New York MLS Teams Find Inspiration In Parks And Recreation And Hip Hop

New York City FC and New York Red Bulls have both released eye-catching third kits this month that have captured the attention and imagination of fans.

The Red Bulls released what they dubbed the “Freestyle Kit” to celebrate 50 years of hip-hop, the music genre that emerged in New York City in the 1970s and 80s.

The birthplace of hip-hop is considered to be specifically, The Bronx, even more specifically 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in Morris Heights.

It was in that apartment block on August 11, 1973, where a young Clive Campbell, known as DJ Kool Herc, picked out the breakbeats from the records in his collection, using two turntables to create a constant beat from various existing songs to create something new.

Even though it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact time and place of the birthplace of cultural movements and musical genres, which usually grow gradually and organically rather than from one Big Bang moment, that event, a party organised by Clive’s sister Cindy Campbell, is at least considered a hugely significant moment in the creation of hip hop.

It may have made more sense for New York City FC (NYCFC) to embrace this particular aspect of New York history and culture given it plays most of its home games at the Bronx-based Yankee Stadium.

Maybe it was a powerplay from the Red Bulls to get to this first, but, regardless, NYCFC had its own idea up its sleeve, and now on its sleeve.

On Sunday against Minnesota United, NYCFC played its first game in its “Parks Kit”. A green third kit, designed to symbolise the city’s many parks and recreational community areas.

“The Parks are a great representation of New York City itself,” said NYCFC midfielder Keaton Parks

“On any given day, you’ll see people from all different backgrounds coming together to enjoy them, playing soccer or other sports or hanging out with their friends and family.

“Our parks are a place for everyone, and I’m honored to wear a kit that celebrates this commonality for New Yorkers.”

Soccer is popular in New York’s parks, many of which contain goalposts along with baseball diamonds.

The sport as a pastime is more popular than the area’s major league clubs.

The challenge for the MLS clubs, and indeed for National Women’s Soccer League club NY/NJ Gotham, is converting some of this appetite for playing the game, and existing support for teams abroad or the national teams, into support for their club teams.

It’s easier said than done given the way these MLS clubs, and the league itself, are set up.

It’s already difficult enough for MLS franchises to create some kind of identity that connects to a local fanbase and community, giving them individual character and the impression of a sports club rather than a franchise. It is a single-entity league where club owners could be seen as merely investors or shareholders in that central entity, with the clubs coming as part of the deal.

That is even more difficult when your MLS team is itself part of a wider group of franchises outside of the league. This happens to be the case for both of the MLS clubs with New York in their names.

Maybe it is no coincidence. Maybe only a global conglomerate would be able to make a successful go of running a professional soccer team in New York, not least trying to find and fund a stadium and then break through in a market which already boasts nine teams across what are sometimes termed the Big Four major leagues: NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB.

But there is some scope for owners to put their own stamp on a team and on the city in which their franchise resides.

It is safe to say some MLS franchise owners do this better than others. It is a box-ticking exercise for some who languish in a mediocre fashion above the safety net of no relegation, but others are regularly pushing to give local fans something to which they can be proud to attach themselves.

On the pitch in a sporting sense, fans might not be convinced that Red Bull GmbH and City Football Group have the New York teams at the top of their list of priorities. And understandably so, seeing as German Bundesliga side RB Leipzig (or even the Austrian Bundesliga’s Red Bull Salzburg), and English Premier League club Manchester City are the obvious names at the top of the food chains in these respective multi-club groups.

There is, however, some clear effort on the part of those tasked with the running of these franchises on the ground at a local level to make these teams somewhat unique within their single-entity league and multi-club universe.

Strengthening the bond between the cities of New York (NYCFC), Newark and Jersey City (Red Bulls) and the clubs should be at the forefront of these organisations’ off-field operations.

They have the luxury of one of the most culturally rich and diverse urban areas in the world, so there is plenty to work with, after all.

It is often left to fans to produce these links, too, either naturally through their attendance and support, or via initiatives through the various supporters groups for both teams.

The price of these new third kits doesn’t in turn connect to these fans communities, though.

The “authentic” versions come in at close to $200 for the shirt alone, while a “replica” version costs $100.

Third kits, which at the end of the day are a product for sale, are not exactly the most accessible way for many to show their support and attachment to a club and the area in which it resides.

But at least the idea is there, serving as a reminder of these cultural and recreational links to the city, on top of other community initiatives run by the Red Bulls and City.

“New York City Football Club has been a longstanding partner of NYC Parks, helping to create brand new soccer pitches for New Yorkers,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue of the team’s new Parks Kit.

“Our public parks are important oases providing all groups of people, sport teams and other patrons with healthy green spaces to connect with their environments.”

​​The parks are where New York soccer lives both in the present and the past, where it has been played throughout the long history of the sport in the area.

Soccer is much older than hip-hop and is not a New York City invention, but they are both cultural phenomena that thrive in diverse working class areas.

The birth of something like hip-hop is as much to do with a place and a situation, as it is a moment in time.

That the 50-year anniversary can be so specific is thanks to the conditions in The Bronx, in Morris Heights, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, at that time. In one of the poorer areas of the city, Cindy Campbell just happened to ask her brother to DJ a certain event and it produced a landmark cultural moment.

What came out of that sound system in that apartment block was a product of that particular environment, taking existing musical standards to create something new, just as soccer played around the world—the same sport played under the same rules but producing so many different styles—is a product of the regions and cities in which it is played.

The New York metropolitan area has plenty of soccer on its doorstep, in its parks and in its neighbourhoods. Its teams would do well to continue trying, genuinely, to connect to them and their culture.

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