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Baseball, soccer developing healthy synergy

NEW YORK -- Somewhere along the way, the national pastime has developed a healthy fascination with the world's game. Major League Baseball and soccer have found a way to not just co-exist, but to help each other thrive in a market that increasingly thinks globally instead of locally.

The latest indicator of a bigger trend developed Tuesday, when the Yankees announced a partnership with England-based Manchester City for the purpose of creating an expansion franchise that will play in Major League Soccer beginning in 2015. The Yankees are now the third baseball ownership group -- along with the Red Sox and A's -- that have entered the soccer business in recent years.

Randy Levine, the president of the Yankees, spoke about the team's involvement in creating New York City Football Club on Tuesday, and he said it makes sense on a lot of levels. Manchester City might be the primary owners of the team, said Levine, but the Yankees will be active partners.

"There are going to be a lot of synergies," Levine said. "We're here. We have a network. We haven't even gotten into it, but maybe the NYCFC is on the YES Network. We know how to operate a franchise in this market. We know how to market and gain sponsors. … I think it's great, but Man City has the same philosophy as us. This is about the sport, putting a championship-quality soccer team for the fans of New York."

The Red Sox, the Yankees' age-old rival, beat New York into the soccer trade by purchasing Liverpool of the English Premier League back in 2010. The A's, meanwhile, bought their MLS neighbors, the San Jose Earthquakes, in 2006, setting a precedent for the Yankees to diversify their interests.

There are multiple MLB venues -- Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium, Rogers Centre and Citi Field -- that will host soccer games this year, and former baseball parks like Washington DC's RFK Stadium and Olympic Stadium in Montreal that have become soccer meccas of their respective regions.

That inertia -- and the growth of the MLS into a healthy, 19-team organization -- signalled that the United States is ready for a soccer expansion to its foreign partners. Manchester City Football Club, owned by Abu Dhabi United Group, believed it was in position to help make that expansion a reality.

"We are enthusiastic believers in the development of soccer in the U.S., and we know also that the MLS is a very well-managed league," said Ferran Soriano, the chief executive officer of Manchester City Football Club. "This opportunity in New York, we believe, is huge for us, huge for the city, and huge for U.S. soccer. We will work to deliver to the fans in New York good, beautiful football."

Manchester City will play in both Busch Stadium and in Yankee Stadium this summer, so it will have a chance to see American soccer fans up close. Yankee Stadium played host to a pair of soccer games as part of the 2012 World Football Challenge, and both games drew more than 36,000 fans.

The Yankees will roll out the green carpet again this summer, when the stadium plays host to a pair of international soccer friendlies with huge appeal. One game will pit Ireland against Spain, the defending World Cup champions, and Chelsea will play against Manchester City on Saturday.

New York City Football Club is expected to find its own stadium for home games, but perhaps it will play a few scattered games at Yankee Stadium in the future. Levine said Tuesday that the Yankees brand -- which includes the college football Pinstripe Bowl -- isn't afraid to diversify itself.

"We look at good opportunities. We look at wise investments," said Levine of striking out in uncharted territory. "I think this is a solid opportunity and a wise investment. We feel very secure the New York Yankees are always going to be championship caliber, and we're not insecure about it."

And if the Yankees are curious about what a soccer ownership model looks like, they only have to look at Boston. Fenway Sports Group bought Liverpool, which has won more European titles than any other English club, in 2010 from a group that included former Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks.

Liverpool was ranked as the world's sixth-most valuable soccer franchise by Forbes in 2010, and the team's owners have vowed that they will do whatever it takes to keep the club successful.

"We're not going to have a lot to say," said John Henry at the time of purchase. "We are going to do a lot of listening. We have a lot to learn. Our actions will hopefully speak for words."

The Red Sox have hosted a few exhibition games at Fenway Park in recent seasons, and more than 30,000 fans came out to watch Liverpool lose to Italian side AS Roma by a 2-1 score in 2012.

Two Canadian venues -- Olympic Stadium and Rogers Centre -- have emerged as soccer powerhouses over the last few years. Rogers Centre serves as an occasional home for Toronto FC of the MLS, and the venue set a record by drawing 50,158 fans to a soccer game back in 2005.

Olympic Stadium, the former home of the Montreal Expos, has also distinguished itself as an occasional home for the Montreal Impact. The stadium, which hosted an NASL franchise back in the '80's, set a Canadian record last season by drawing 60,860 fans to a game against the L.A. Galaxy.

The Yankees aren't alone in New York in honoring soccer. The region already hosts an MLS team, the New York Red Bulls, who play in nearby Harrison, N.J. Also, the Mets will play host to a soccer game at Citi Field later this summer when Israel and Honduras engage in an international friendly.

But the reigning champion of former baseball stadiums with a soccer crossover is RFK Stadium. The Nationals may have only played there for three seasons, but RFK Stadium has hosted the United States Mens National Team in soccer more often than any other stadium on the planet.

RFK Stadium, home of MLS' D.C. United, hosted four games of the 1994 World Cup, and it also served as a venue at the 1996 Summer Olympics. The park has hosted several soccer games with more than 50,000 fans, and it set a record with 58,012 fans at a Team USA game in the '96 Olympics.

The Yankees -- and perhaps a few unidentified future baseball ownership groups -- have taken in all that success anecdotally, and they're hoping to pen another page with their latest endeavor. The Yankees are accustomed to success, said Levine, and they won't settle for anything less in the soccer industry.

"I'm here, and we're going to work very closely with our partners," Levine said. "The Yankee Stadium project was a huge success. I think anybody who has now visited Yankee Stadium and seen what it looks like, including all the park land, compared to what it was before, has to say it was a huge success."

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