Ever since Major League Soccer started up four years ago, it’s been said that the league’s inability to draw a national audience—or much of an audience at all—is due, in part, to the misfortunes of the New York club, which is known, pointlessly, as the MetroStars. The MLS founding fathers were very clear about the importance of fielding a winning team in the nation’s media capital. Utilizing its unusual power to control the rosters of every team, MLS awarded the finest American player at that time, midfielder Tab Ramos, to New York. If they’d looked into Ramos’ colorful medical history—he once fractured his skull in a World Cup game and has endured countless knee and leg ailments—they’d have known that the talented but fragile playmaker was not exactly a solid bet to carry a team. And, indeed, he has barely been fit enough to carry himself, sitting out most of last season with a pulled hamstring, and the one before that with something else, etc. At various points, famous reinforcements have been brought in. Two years ago, the league arranged for the MetroStars to acquire pro soccer’s closest approximation of Dennis Rodman—a painfully slow but flamboyant fullback named Alexi Lalas—but he turned out to be a dud, too. As the New York franchise floundered, so did the league, and in the eyes of many soccer boosters, this was no mere coincidence.
Major League Soccer has a new problem this season: Despite the fact that yet another high-profile acquisition has tanked on them, the MetroStars are winning. Attendance around the league, meanwhile, is sinking like a rock. In the MetroStars last home game, a smartly played victory over Dallas, about 9,000 fans rattled around Giants Stadium.
It would appear, then, that this notion that a winning New York team is essential to the popularity of a professional sport is false. After all, 20 years ago, the old New York Cosmos bought up huge international stars and filled stadiums with screaming fans and couldn’t save their doomed league, either. But in other sports, the theory does stand up, albeit in modified form.
Consider the NBA. In 1985, Commissioner David Stern was just starting to get the league’s superstar machinery up and running when the Knicks, somewhat shockingly, defied the odds and won the draft lottery, allowing them to select Georgetown University center Patrick Ewing. At the time, there was much scuttlebutt that the fix was in—the health of the league, it was said, depended on a strong team in New York, and so the lottery was rigged to give the Knicks the marquee player.
Few people have ever given this conspiracy theory much credence, but one can only marvel at how well it has all worked out for the NBA. Not because the Knicks went on to be glorious champions—we all know that never happened—but that by landing Ewing, the Knicks essentially guaranteed themselves a decade of hard-fought near greatness. Ewing has occasionally been described as the worst of his generation of NBA superstars, which is a kinder assessment than it sounds like, and I think it’s quite apt. Blessed with superhuman size, strength, and work ethic, Ewing has, throughout his career, made the Knicks good enough to hate, and that, in turn, has worked wonders for the NBA. Ewing and the Knicks served as the perfect foil for Jordan—a hard-fouling, mean-spirited team that was just the kind of club that Americans wanted to see from New York City. They had to be good, but it was more important that, in the end, they walk off the court humbled and humiliated. Year after year, the Knicks have done just that. They even provided the same service last year to fledgling superstar Tim Duncan. Meanwhile, the NBA has soared.
Baseball is a slightly different story, but it supports the same general principle. While the Yankees rack up championships, baseball prospers. But I think the NBA has found a better formula. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone outside the Bronx who isn’t bored stiff by the Yankees’ mini-dynasty. It’s not just that fans are turned off by Steinbrenner’s ability to buy championships. It’s that the team doesn’t inspire hatred. They’re hard-working, efficient, relatively colorless guys. I think that’s one of the reasons that the home run derby has become such a pathological obsession over the last couple of seasons. We all know who’s actually going to win the World Series, but the home run race … well, that’s neck and neck. It’s gotten to the point where the niceness of the Yankees is almost bad for baseball. They could use some guys like Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson, or maybe Charles Oakley, to get people’s blood boiling again.
So, for that matter, could the MetroStars.