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Friday, October 03, 2014

Let's Boot The Soccer Stadium

These soccer guys are freaking bugging me.  First they had the nerve to think that they were going to come here to Queens and drop a soccer stadium in the middle of Flushing Meadow Park.  Thankfull,y the community, along with green space and public park advocates, would have none of that.  Now, as first reported a few weeks ago, they want to build a stadium at the Big A.  And while those initial reports referred to locating it in a parking lot, it's not hard to guess what the possible ramifications are.

Several sources have confirmed that demolition of Aqueduct Race Track for a new soccer stadium is not off the table.
“The discussions leave open the possibility of the racetrack being torn down and the stadium being built on that site,” one high-level source said. “[The New York Racing Association] would make Belmont Racetrack a year-round venue and hold winter racing there.” [Queens Chronicle]
The article goes on to note that replacing the Big A is not the "most likely or preferred option," and then goes on to explain why it very well might be.  To build it in a parking lot would require navigating some bureaucratic red tape involving something called the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, and anything that goes by the acronym ULURP just has to be trouble.  It also would require the approval of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, elected to that post last year despite her involvement in some highly unsavory affairs (it's Queens, after all...but one Democrat who I surely didn't vote for); as well as by the NY City Council.  So there would be a lot of politics involved as well.  Besides, I'm just skeptical of the whole parking lot concept - if you're going to put the stadium there, where exactly are people going to park?

On the other hand, the state owns the land upon which Aqueduct sits, and the track's operator surely seems amenable to the idea.  With NYRA desperately (and quietly, as in the case of the extra $5 it now costs to get into Longshots....some more "transparency" for you) gouging its customers for every extra dollar it can in its drive towards the theoretical "profitable without slots" (a notion which, as I explained in this post, is really only a theoretical one indeed), we know that a consolidation of operations at Belmont is being quite seriously considered.  So, why not a soccer stadium?  Seems appropriate.  You'd be replacing one sport that nobody cares about with another one that nobody cares about.

[And please, don't give me the lecture about how many people watched the World Cup this past summer.  Every four years, we hear about how excitement over the occasional successes by the US team will carry over, but it just has not been the case.  Average attendance for MLS games are around 18,500, and that's actually down from 2012.  The TV rights were just acquired by ESPN and FOX for less than half of what is paid to the National Hockey League, hardly a national pastime itself. 

I get soccer.  I was all in on the Cosmos phenomenon back in the late 70's.  I went to a lot of games, and will never ever forget the experience; it was pure magic.  But that was a fleeting time that came, and went, and just as quickly.  It's odd to think back and wonder why/how it happened.  Maybe it was the outsize personalities of the likes of Pele and Chinaglia and Beckenbauer that helped to capture peoples' attention, at least in the case of the Cosmos.  Maybe now that it's easier to watch international stars on TV or online, it's less compelling when they play here.  Or maybe it was just some perfect and inexplicable confluence of events particular to that point in time.  Perhaps there is a brighter future for soccer as a spectator sport here (it's surely popular as a recreational one in parks such as Flushing Meadow, where many fields no doubt would have been eradicated by a stadium there), as evidenced by what I've read is a young fan base for the MLS, and for World Cup viewership (though I think I've been hearing that for years/decades as well).  But, for whatever reason, it's still a minor sport in this country; not going to speculate here as to the cultural reasons why that is.  But it is.  The NASL once filled the Meadowlands on a regular basis.  Now we're talking about a mere 20,000 seat stadium that nobody seems to want in their neighborhood.]

State Senator Joe Addabbo, who represents the district, has other ideas. “Should Aqueduct cease to exist at some point, my feeling and, I believe my constituents, would rather see the casino expand.”  Really?  Given how many people presently come to Resorts World on a daily basis - I've seen estimates in the 20 - 25,000 range - how many more people are really going to come if it converts from ra- to ca-sino?  And what exactly has this racino done for the surrounding community other than to spawn a slew of pawn shops?  A soccer stadium would at least draw a whole new set of people.  Which could be a problem in itself. 
Addabbo noted there are other issues to be tackled with the site in question, specifically if the city and Port Authority could negotiate a break in the lease and traffic management. Regarding the latter issue, he noted Woodhaven and Cross Bay boulevards—the main north-to-south artery through the area—is struggling with congestion and could not handle the additional vehicles that a soccer arena at Aqueduct might bring. [Times Newsweekly]
(Personally, I don't notice that on my trips to Aqueduct, but I'm not going there at peak times.)

And then we have those that say that a soccer stadium would do things that we were all told Resorts World would do. 
“A soccer stadium would create jobs, stimulate economic development and make Queens the city’s premier sports destination,” added City Council Member Eric Ulrich in a statement.
(Don't really think that the latter would be the case.)

The Queens Chronicle piece also brings up an issue that I've never heard mentioned in all of the talk about closing the Big A: the fact that the VLT law requires the racinos to be at a horse racing track.  Senator Addabbo says that he doesn't think "it’s contingent on the racetrack for the casino to operate.” I'm not sure what interpretation of the law he is leaning on.  But, in any event, they could always take a page out of the Gulfstream playbook and run a couple of 150-yard races down Rockaway Boulevard to technically qualify.

As far as Aqueduct goes, I've said many times here that the idea of year-round (minus Saratoga) racing at Belmont is a dismal prospect.  How monotonous would it be to see those oversized one-turn races month after month after month?  Horseplayers would lose the juice that results from the change in track configurations (just as they will lose the dirt-to-synth-to-dirt angles in Kentucky now that Keeneland has switched to dirt).  With the track's current configuration, the grandstand would be shrouded in frigid shade throughout the winter months.  There would obviously be some kind of renovation done in order to prepare the track for winter racing, the extent of which is unknown.  It would be far more palatable to me if a smaller winter oval was built separately, perhaps where the training track is now.  And personally, I wouldn't mind at all if they just razed the current courses in favor of a more traditional mile and an eighth main track so that there could be two-turn racing.  And that could give them enough room to put the damn soccer stadium there.


El Angelo said...

The number of people who would miss Aqueduct versus the number of people who would enjoy a new soccer stadium isn't a close fight. One sport is descending, the other one is either flat or growing. It's pretty easy to see where this is going.

I agree that year-round at the Belmont grandstand would be depressing, but if they followed through on the idea of converting the training track to all-weather and installing a small grandstand with other facilities instead, I don't see how that's a bad outcome at all. Aqueduct is horrible.

Dan said...

They would have to race at Belmont on the training track. This will also take $ to change & setup a small area to bet & watch the races. AQU has a bad reputation. I go twice a year & enjoy watching live races. I would like them to change the 40 year old outside seats in the clubhouse.

Figless said...

Last I checked the Racino and Racing share ONE building. Going to be awfully complicated to tear down one without effecting the other.

Have always maintained its in the cards, so to speak, for the Big A to discontinue racing. This was inevitable since the day the deed was transferred to the state. The over/under is now 3 years.

The logical end game is for the also inevitable full fledged Casino to take over the entire existing grandstand structure, the hotel be built on the existing parking lots and the soccer stadium be built on remaining racing property.

The track and backstretch provide enough land for a 20k seat stadium and parking.

This is the future, the politicians don't give a darn about the impact on Belmont or winter racing. IF they truly privatize the franchise the new operator will simply stop racing in winter, negating the need for a new track on the training track. They will run March-Thanksgiving.

Figless said...

As for the soccer fanatics claiming its a ascending sport because of the World Cup ratings every four year, I could say the same about racing based on Kentucky Derby ratings.

These are occasional big events that capture the public's attention but do not reflect the overall popularity of either sport.

As bad as the trends are I strongly suspect annual racing attendance still far exceed US soccer attendance and in fact racing participation may exceed soccer participation in this country as well.

But the politically connected Yankees are involved so a stadium will get built somewhere with no doubt plenty of public money that would be better spent fixing up the unfortunate neighborhood that gets stuck with this while elephant.

Anonymous said...

Don't you know that being against soccer is racist?