On 10 June 1975, New York’s famous 21 Club played host to a packed press conference, held to announce the unlikely coup of Pelé signing for the New York Cosmos. On Tuesday, almost 38 years later, the Cosmopolitan room at the Four Seasons Hotel hosted another event featuring the Cosmos and Pelé (now the club’s honorary life president), as they announced Emirates Airlines as their new, multi-year sponsor.
Yet despite being only a few blocks away from where he had once stopped the traffic, this was a visit by Pelé to a very different soccer landscape. The globalization of soccer and of course, the birth of MLS has caused such change, yet the hope of the organization and presumably their ambitious sponsors (who declined to discuss the exact size of the deal), is that the Cosmos is a uniquely persistent brand. “Don’t call it a comeback” read the promotional material around the room – a message Pelé inadvertently countered when he claimed, with mock-indignation, that wherever he went in the world “People ask me, ‘When are the Cosmos coming back?’”. He also pointed out that that is what he is asked about most often, rather than 25 successful years at home with Santos.
In another way, of course, Pelé was precisely on message. The Cosmos chairman, Seamus O’Brien, said the Emirates partnership was “written in the stars” (pointing out that “cosmopolitan” is one of the five inspirational words writ large on the walls at Emirates HQ); the fact that the Cosmos now share shirt sponsorship with Arsenal, Milan, Hamburg, Paris Saint-Germain, Olympiakos and, as of last week, Real Madrid, speaks to the enduring appeal of the Cosmos mythology.
Yet where those teams are prominent presences in their top leagues, the Cosmos have not played a competitive game for some 30 years. When they return to competitive soccer, on 3 August, it will not be to the top tier of US soccer, MLS, but to the rebooted version of the North American Soccer League, played in by the original Cosmos, which is now the de facto second division of US soccer. A long period of flirtation with MLS, during which the Cosmos were the presumed frontrunners for the second New York franchise, was definitively ended a couple of weeks ago with the confirmation of a partnership between the New York Yankees and Manchester City, to form New York City FC. Emirates is sponsoring a team which will for the immediate future be the third team in New York – and the jury is still out on whether a hugely competitive media market can support even one.
O’Brien’s thinking regarding this fear is actually pretty similar to that employed by MLS commissioner Don Garber, who tends to say that the 19 million population of New York City is more than enough to support more than one team. O’Brien cited his own background in England, where teams play “across the street from each other”, and said he didn’t think three professional teams in New York would be a problem. But for those who look at the catchment area and also see two NFL teams, two NBA teams, two MLB teams and three NHL teams, not to mention those two MLS rivals, it seems plain that the Cosmos have their work cut out within the sports consumer version of natural selection. NYCFC will be beginning their charm offensive fairly soon, and the New York Red Bulls, long known to be reluctant to make big media spends, have promised to roll out enhanced marketing campaigns as early as this summer. Beyond event days like this, the Cosmos face an immediate fight to be seen and heard.
We are fast approaching the day in August when all the speculation around the possible value of the Cosmos brand meets the empirical reality of a team trying to build a present-day following from a field at Hofstra University. Ticket sales have been steady rather than spectacular and the new team, like the ambitious league (which aims to have 18 teams by 2018) they will play in, faces a tough fight to make a breakthrough. That said, when I spoke to NASL commissioner Bill Peterson, after the event, he was bullish about how the Emirates deal had “raised the bar” for everyone else in the league. He was also sanguine about how the present Cosmos hierarchy would handle their club’s history:
It’s a benefit and a burden, right? It’s a benefit that people have that awareness of you without you having played a game in this decade … or the last, in fact. It’s a burden because you’ve got to go out and prove it yourself. Nothing that happened in the past will help them beyond 3 August. Everything they’re building though, will help them. This is a foundational move. They’re picking up a legacy and they’ve stated that they’ll be great caretakers of this legacy … this is not a hobby for these guys.
On Tuesday, the man who perhaps did more than any other to create that legacy was once more at the centre of a media scrum. He had a little fun with the attention. When a journalist begged him to consider playing “even for 10 minutes” when the Cosmos returned, Pelé pointed out that he had just had hip surgery and had told Cosmos coach Gio Savarese that he would not be available until at least “after the Confederations Cup”. Amid laughter, he then indicated a row of young men in tracksuits to the left of the stage and said: “Let these guys run around.”
After a final photoshoot and some brief reunions with former team-mates, he was gone. The players he’d suggested should run around – the core of the Cosmos roster – hovered quietly at the edge of the room, as journalists and photographers pushed past them for a last glimpse of the legend leaving the building. Their immediate future will be less glamorous.