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MLS deal with billionaire oil sheikh could be bigger than Beckham

Two global sports titans, Manchester City Football Club and the New York Yankees, will operate New York City FC, an expansion MLS team. It brings to the table an oil sheikh’s fortune.

Two of the most deep-pocketed teams in world sport – Manchester City of the English Premier League and the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball – have agreed to pay $100 million to own and operate a new professional soccer team in New York City starting in 2015.

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber could probably read that sentence all day.

The news is potentially so significant for the still-fledgling league that it’s hard not to see it as an announcement of David Beckhamian proportions.

The owner of Manchester City is Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, a sheikh who, in his first four years of owning the club, spent more than $1.5 billion of his petro-fortune to turn City from bumbling underachievers into Premier League champions for the first time in 44 years. And there are whispers that that was just a warmup act for an American adventure.

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Manchester City, after all, are not Manchester United – their cross-town rivals who have won a record 20 league championships and are the most profitable sports franchise in the world. They are not Real Madrid or Barcelona or even Bayern Munich – pillars of European soccer whose success is measured over generations. European soccer, Wall Street would say, is already a mature market, and City are for now still just scheming upstarts.

Yet in New York City Football Club, Mansour has an opportunity to do something altogether more momentous: to make soccer relevant in America.

To be sure, Beckham played his part. But his six-year sojourn was never likely to be enough. Though MLS has come a long way since his arrival in 2007 – it now draws more fans to each game, on average, than do the National Basketball Association or National Hockey League – it still has a long way to go. It’s televised games, for example, draw a 0.2 rating – less than a recent broadcast of US Grand Prix skiing.

To truly make soccer relevant in the US means making it one of the top leagues in the world. That will take time and money, lots of it. Enter Mansour. In other words, when Mansour made City one of the top soccer clubs in the world, one half of Manchester was overjoyed. If he could do the same with his new City, he will have pried open one of the great untapped sporting markets in the world.

“When it comes to propelling Abu Dhabi’s image onto a global scale, the United States is where it’s at for Sheikh Mansour and his advisors,” writes Mark Ogden of The Telegraph, a British newspaper.

And who better to help his team of soccer cognoscenti navigate the world of US sports than the Yankees, who have built an American empire of their own. News reports suggest a deal is already in the works to secure a site in Queens for a new $340 million soccer stadium for New York FC, despite local opposition.

The address is key. MLS has had a New York area team since its inception in 1996, but never one in New York City. The New York Red Bulls play in Harrison, N.J. New York City FC clearly will not end up at the Meadowlands or on Long Island.

Yet in landing an investor of the sort that MLS has long sought, the league faces a potentially decisive moment.

Even now, only one-third of MLS teams make a profit. That might not be the most accurate measure of league health, since many clubs play in venues built just for them and control the revenues from those facilities. Yet the league is hardly rolling in cash.

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The league has survived only by going slowly – by reining in the spending excesses that doomed its predecessor, the North American Soccer League. Yet in the aftermath of the Beckham experiment, pressure is mounting to loosen the pursestrings a bit.

One might guess where an oil sheikh with a reported personal net worth of $30 billion might come down on that question.