New York City isn’t synonymous with soccer, but the newly minted New York City Football Club and their growing legion of fans want to change that perception. While the New York Red Bulls and Cosmos cemented a reasonable fan base throughout the mid-80s to present day, those teams were forged in an era where American soccer fandom was subdued, and even peripheral. In present day, infatuation with European leagues and growing support for the US Men’s National Team has catapulted soccer into the mainstream of American sporting culture.
This passion has been reflected in NYCFC’s supporters and the team’s ticket sales; a total of 16,000 season tickets have already been claimed in the club’s inaugural year, not to mention the routinely sold-out games taking place at Yankee Stadium, the team’s first but also temporary home.
But why the unprecedented surge in allegiance to NYCFC has been so seamless is another issue entirely. After all, the club is an expansion team, owned by City Football Group, a holding company run under the larger umbrella of its parent organization Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), which owns the British Premier League’s Manchester City and other clubs across Australia and Japan. But NYCFC fans see their team as something organic that’s been sorely missing from NYC limits for decades (after all, the Red Bulls play in New Jersey and the Cosmos play in Hempstead, NY), and crucial to that feeling is the branding behind the club’s launch.
“From a marketing perspective, they’ve put a lot of attention to the elements that an actual supporter would want to affiliate with the team. The crest for example, is like a New York Yankees kind of crest,” says Ross Cranwell, who handles marketing and social media for NYCFC’s official fan group, The Third Rail.
Cranwell says that kind of imagery has been key in courting a strong base of support for the nascent team. He says the Third Rail is intent on building “one of the best [fan] cultures here in the US,” and so far, that culture is off to a strong start. Alexis Rivera, a member of the Third Rail, says the group “has become a huge part of my social life.”
But branding isn’t the only thing that’s helped NYCFC’s fan-base grow so quickly. Geography is another thing that Third Rail members see as key to their affiliation with the team. Much like supporters groups across England have granular ties to various clubs and the minutiae of their respective neighborhoods, Third Rail members think that NYCFC’s place in actual New York City limits makes it the city’s first real MLS franchise.
Rivera says that throughout his time as a soccer fan in New York, the “Red Bulls rarely did things to interact with their fans and the city.”
Cranwell says that when you’re watching an NYCFC game, “you’re in the epicenter of the five boroughs,” and that taking the train to New Jersey to catch a Red Bulls match is “a pain in the ass.”
But regardless of their reasoning, NYCFC supporters have gotten criticized for their allegiance to an expansion team that in its first season has only won two out of its first fourteen games. In addition to their paltry starting record, the likeness of the team’s uniforms to Manchester City’s (they’re nearly identical), have provided the team’s detractors with fodder for trash talk.
That was a prime subject Red Bulls fans used in the first meeting between the two clubs to pester NYCFC’s supporters, as they unfurled a massive banner depicting a caricature of Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that read “20 years late and a stadium short.” Dopey was also clad in baby-blue robes that had the words “Man City Lite” scrawled across the chest.
“They call us a Man City lite or Man City B-team,” says Cranwell, with a hint of reservation. But he’s quick to add that whatever feeling of being the new team in town fades while watching a home game at Yankee Stadium. He says “you feel like this is a New York City team with its own identity,” while in the stands.
However true that homespun feeling may be, the team’s identity isn’t something that was forged on years of history. It was something that was thoughtfully crafted by the team’s front office.
“It’s important for us to have a club that represents New York City, and it starts with the badge,” says Mike Quarino, NYCFC’s Vice President of Ticketing & Fan Services. “The circular shape is reminiscent of the old NYC subway token, the Gotham typeface, the exact tone of orange from the New York City flag, are all examples of the connection to the city. A club’s badge is a large part of its identity, and we wanted our supporters to be a part of the decision making process,” he adds, mentioning the crowdsourced nature used to produce the badge.
The branding genius aside, it’s indisputable that NYCFC was established in the midst of growing soccer fascination in the US, and that too, is a logical reason for the team’s popularity. “Our club has simply met a demand that was already there,” says Quarino.
America’s new found interest in soccer means that more franchises are likely to trickle into the MLS in due time. Whether or not those new teams will be expansion teams beholden to a larger, more storied franchise is only a matter of conjecture, but Ross Cranwell says NYCFC’s relationship to Manchester City might not really be a bad thing.
“I think it works in your favor having a partnership, you have the backing of the [larger] team, you have the knowledge technically and then also getting your name out there, and they’re doing a great job,” he says.
He says all of these factors are giving his club a bright future, regardless of their shaky start.