Don’t worry, New York City FC fans, the club has not forgotten about the designated player rule.
With two DP spots open this offseason, NYCFC appeared primed to add a few marquee players who could add some hype to a club wanting to improve from playoff also-ran to MLS Cup contender. Instead, City has turned over some veteran talent for mostly younger projects and depth pieces, leaving both designated slots vacant.
NYCFC chief executive Brad Sims said the club does intend to fill those DP slots soon enough. Despite pandemic-related financial difficulties, Sims said NYCFC still has the budget for sporting director David Lee to utilize the open DP spots and other roster mechanisms in the weeks and months ahead as the world transfer market returns to a more normal state.
"It has been a quiet offseason, not just for NYCFC but for the entire league," Sims said Thursday. "I think it’s just been a challenging window, and by the way, it wasn’t just in MLS. This happened for our other City Football Group clubs, who also had a slow winter transfer window."
Major League Soccer's designated player rule allows clubs to make up to three signings outside the league’s regular salary cap restrictions. NYCFC’s designated player strategy has vastly shifted since its inaugural campaign in 2015, when it inked an aging superstar trio of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. By 2018, all three had departed to mixed success, eventually replaced by Argentine veteran Maxi Moralez, Paraguayan youngster Jesús Medina and Romanian winger Alexandru Mitrita. Two of those spots opened again when Mitrita left on loan for at least 2021 and Medina’s contract was reclassified after 2020.
So in the days ahead of its seventh season, why hasn’t NYCFC filled either vacancy, whether with a well-known star of the world’s game or an under-the-radar weapon?
"I think that both in MLS and globally, the thought is the summer transfer window is going to be much more active. So for us, we're keeping options open," Sims said. "If something works out now, before this window closes, that would be great, but if not, these are positions that you've got to get right, quite frankly, you've got to get them right and so it's more about getting the right fit and getting the right players than it is about speed and getting them done."
The designated player rule’s origins lie in the LA Galaxy’s 2007 signing of David Beckham, the ultimate MLS ticket-seller. While NYCFC’s early DPs were in that vein, they didn’t win trophies like Beckham eventually did in LA, and the club isn’t as willing to spend if there isn’t clear on-field value.
"I think there's a bit of a misperception in terms of what the actual commercial impact is for players like that," Sims said. "Because it's been proven in this league, both by NYCFC and by other teams, that big names don't necessarily translate into wins, and they don’t translate into a positive return on investment, they’re a negative return on investment."
Sure, NYCFC could go after European league vets such as Sergio Aguero, who is leaving CFG sister club Manchester City at season’s end, in a push to sell tickets and jerseys to pay a high salary. But in these scenarios, Sims said, the benefits are not what they may seem given the single-entity structure of MLS.
"I see people say, ‘You’ll sell more tickets.’ You probably do, but 33% of the ticket revenue goes to the league office and you only keep 67% of the revenue," Sims said. "My years in the NBA, 6% went to the league instead of 33%. People say, ‘Oh, you must sell tons of jerseys, that’ll be great,’ but we only get 14% of the revenue of jerseys if you go online and buy an NYCFC jersey, not the other 86%.
"Whether it’s through our own experience or through other teams’ experience, it’s tough to make that work financially and ultimately, if it doesn’t work financially and it doesn’t make you better on the pitch, that’s a double whammy."
Sims said NYCFC utilizes a few other revenue streams, especially sponsorships, which currently bring in more than tickets and merchandising combined. Support from City Football Group doesn’t appear to be running dry either. When the pandemic hit, CFG’s directive was not to halt spending, but instead look for potential bargain buys on the market. So, if that big-money level of player became available and was a perfect fit, Sims said those poor financials alone wouldn’t stop the club from making a splash.
Still, Sims clearly has faith in Lee and the sporting department’s ability to find high-quality talent in the low-to-mid-priced bin.
"We're open-minded and strategies can change, but we feel confident about being able to find really top talent at every stage of their career," Sims said. "Would we do it in the future? Maybe if it makes sense overall, but we also feel very confident in our current strategy that our sporting department led by David Lee has instituted. And it’s worked, we’ve had success, we’ve been a top team and we’ve been consistent, and we anticipate continuing to be a consistently top team that is competing for the top in the East every year and competing for MLS Cup every year."