Has NYCFC found a home at Columbia University?

On Tuesday evening, the New York Times published a piece by Charles V. Bagli and Andrew Das, detailing the latest plan in a long series of plans to find NYCFC — currently unwelcome tenants at Yankee Stadium — a permanent home.

Unlike a lot of past plans, however, this one makes too much sense.

The proposal, which is still in the very early planning stages, would see NYCFC construct a 25,000 seat stadium at Columbia University’s Baker Athletics Complex, located at the very tip of Manhattan.

As it says down in my little author biography at the end of this article, I graduated from Columbia last year. And, through my involvement with Columbia’s athletics program — performing in an extremely silly marching band, writing and commentating with the school newspaper and radio station, and now covering the basketball team — over the last five years I’ve spent a truly absurd amount of time at the place NYCFC might call home.

Though it’s certainly a long way from coming to fruition, building a stadium in partnership with Columbia would be a massive step forward for Major League Soccer.

What is the Baker Athletics Complex, and what goes on there?

Columbia’s main campus is located in Morningside Heights, just north of the Upper West Side in Manhattan. One hundred blocks to the north — twenty minutes by subway — are the school’s athletic fields, where they’ve been located for nearly a hundred years.

With space in Manhattan always at a premium, Columbia has wedged quite a few fields into a tiny quantity of space. There’s space for football, baseball, softball, field hockey, soccer, tennis, and rowing, all squished together in an area not much larger than PPL Park.

Baker Athletics Complex, via Google Earth. The football stadium is on the far left.

Baker Athletics Complex, via Google Earth. The football stadium is on the far left.

The football stadium, Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium at Baker Athletics Complex of Columbia University in the City of New York — yes, that’s it’s full name, though it’s colloquially just called Baker Field — is not the world’s most modern venue. Constructed in the eighties to replace a much older structure, the stadium is little more than a massive home stand and a smaller set of bleachers for the visitors, with a turf football field and a running track between them.

In the modern history of Baker Field, the home crowd has had precious little to cheer for. The stadium was built just in time to witness the end of Columbia’s D-I record 44-game losing streak in 1988, and things have not improved much since then. Despite having Chip Kelly on staff for a brief period, the football Lions have fluctuated between lackluster and terrible for the last twenty-five years. Most recently, the team put together a (still ongoing!) twenty-one game losing streak that earned hapless head coach Pete Mangurian the sack.

(The Columbia football team last won a game in November of 2012. This might explain why I’m sometimes willing to cut the Union some slack…)

Why is it such a good opportunity, for both MLS and Columbia?
The view from the home stands at Baker Field. Hmm, a bridge off in the distance... seems familiar.

The view from the home stands at Baker Field. Hmm, a bridge off in the distance… seems familiar.

Setting aside the football team’s unmatched record of futility, Baker Field is honestly a gorgeous place to watch a game. The complex is bordered by water on two sides, with pleasant views of the Henry Hudson Bridge and Inwood Hill Park. (Sound familiar?) If NYCFC are really willing to pump $400 million into a stadium, I have no doubt that it would be one of the most beautiful venues in MLS. And the surrounding neighborhood — Inwood — is an actual neighborhood (unlike, say, Harrison, Foxborough, or Chester).

The location is important for another reason — transport links. The biggest problem with Red Bull Arena is that it’s quite a drag to get to from much of the New York metro area. You’ve got to haul yourself to the southern tip of Manhattan, usually by subway from Grand Central or Penn Station, then take a PATH train out to Harrison. It’s a trek.

By comparison, getting to Baker Field is relatively easy. It’s right near two subway lines — at most a half an hour from Midtown — and there are also nearby stops on Metro North commuter rail. Even the Red Bulls seem to think it’s a good location, as NYRB II will play several USL matches this summer (including a clash with Union affiliate Harrisburg City on July 12).

NYCFC has long set their sights on a central location, ideally near Manhattan, and Baker Field would fit perfectly.

Why would Columbia go for it? It’s tough to turn down a brand-new stadium and the exposure it would provide, especially if NYCFC ponies up an additional $30 million to renovate the rest of the complex.

The long-time president of Columbia, Lee C. Bollinger, has not been shy about making bold moves to upgrade Columbia’s facilities during his tenure. He pushed through a capital campaign that raised $6 billion, much of which will go towards constructing a new campus in Manhattanville (ten blocks north of the main campus). Bollinger has aggressively campaigned for the new campus to be the future home of President Barack Obama’s library — POTUS is a Columbia grad — and media reports suggest that the Obamas might be leaning Columbia’s way. A gleaming stadium at the Baker complex would be the capstone of a remarkable legacy for Bollinger.

And I haven’t even mentioned one factor that might grease the skids a tiny bit: USSF President Sunil Gulati’s day job is at Columbia, where he’s a (tremendously popular) lecturer in the Economics department. (I took his class four years ago. It was great.)

What are the potential obstacles?

I won’t claim to know what’s going on on the MLS side, but I can tell you that Columbia has a bit of a strained relationship with athletics. The athletics program, the football team in particular, is not always warmly embraced by the student body, and that division continues into the ranks of alumni. Though a minority are very vocal and passionate about football, many don’t see value in Columbia’s financial commitment to a team which, again, hasn’t won a game since 2012.

The relationship between athletics and the student body has been further strained by an incompetent athletic administration, which is looking for a clean start after the extremely unpopular athletic director M. Dianne Murphy left the school this winter.

Columbia’s student body also has a proud tradition of activism, and in recent years activist efforts have directed towards getting the school to divest its massive endowment from the fossil fuel industry. I can’t imagine that City Football Group are tremendously impressed by this quest, and many students might view the oil-rich conglomerate as a terrible partner for the University.

Also, did you catch who the current stadium is named after? That right — New England Revolution owner Robert K. Kraft is a massive Columbia donor, and a $5 million donation got the field at Baker named in his honor barely ten years ago.

A lot of tricky politicking will be required for Bollinger and brand-new athletic director Peter Pilling in order to get all the different parts of the greater Columbia community on-board with this project.

I’m not saying these obstacles are insurmountable. But — as the New York Times article points out — it’s far from a done deal, and the specific internal politics of Columbia might cause MLS unforeseen problems.

New York Times

NYCFC has been a bit of a joke early in its expansion season, largely because Yankee Stadium’s tiny field is more suited to baseball than soccer. (Who would have guessed?) The accusation that the team is little more than a puppet for Manchester City was given credence by fiascoes like the Frank Lampard mess and the ridiculously City-esque shirt design. Also, they somehow only picked up one point in two matches against the Union.

All that mess aside, it will do Major League Soccer a world of good if NYCFC is successful, especially if they can build a home base on Manhattan island — territory only the Rangers and Knicks can presently claim.

The Columbia plan will face its share of challenges. But if the league can pull it off, a new home for NYCFC at Baker Field could be a massively successful partnership for the franchise, the league, and the university.


  1. el pachyderm says:

    Good article Peter. Figured I could just pull this on over from Ed’s piece earlier though…..
    ….. I could give a shit if NYCFC played on the cross Bronx expressway- at any hour of the evening.
    Now the NY Cosmos, that’s quite a bit different – not sure if Brooklyn is a good fit or not – but that’s a club that needs a home and I would be most happy for it.
    American Footy needs the NY Cosmos – sure as shit doesn’t need ManCity America.

  2. Um, Chester is an actual neighborhood, with actual people. It just happens to be a neighborhood of folks who don’t give a crap about soccer and who are in a bad way in terms of economic development, crime and education.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Point taken, but I think Peter is really referring to the lack of density and activity in places like Chester, Harrison, and Foxborough, especially adjacent to the stadiums. Chester, while there are still people there, is half-empty down by PPL. There’s nothing to walk to, no reason to hang around before or after games. Whereas in a dense area like Inwood, the chances of economic advantages from a sports stadium might actually reveal themselves as more than just fantasy.

    • Good point Jeremy. I compare it Chicago – Wrigleyville is a neighborhood, where people embrace the Cubs, hang out at bars, it’s walkable and it’s just a really good time. The South Side, U.S. Cellular Field, is not as much, more like Chester. In my opinion stadiums should only be in sprawling spaces with ample parking and places to tailgate, a la the Philly Sports Complex, or smack dab in the heart of a neighborhood or entertainment district with things to do, like MSG or Staples Center, or even Soldier Field in Chicago which is close to downtown.

      • Times change. In the 70s, Lakeview (the real name of the neighborhood where the Cubs play) was very sketchy. Gentrification has done its work.

        As to the neighborhood where the Sox play (Bridgeport), vacant lots go for a cool million dollars.

    • Mosul is a neighborhood also. So is Raqqa.

  3. The Chopper says:

    Public transport to Baker is relatively convenient, but you are probably limiting yourself to a Manhattan/Bronx fan base. Those Westchester and Jersey suburbanites are going to want to drive and I cant imagine where they will park.

  4. American soccer existed before the Cosmos, and has done just fine without them. It’d be nice if they actually turned into a functioning club rather than just a brand, but American soccer *needs* the Cosmos like the NBA *needs* the Brooklyn Nets

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I support this comment.

      • I do not support that comment. The Cosmos were an important step in U.S. soccer history, just as Bethlehem Steel is revered now, they should be also. Not a fan, but I respect that team. I don’t like the Cincinnati Reds, but I respect that they were the first. Never disregard history.

    • el pachyderm says:

      Agree to disagree.
      A functioning club? What do you know? Do you follow them? Do you have any idea what their long term plan is?
      You don’t care about them – which is fine. The Cosmos stand for the opposite of the MLS. They stand for free enterprise football in this country not this closed glass ceiling system we have. Hell bells boys.
      They are doing it their way and it is taking some time to get it moving the exact direction they want. The club is younger then this slop in Chester. Neither of you two know a damn thing about the Cosmos. In 50 years you’ll thank them.

      • el pachyderm says:

        Your ignorance is staggering. Boy I’m pissed. This country NEEDS a viable league to rival the monopoly that is MLS.
        This is the coffee — that is the kool aid. Keep drinking. Cherry.

      • This country HAD a league like that. They folded because of over-spending, the lack of television revenue and support and no viable long-term plan. The Cosmos themselves don’t make that league, just as that league could survive without the Cosmo. MLS is not perfect, but it has grown at an impressively steady rate since 2004, and I for one believe that while they have made some curious choices, I feel it was in the best business of the league to help it grow. Moving forward, there are different choices and directions to move, but that’s another topic for another day.

      • el pachyderm says:

        Do you realize if the Cosmos wanted to be part of MLS they would be? Why would MLS ever turn down an organization like that? No, they said, “shit in your hat monopoly MF’ers” …. telling us EXACTLY how our club needs to be run- the where- the when- the how much – …. like it was a fucking Burger King.
        Fuck people wake up.
        Stop drinking the MLS KOOL AID. Cherry flavor.
        The Cosmos have wagered everything that in 20 to 30 years the NASL is rebuilt, safer and wiser and can rival the fucking MLS – so Joe Club FC from Peoria can play at the highest level if it is invested in properly and built the right way from the grass roots with a dream.
        It’s the american fucking dream. Damn people. WAKE UP. Your ignorance is staggering. I can have a friendly conversation all day but not about this. This is too important to the game in our country- simply too important.

      • You curse an awful lot for having a friendly conversation. Actually, you’re just telling everyone they’re idiots for not supporting the Cosmos, but “they’re not in MLS” is not a good enough reason. 20 to 30 years is a long time. I’m totally on board with the NASL doing their thing and MLS doing their thing, but when they start competing with each other, or become “rival leagues,” that benefits no one. Different is good, what NASL is doing is good, but they shouldn’t be competing, if in fact it’s all bout “the game in our country” as you say.

      • el pachyderm says:

        Brian are you new?
        I said I can have a friendly conversation all day – but NOT about this.
        Fellow posters, it looks like I’m at it again with a new guy. Vetting him.
        Okugo. MLS.
        Tread carefully.
        This isn’t about the Cosmos and liking them, which I do for the record- could care less who likes or dislikes them. This is Philly – your not supposed to like them unless you grew up watching them – which I did.
        It’s about what they are trying to accomplish.

      • Jim Presti says:

        For some reason my comment keeps getting reported for spam? But if you look through the match report, it seems my original impression is correct. Moved from the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-2 empty bucket. Players out of position and half the bench played

    • Jim Presti says:

      The Cosmos will try year after year to compete with MLS teams, particularly in the Open Cup. They will fail year after year.
      Pro/Rel is not the answer. How MLS currently conducts business is not the answer.

      • The Black Hand says:

        The NY Cosmos would dismantle us…
        Raul, alone, would draw with our XI

      • Jim Presti says:

        I’m not entirely sure about that statement. The Union is playing like shit, sure. But dismantle? I don’t think so… and I follow the Cosmos pretty damn closely.

      • Gave em everything they could handle in Philly last year- and supposedly The Onion was playing quite well under their new interm.

      • Jim Presti says:

        But giving everything and winning are entirely different. This year maybe there will be a different outcome, but truly dominating and winning the cup? Doubtful. Take a look through there squad. Talented but not at the same level.

      • Jim Presti says:

        And that match, if I remember correctly, was ugly due to the lineup. I can’t remember the particulars but it was a 4-4-2 empty bucket, players in questionable positions [Williams at CB I think] and bench players [Carroll, Fabinho, maybe Lahoud]

      • el pachyderm says:

        Union fielded a full squad starting best 11 for Cosmos game including Carroll who was still a starter I recall and the officiating was no fault of either team. The referee allowed that game to get out of hand- both teams were culpable.
        I found the Cosmos to be equally technically proficient with the Union – the Union were to a man faster though. Won all the relative speed footraces.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Reading through the match report it doesn’t seem that way. I believe my first impression was correct.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Not sure if this posted correctly – reading through the match report it seems my first impression was correct.

      • Jim Presti says:

        For some reason my comment keeps getting reported for spam? But if you look through the match report, it seems my original impression is correct. Moved from the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-2 empty bucket. Players out of position and half the bench played

      • el pachyderm says:

        I acquiesce.

      • Jim Presti says:

        No worries El Pach. I actually really enjoy your opinion and commentary. Just wanted to point out that as much as I like the NY Cosmos, they are far and away from MLS in terms of quality

      • The Black Hand says:

        Did I mention Raul??

      • If they are going to keep expanding…..the need a relagation system and tiered format. It will be a joke to have that many clubs in one league………24 is pushing it. Any more…….I don’t see a way around it. Yes, does it create a cluster “F” for the rest of the leagues and how it would unfold, but it would need to happen. with no prom/relegation system with cash incentives……..there is no need for owners to really compete, sound painfully familiar? Do you think Sak and ownership group would run the club this way if they knew they were going to loose millions in revenue if they were to drop a division?

  5. iSkyscraper says:

    This sounds like a good idea on paper, and a terrible one in practice. The neighborhood practically exploded with horror when they heard the news last night.

    On paper, sure, a 25,000 seat stadium where a 17,000 seat one is now. What’s the big deal? But look at the details — Columbia has five football games a year, five. Four of those draw 5,000 fans or less, one draws 10,000 (homecoming). Virtually no one drives. At other times the stadium is used by sports with almost no attendance or for practices. It is even open to the community at certain hours. A mostly peaceful coexistence of an academic-related facility in a residential area.

    A new pro stadium would be a towering, enclosed monster of a building (chock with luxury suites, locker rooms, etc. The current stadium is just a big and small bleacher). It would host 17 soccer games, plus a bunch of “friendlies”. It would likely hold concerts (as other MLS stadia do). It would attract at least 20,000 fans per game, and even if 75% of those took transit (completely unrealistic given that only 45% of Yankee fans take transit) that would still leave 5,000 cars looking for parking in an area that has zero available street parking and one or two full parking garages. Even if the team built big new garages to replace existing lots on Broadway nearby you are talking about total traffic gridlock. And what about the hours of pre and postgame noise from loudspeakers? Are residents to start picking beer cans out of their gardens (yes, this area actually has houses with yards and gardens) from impromptu tailgating? (Columbia’s tailgating is mild and contained on the sports campus).

    The zoning of this entire area is residential. Residential! Sure, the old stadium was grandfathered, and no one minded when it was replaced with a similar, low key Ivy League football stadium in 1983. But this is a very different, ahem, ballgame and you can expect massive and demonstrative opposition from people who have property rights of their own.

    I’m a soccer fan, I would like to see a new stadium built. But this is cramming it in the wrong place. It would be far more appropriate if Columbia and NYC FC worked to build a new stadium on top of the subway yards east of Broadway just a few blocks away — that is an industrial zone and would bother no one. They could build all the parking facilities they wanted and even rename the underused 215th St subway station. Just leave the residential parts to the west alone.

  6. el pachyderm says:

    Peter sorry this is supposed to be about NYCFC and Columbia. I went off again. My apologies.

  7. Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

    I have had the opportunity to travel to the Baker Complex twice for Ivy League Rugby tournaments. It is a fantastic complex that feels small and intimate while having wonderful views of the rivers and surrounding area. If all of the other stuff can be worked out, it would be a wonderful spot to go and watch a game.

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    “Also, they somehow only picked up one point in two matches against the Union.” — This alone makes them WAY MORE than a “bit” of a joke. Great line. Haha

  9. sports fan says:

    It would be a good thing, if the NYCFC and Colombia University would get together and build a stadium. Soccer is taking off as a sport and the league needs a New York representation, besides Boston is building its soccer stadium. Remember Boston almost got the Statue Of Liberty when New York initially turned it down, now its a must see on any trip to New York, little did they know. Or who would have Thought.

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