Mr. Met, the mascot of New York’s National League baseball team, may not speak fluent Spanish yet, but the club has recast itself with a strong Hispanic flavor and may soon expand beyond America’s pastime and embrace the world’s game: soccer.
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Red Bulls Champions League UEFA Cup Other International Cup International Leagues Discuss Soccer The Mets and several groups of investors have held discussions about obtaining the rights to operate a Major League Soccer team, which could not begin play until 2010 at the earliest, an industry executive said.
“We have been approached at various times with ideas, but right now we’re focused on our new stadium, Citi Field, and we don’t want to address this matter,” Dave Howard, the Mets’ executive vice president for business opportunities, said Thursday in a telephone interview. M.L.S., a single-entity operation that owns all player contracts and grants owner/investors the right to operate teams, is a 13-team circuit. The league plans to return next season to San Jose, Calif., (the Earthquakes were moved to Houston before the 2006 season) and expand to 16 teams by 2010 or 2011.
Lew Wolff, the owner of the Oakland Athletics, and his partner, John Fisher, purchased an exclusive option to resurrect the Earthquakes, and they will pay about $20 million for the rights to operate the club for the 2008 season. Future investors are more likely to pay about $30 million to run a team, M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber said, a figure that could increase.
“I can’t confirm or deny any discussions with the Mets,” Garber said Friday in a telephone interview. He did say that a number of cities — Philadelphia; Atlanta; St. Louis; Seattle; San Diego; Las Vegas; Portland, Ore.; and Vancouver, British Columbia — are aggressively seeking teams but that the league’s preference was for a second team in the New York area.
“We have spoken to lots of different people,” Garber added, “and as a general statement I have to say that we have great respect for Fred Wilpon, who has a stellar reputation in the sports business.” Wilpon is the principal owner of the Mets.
Putting a team in New York, particularly in Queens, which has a large number of immigrants, would give M.L.S. a crosstown rivalry similar to the one it has near Los Angeles, where the Galaxy and Chivas USA share the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. The Red Bulls play their home games at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., but have plans to build a 25,000-seat soccer stadium in Harrison, N.J., in time for the start of the 2009 season.
When M.L.S. began operations in 1996, Metromedia, which operated the MetroStars, was assigned the option to run a second team in the New York area. Those rights were transferred to the Anschutz Entertainment Group when it bought the MetroStars.
But M.L.S., as part of last year’s sale of the team to Red Bull, the Austrian maker of a popular energy drink, reclaimed the rights to the second team. The league would pay the Red Bulls an unspecified fee to put a new team in the area.
“The league’s original plan always was to have two teams in New York,” Garber said. “Our goal is to have 16 teams by 2010 or ’11.”
The Mets are building the 45,000-seat, $600 million Citi Field next to their current home, Shea Stadium. Last month, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced plans to redevelop the tumbledown auto salvage yards adjacent to Shea. That plan would liberate acres of land for retail and residential development and could include a modest stadium for the soccer team, should the Mets or another group buy into M.L.S.
Bringing the Mets on board would be considered a coup for M.L.S., which only a few years ago was dominated by AEG and the Hunt Sports Group, which operated the majority of the league’s teams. Since then, Garber has succeeded in attracting new investors who include Stan Kroenke (Colorado), Jorge Vergara (Chivas USA), Dave Checketts (Real Salt Lake), Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (Toronto FC) and Red Bull. “We’ve had many meetings with various people over the years,” the Mets’ Howard said. “We’ve had many ideas presented to us and this could have been one of them, but that’s my general fallback statement.”