A fax away from destruction, Cosmos have new life in NASL under Commisso

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Saturday April 1st, 2017

There’s nothing intrinsically memorable or distinctive about the logo. If anything, it’s almost too generic, and if unaware of its history or origin you might think it looked like the default option in a youth soccer uniform catalog. There’s a big ball and some swirly shapes and, that’s it. The designer, an artist named Wayland Moore, has said the only thing those shapes are meant to symbolize is “movement”, while the colors represent “nationalities”.

Change the name along the edge, and it could be the badge of any soccer team on Earth. But it’s not, of course. It’s the New York Cosmos’ logo, and it’s likely more people recognize that crest than that of any other team in American soccer. And that’s despite the fact the Cosmos haven’t played in the sport’s top tier for more than thirty years. Such was the club’s impact during its heyday in the late 1970s and early ’80s—and such was the star power of Pelé, Beckenbauer and Chinaglia—that those simple swirls still pack a nostalgic, aspirational punch. They evoke memories. They embody the sport’s American potential. They don’t feel at all like a two-dimensional, youth soccer cliche. And that effect is worth a lot of money.

Investor Seamus O’Brien, a sports media and marketing executive, COO Erik Stover and head coach Giovani Savarese, among others, did their best to breathe life back into that logo. From mid-2013 through last year, it could be seen on real jerseys worn by real players, and Savarese added three championships to the five won during the Cosmos' golden age.

But O’Brien, his Saudi partners and the NASL itself were over-extended and as the league teetered on the brink, he was looking to divest. The Cosmos had lost a reported $30 million. Their dream of a stadium and mixed-use development at Belmont Park had been strangled by red tape. Toward the end of last November, about two weeks after it defeated Indy Eleven in the NASL final, the club began furloughing front office staff and releasing players from their contracts. Employees who remained went unpaid. O’Brien was deep into negotiations with GF Capital Management, a New York private equity firm, and had to cut costs. GF Capital, meanwhile, had no interest in fielding a soccer team and wasn’t concerned with the future of the NASL. It was after that punch. It wanted the logo.

On the evening of Dec. 14, O’Brien had a signed term sheet in hand. All he had to do was slide it into a fax machine, hit ‘send’, and the Cosmos once again would be little more than a two-dimensional ball, some swirly shapes and memories.

Rocco Commisso likes a good story, and the man can hold court. Even the simplest question can be a catalyst, and the ensuing tales are delightfully tall. Growing up in Calabria, which fittingly is the toe of the Italian boot, Commisso said he’d play soccer with a ball of rags held together with a rubber band. But if you want to play with the older boys, you’ll be catching instead of kicking.

“Frankly, I was stupid enough to dive on concrete,” he joked. “My first position was goalie until I came to this country.”

He arrived at 12 and played only pick-up soccer all the way through his high school years at Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx.

“But even then, I was a hustler,” he said.

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Commisso reached the soccer coach at NYU through a high school gym teacher and was offered a tryout. But he needed more than the 50% scholarship he was offered. So Commisso called Columbia.

“They rushed me through the interview process,” he said. “One thing led to another, and I was admitted and they gave me a full scholarship. I now remember asking them, ‘Don’t you want to see me play?’ And they said, ‘Rocco, if you’re good enough for NYU, you’re certainly good enough for Columbia.’”

He was. Commisso helped the Lions to their inaugural NCAA tournament appearance in 1970. The three-time All-Ivy honoree graduated the following year with a degree in industrial engineering and then followed that up with an MBA in 1975. He’s been returning the favor since. Columbia now plays at the Rocco B. Commisso Soccer Stadium.

Commisso made his money in banking and cable television and in 1995, he launched his own cable and internet services company, Mediacom. A conversation with Commisso, 67, quickly careens from Columbia to calcio to cable and back. These are his passions, and that’s evident in the pitch and increasing speed of his voice. The alma mater inspires loyalty. The sport and the business fuels his competitive fire. It's no surprise that he’d thought more than once about investing in pro soccer. But in the end, there hadn't been opportunity that moved him.

There were conversations with MLS as far back as the late 1990s.

“They wanted to give me a franchise. ‘Why don’t you take Toronto?’ I had plenty of opportunities during those early years to get involved,” he recalled.

Then there were talks with teams in Europe. That was too far. He wanted to be involved and hands-on. Commisso said there were additional overtures from MLS. But the buy-in was high, and the prospect of building soccer beyond Gotham didn’t appeal.

“I’m a local guy,” he said. “I have no interest in buying a team in California."

Furthermore, MLS didn’t really resemble his vision of New York soccer. It’s a city of bright lights, and it's home to the biggest stars. Those players aren't common in MLS.

“I haven’t been to an MLS or an NASL game at all,” Commisso said. “Largely because I’m one of those that understands who the best players in the world are, who the best leagues in the world are. When I want to watch a real soccer game, I wouldn’t go to watch New York City [FC]. I’ll watch Juventus. I’ll watch the Italian league. I’ll watch the Spanish league.”

Players like that once turned out for the Cosmos.

“Seventy-thousand people at Giants Stadium. Despite the fact we were playing on Astroturf, they were the greatest professional games I ever saw in America,” he said.

Commisso admitted that he didn’t see the original Cosmos play in person more than 10 times. But they left an impression that lasted 30 years. They represented American soccer’s possibility and remain its most compelling, surreal story. So when Commisso learned late last year that the reborn Cosmos were for sale and that their flesh-and-blood future was at stake, he realized he’d found a calling.

“I was told the Cosmos were having problems and that they were ready to do a deal. Things that I had heard that the team for sure, under either situation, was going to get disbanded. No more Cosmos team,” Commisso said, explaining that O’Brien had a second, unnamed suitor who also was interested only in the brand. “I want to see the name of the Cosmos and its legacy and who they are exist forever.”

By that time, Stover, Savarese and their colleagues had become convinced that identity would return to being two-dimensional. The legacy once again would be packed up and placed in storage. They spent those fitful days trying to find employment for Cosmos players and employees. Savarese has been mentioned as an MLS managerial candidate, but he remained under contract with the Cosmos through 2017 and in December, he felt an obligation to handle as much of the fallout as he could. Stover was forced to preside over a massive staff cut and the real-life pain associated with financial hardship. Post-championship celebration and commemoration was muted. Vendors and contractors wanted to be paid. The holidays were approaching.

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“[Gio and I] were talking. Should we just quit, throw our hands up and let this thing completely explode? And as hard as it was, we just said, ‘We can’t do that because there’s people involved here,’” Stover said. “So we spent a lot of time taking it apart brick by brick, person by person, trying to get interviews for people … Gio was trying to do the same for the players. We were doing what we could to help people move on and in retrospect, that helps us get to where we are today. We didn’t just blow it up and walk away. We just undid this, so let’s do it back again. And then we can put the next row of bricks on.”

Where they are now—preparing for Saturday’s home opener—seemed like a fantasy in mid-December. O’Brien was closing on his transaction and had his term sheet. He planned to send it the morning of Thursday, Dec. 15. That would be it. Stover, who’d been the New York Red Bulls managing director in 2008–11, was waiting for the other shoe to drop and facing his own impending unemployment. He was at home the night of the 14th when he received a call from Joe Barone, a well-connected soccer executive who served as the Cosmos’ director of business development and the chairman of the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.

Barone had spoken with Commisso. The Cosmos were well aware of Commisso’s interest in New York soccer and actually had reached out to him earlier in 2016 during O’Brien’s desperate and fruitless search for investors. Team operations manager Jack Gaeta had starred at Columbia in the early ‘90s, knew Commisso and had spoken with him over the summer. That seed had been germinating for six months.

But Barone couldn’t reach O’Brien. He phoned Stover in a panic. It was stoppage time. Stover tried O’Brien as well, failed, and then dialed Jeremy Wilkins, who was the Cosmos’ vice chairman and O’Brien’s chief associate. Wilkins told Stover that even though O’Brien hadn’t been picking up, he would speak with Barone. Barone then convinced his boss to meet with Commisso the next morning. At 10 a.m. on Dec. 15th, the principles gathered in a law office next to Rockefeller Center. It was Commisso’s home turf. His attorney was Amr Aly, a Columbia graduate who won the Hermann Trophy awarded to college soccer’s top player in 1984 and went on to appear eight times for the U.S. national team.

Commisso knew O’Brien already had a buyer and thus, a bit of leverage. He also was aware that purchasing the team would be just part of the total transaction. There were debts to clear up and a stadium situation to resolve since Hofstra University, which the Cosmos had called home, wasn’t an option going forward.

“I knew this was going to cost me way more money than just shutting it down and getting the IP rights,” Commisso said.

“There were plenty of people to go around. Seamus had to negotiate with his partners and I had to negotiate with myself in my own head,” he continued. “We had people in two or three rooms there …. There was lots of back and forth.”

They ordered Chinese food.

“Seamus wanted to sign a binding contract and after eight hours of negotiations, we both agreed that to sign a binding contract today was impossible, so let’s go into a binding commitment letter—a letter of intent,” Commisso said. “It was give and take for 12 hours, 14 hours. I got home at 2 o’clock in the morning with a commitment letter. And that’s it.”

Except it wasn’t. Commisso had a couple of conditions—the Cosmos had to remain in the NASL, and the NASL had to maintain second-division sanctioning from U.S. Soccer. And that wasn’t a given. The league was in disarray at the conclusion of its sixth season. Minnesota United was on its way to MLS. Rayo OKC was on its way to oblivion. The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury quit for the USL, while the Jacksonville Armada and Ft. Lauderdale Strikers were in severe distress. Commissioner Bill Peterson was out, and one more defection likely would lead to the league’s collapse. Negotiations between the NASL, USL and USSF continued through New Year’s.

It looked like the NASL would need eight teams to survive into 2017. And it turned out that Commisso’s condition was reciprocal. If the Cosmos could take the field, that lifted the league’s membership roll to seven. The remaining NASL owners were willing to float one more club, the Armada, until a buyer was found. So on Jan. 6, both the NASL and USL were granted provisional second-division status. Commisso owned a majority stake in the Cosmos (O’Brien maintains a minority share) and got to add a gripping new chapter to his story.

“Little did I know that minute that I wasn’t going to only save the Cosmos, but I was also saving the league as I was negotiating,” Commisso said.

“If we only stayed at six [teams], I don’t know what the outcome would’ve been,” said Rishi Sehgal, the NASL’s interim commissioner. “We had multiple pathways to not be at six and we chose the one that we felt the most comfortable with and the one most likely to lead to long-term stability.”

The uniforms the Cosmos will wear at MCU Park on Saturday when they host Miami FC will be new, and they arrived this week. The club’s 2016 kit supplier, Under Armour, was unable to handle a two-month turnaround and the Cosmos’ new outfitter, Inaria, barely made it (New York wore plain, off-the-rack uniforms in last weekend’s tie in Puerto Rico). That close call offers some insight into the good-problem-to-have chaos that’s gripped the club since Commisso took over. They had two months to build a team. They had to change ticketing systems and negotiate new TV deals. While the front office is operating at around 25% capacity, Savarese did a good job re-stocking the roster. He was able to bring 15 players back, including captain Carlos Mendes, goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer and Salvadoran attacker Andrés Flores. Venezuelan stars Juan Arango and Yohandry Orozco were planning on leaving after the ’16 season anyway. But despite the time crunch, Savarese was able to recruit newcomers like former Portland Timbers midfielder Kalif Alhassan and one-time U.S. U-23 national team forward Eugene Starikov.

Seth Wenig/AP

There are no transcendent players on this team—none who match the men Commisso remembers watching at the Meadowlands and none who compare to the likes of modern-day Cosmos like Raúl or Marcos Senna. But there’s stability now, and money to spend. The team’s wage bill is similar to last year’s, and there’s been time to buy and install subway ads and billboards around New York City. Commisso said he’s especially proud that he sees as much or more Cosmos advertising as that from the Red Bulls or NYCFC. And he’s proud of the reminder on each ad that the viewer is entering, or in, or on their way to “Cosmos Country”.

The Cosmos are back, and Cosmos Country has returned to the five boroughs. Hofstra was convenient only for those within a reasonable driving distance on Long Island. It was way too much of a slog for fans in the city, and falling attendance reflected that. Now they’re at MCU Park, a minor league baseball stadium in iconic Coney Island. It’s not perfect. But they’re hardly the only soccer team in NYC playing on a diamond, and the Cosmos will lay a turf field over the one at MCU so players won’t have to deal with infield dirt and fans won’t have to look at baselines. A station serving four subway lines is three blocks away and Nathan’s Famous is only two. It’s Brooklyn, it’s an improvement, and the Cosmos are hoping for a sellout.

NYCFC also is at home on Saturday, but as for as Commisso is concerned, the Cosmos are New York’s most authentic soccer club—the kind that taps into the lore and possibility that fuels fandom around the world. And so it’s fitting that they’re owned by a New Yorker. The Red Bulls answer to Austria. NYCFC looks to Manchester, which in turn looks to Abu Dhabi. The Cosmos, after years in the hands of foreign investors, now are run by an Italian-American who grew up in the Bronx. All is as it should be. Commisso has said he expects to make no money on this investment. And he’s fine with that. The return comes Saturday, when that logo comes to life within the city that’s given him so much.

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“New York is just as important to me from an ownership standpoint. The New York Cosmos are as important as owning any team in America, even within the MLS,” he said. “I wanted to save this iconic team because of what it meant to U.S. soccer and what it means to the New York area. And it’s the truth, by the way. I gave my secretary’s son a shirt for him to wear and now he’s become the most important person on his team because the coach remembers the Cosmos and went to the games.”

That’s the power of that logo. The heights the Cosmos reached in years past haven’t been forgotten, and Commisso intends to funnel his passion toward climbing them again. He’s only one game in, but he’s already railed against the structure of the modern American game, which forces owners to either accept a lower and inflexible division designation or spend hundreds of millions to enter MLS. The Cosmos were once unlimited. New York City is unlimited. And consider the story of a kid who played soccer with rags in Italy and now is a millionaire many times over who owns the team Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer once played for. Commisso feels unlimited, and his last-minute acquisition is simply another transition to a new chapter.

For the NASL, for fans in New York and for those who appreciate the history of the game, it’s a story they can now live out in person. It’s in three dimensions, rather than two.

“I think he’s going to be a perfect owner for the Cosmos to write their next chapter. He's a guy who’s built a big business and he has a huge passion for soccer,” Sehgal said. “For sure, the Cosmos to be put into a holding pattern wasn’t something that would be ideal. The ability to have them on the field, that’s where every team should belong. A club is more than a brand. It’s something that needs to live and breathe.”

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