacom generates $1.8 billion in annual revenue, and $250 million in free cash flow.
By pouring some of those dollars into the Cosmos, Commisso plans to make the team ascendant again. If it catches on, and the North American Soccer League—in which it plays—lands a lucrative TV package, perhaps he could force the sport's top U.S. league, Major League Soccer, to accept the Cosmos and return them to glory.
Long shots don't come much longer than this, but Commisso arguably has the drive to pull it off. He certainly has the money. And Cosmos alumni and fans are already daring to dream.
"I was there when the original owner, Steve Ross, from Warner Communications, owned the team, and I see great parallels between the two men," said Shep Messing, a Cosmos goalie during the team's heyday and now a broadcaster. "Another media giant today steps up and takes over the New York Cosmos."
Yet it's precisely this comparison that makes some established soccer power brokers nervous about Commisso. Manhattan-based MLS was spawned in 1996 with a business model designed to prevent any one team from outspending rivals into oblivion—like the Cosmos did under Ross. MLS teams share national and international TV revenue and are assigned budgets so player contracts don't get out of hand. The formula has helped the league expand to 22 teams from its original 10, but at a December press conference, MLS Commissioner Don Garber made clear he has no interest in bringing in the Cosmos.
"We have two teams in New York. We're not going to have a third team," he said. "I wish them luck."
Commisso swats such naysayers aside. "People know in my industry that I have a loud voice," he said, "and no one has been able to shut me down."Photo: Buck Ennis Commisso introducing the Cosmos new kit, sported by team captain Carlos Mendes, goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer and left back Ayoze.
Price of success
Professional soccer has been played in the U.S. much longer than football, basketball and hockey. The first league, the American Football Association, was founded in 1884 and was filled with mostly New York and New Jersey teams, including the New York Thistles, the Kearny Rangers and six Newark-based squads. The U.S. joined FIFA, soccer's international governing body, in 1913. In 1930 the national team, aided by several U.K.-born players, reached the World Cup semifinal, losing 6-1 to Argentina. But the Great Depression wiped out American pro soccer, and the beautiful game was then mostly played only by immigrants. Their children soon embraced made-in-America sports like baseball, basketball and tackle football. "For a long time, there was real resistance to adopting sports from other countries," said Brandon Brown, a sports management professor at New York University.
Pro soccer didn't return to the U.S. until 1967, with the formation of the North American Soccer League. The Cosmos joined in 1971. The team was co-founded by Istanbul native and legendary Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, his brother Nesuhi and Brooklyn-born Steve Ross, chairman and chief executive of Warner Communications, now Time Warner.
At first the Cosmos were nomads, playing to tiny crowds at Hofstra University and Downing Stadium on Randall's Island. In despair investors sold their interests to Warner for $1. That's when Ross shook things up. He understood New Yorkers wouldn't pay attention unless the team had stars, so in 1975 he spent about $4.5 million of the company's money to sign Brazilian legend Pelé, making the world's greatest soccer player the world's highest-paid athlete. Ross's strategy of spending huge sums for stars who could win games and headlines had plenty of imitators, including George Steinbrenner, who signed Catfish Hunter that same year to revitalize the Yankees.Photo: Associated Press Brazilian legend Pel
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