By Barry Janoff
January 10, 2017: Rocco Commisso, chairman and CEO for Mediacom Communications Corp., said it was a pre-Christmas meeting with the then majority owners of the New York Cosmos that convinced him to become the new majority owner of the iconic, but financially strapped, soccer club.
The sale was conditional on the North American Soccer League retaining its Division II status and not being dropped to Division III by the United States Soccer Federation.
Last week, the USSF allowed the NASL to retain its Division II certification, with provisions — including the Cosmos being part of the league — which in turn led Commisso to sign a deal that not only kept the Cosmos from sinking but also kept the NASL afloat for at least one more season.
"The week before Christmas I met with the prior ownership of the Cosmos," Commisso (pictured center) said during an introductory media conference call on Tuesday. "We spent a whole day together and got the deal done the next day. I know that I have to invest time and money and resources and take the losses as part of the theater in which I now will be playing in. But it is important for me to keep the Cosmos alive.
"It wasn’t just a matter if the Cosmos would survive," he said. "It was the entire NASL. That needs to be said up front. Given who the Cosmos are, without the Cosmos the league may not have survived. We had to do a lot of work in a short period of time to save the Cosmos, save the league and convince the USSF to give us the Division II classification to kept the league going forward."
Financial terms of the deal were not shared. The Cosmos lost $30 million last season, and several other clubs were in "serious financial trouble," according to industry analysts.
Mediacom, with annual revenues in nearing $2 billion, is wholly-owned by Commisso and his family.
According to team COO Erik Stover, "We’ve gong through a difficult time over the last few months. It’s been hard for us, for our players and our fans. There has been a lack of information. The last several months have been difficult for all of us.
"But we found a savior for this club and a savior who has helped to keep the North American Soccer League going. He has saved us not only in this immediate time of urgency but for the future. Her can help this league grow and help this team grow," said Stover.
Commisso said it was important to keep the club in New York, which they have been part of since their time with the original NASL from 1970 until the league’s demise in 1984-85.
That team, which during its history fielded such soccer legends as Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and American-born Shep Messing, won five league championships. Between 1977 and 1983, playing at the old Giants Stadium, the club averaged more than 35,000 per game.
Last season, the Cosmos won their third league championship in four years in the new NASL, but played before crowds of about 5,000 at Hofstra University’s Stuart Stadium on Long Island. Due to a contract dispute with Hofstra executives, the championship game had to be staged at Betson Stadium on the campus of St. John’s University, attracting a reported 2,100 fans.
During the offseason, as the NASL veered toward folding, the Cosmos also suffered.
"Players were cut, staff was furloughed and eventually laid off," said Stover. "There was dire negotiations on a league level. A lot of credit has to go to the league for keeping the discussions going. Giving the Cosmos enough time to enable Rocco to appear and get a deal done. It was thin ice for a while but we now look forward to 2017."
"It wasn’t just a matter if the Cosmos would survive. It was the entire NASL. That needs to be said up front."
Commisso admitted during the media conference that the team would not return to Hofstra for 2017 and had not, as yet, secured a home stadium for the coming season.
"We don’t have formal agreement with a stadium yet, but we have been negotiating with one or two (places),” he said. "Whether it’s a college stadium or a stadium on Long Island, those are the likely choices right now."
Although not specifically addressed, it seemed likely that the Cosmos would retain the core of their marketing partners, including lead sponsors Emirates Air and Under Armour.
Commisso said he has been approached numerous times over the past two decades to invest in pro soccer teams in the U.S. and Europe, including Major League Soccer. Having followed the NASL and Cosmos since the days of Pelé, Commisso said he did not want to see either fold.
The Comsos’ new majority owner said the the expectation from the USSF for the league now is to "go out with the other owners to try to recruit more teams so that we have a league that is sustainable, national, profession and have more than eight teams."
The NASL this week said that Bill Peterson, who had been commissioner since 2012, and the league "amicably agreed to part ways."
Rishi Sehgal, director of business development and legal affairs, was named interim commissioner, but the NASL said that "the process has already begun to find a permanent commissioner."
The eight NASL clubs currently are FC Edmonton, Indy Eleven, Jacksonville Armada FC (whose ownership has been taken over by the league), Miami FC, the Cosmos, North Carolina FC, Puerto Rico FC and the expansion San Francisco Deltas.
Commisso said that former majority owners, lead by Seamus O’Brien, would remain minority owners. Head coach Giovanni Savarese also is returning, as is COO Stover.
Commissio understands the challenges of building a business, having founded Mediacom Communications in 1995 and directing it to become the nation’s fifth largest cable television provider, with 4,600 employees serving more than 1.3 million customers in 22 states. He took the company private in 2011. Mediacom now has an annual revenue in excess of $1.8 billion.
He also has close ties to New York soccer. He attended Columbia University and played soccer for the Columbia Lions from 1967 to 1970, being named three times to the All-Ivy League team.
Commisso has been an active alumni contributor to Columbia soccer for over 40 years and in 2013, Columbia recognized his contributions to the university by naming its soccer venue at the school’s Baker Athletics Complex as the Rocco B. Commisso Soccer Stadium.
Despite overwhelming obstacles, he seem determined to right was has become an extremely wayard NASL ship and Cosmos franchise.
"I knew I had to move fast," said Commisso. "I am not known for screwing anybody, if I can use that language. A deal had to be done, and the first order of business is to play the employees, the players. We want to rebuild this team."
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