The Cosmos, for Free!

Cosmos’ owner wants bygones to be bygones, and someone to take the team into MLS.

In the May issue of Britain’s FourFourTwo magazine Welsh midfielder and onetime New Englander Andy Dorman lists his MLS highlights as such: Winning the US Open Cup, playing against Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and “also, one time New York brought the old soccer players over and I met Pele and Beckenbauer. Not much tops that.”

You can’t go very long in the American soccer world before running into the Cosmos, be it through celebration of their successes or condemnation of their part in the NASL collapse. Today it may be little more than a tape library hidden away in New Jersey, but for sure people know the name; a foreign magazine sees no need to print explanation.

And while it’s hard to get past the fact that MLS built its entire league in direct financial opposition to seemingly everything the Cosmos stood for—a high-powered SuperClub built to thrill audiences and roll over lesser opponents—the Designated Player rule now allows for at least one big signing per team, The Beckham Experiment will teach a few lessons, and the upcoming collective bargaining will at least test the stubborn salary cap.

Sure it’s still a frugal league, but MLS is inching towards the Cosmos.

The last time Peppe Pinton, owner to the rights of all things Cosmos, spoke publicly the problem with resurrecting the Cosmos was a suspected grudge MLS held for the NASL. The ESPN headline read: “Cosmos’ legacy yet to be fully embraced by MLS.”

Almost two years later to the day, the bottom line has not changed. Nearly all of Kristian Dyer’s article still holds true (as does a New York Times article from 2003 about Pele possibly putting the team into MLS)—yes, the Cosmos have a tremendous history in successfully pioneering a soccer franchise into a global brand, and no, they haven’t played a game in over twenty years—but there has been one change.

Pinton is still baffled it hasn’t been the Cosmos, but with the entry of the Whitecaps, Timbers, and Sounders into MLS, it can no longer “be argued that MLS, in its attempt to learn from history, has avoided the NASL, shunning the former franchises and players of the defunct league,” as Dyer asserted in 2007.

And that alone has changed Peppe Pinton. “The Metrostars approached the Cosmos,” he told me during a recent phone interview. “And at that time I was not asking any money. I was just not interested. I didn’t think that was the right time, but this is the right time.”

The talkative businessman has changed his tune, but it is his tone that might have made the greater transformation. Where he and Giorgio Chinaglia were once all but baiting the MLS offices into argument, Pinton is now complementing the league (while, of course, continuing to trumpet the Cosmos). He saw a new Philadelphia franchise budding with support and went as far as to contact the owners about taking his brand. Now he’s watching a beautiful soccer stadium going up just down the river from his New Jersey offices and thinks two teams could share it. He’s done a lot of thinking, and he is ready for more change.

In a candid conversation with TIAS Pinton said he is ready to once and for all get the Cosmos in MLS, offering the brand “free and clear” to the right ownership. You might call it a once in a lifetime opportunity. But there is that little problem of finding someone who wants to pony up the expansion fee and invest in a second New York team. And that’s where the talk runs dry, because until an owner puts forth a bid to MLS, Pinton can do nothing but continue to talk. If only he had the money to simply buy a victory this time around.

cosmos trophies

TIAS: There are a couple of pieces that come out from time to time and they’re not always positive for the Cosmos. Who’s fault is that?

Pinton: Contrary to what some people may want for the Cosmos, it is not a ghost. Everyone is talking about it, on the street and high level circles. I have been an advocate and pioneer and curator, maintaining and preserving everything the Cosmos are: memorabilia and trophies which are unprecedented in America to videos, logos, trademarks, images, copyrights. For a long period of time in this area around New York soccer has had a climb with the Cosmos ceasing to play.

So why has it been quiet on the Cosmos front?

Sometimes I ask that same question myself. But one must identify of who to ask the question. There’s gotta be a platform and a venue for the Cosmos to turn. I have done my best financially and emotionally to preserve this thing with one focus: that the brand of the Cosmos would be revived for the benefit of the fans, in New York and all over the world. So again this brand can shine and join a league that would benefit from its inclusion, in the media, in the merchandising, worldwide.

I have done all of that and continue to try to do this. I do not just sit in an office waiting for someone. I have pursued and pursued and pursued aspiring owners, some of who are already in league. Some were just curious. Some contemplated it. There was a period of dormancy in soccer here from when NASL closed to the World Cup in 1994. Then soccer began to generate some energy after the Cup and after MLS started. And from that point I have sought from MLS, with various ideas, options, and business plans—from the Yankees and Mets organizations, to Andrew Murstein who owns the taxi company Mediallian, who was very close to getting something together, to the Red Bulls with who we participated with and licensed footage and licensed the brand for their opening game with Beckenbauer and Pele—I’m trying to say to you that I have approached everyone in hopes of reviving this franchise. I spoke to the owners of the new Philadelphia franchise in regards to possibly name that franchise the Cosmos. We know that would be the extremist move—the name should be in New York—but I spent about 5 months on it. The New York market had been taken by Red Bull—I spoke to the Metrostars management to contemplate a name-change and revival, but did not carry it to fruition. Along the way there is always business decisions that keep things from coming to life.

But make no mistake, it is not because I ever asked a dollar for the Cosmos. I’ve never asked a penny. Although there is an investment of 20, almost 30 years, in keeping an office open and the brand out in the marketplace and in the minds of the fans. That’s not to discuss what it has taken to protect the trademark both worldwide and here in the U.S. The value associated with that—the intellectual property—is there. If you have to pay $5000 a month for rent for the last 25 years, that is something. But I have never asked someone to give me so much for the Cosmos. Because the Cosmos are not for sale. I would like to see an entity that is interested in actually doing something—revive the team, join a league, and put this whole thing to bed. I’ve been trying to find that right organization and have always invited media and anyone to look and see what I’m doing. I am an open book. I don’t hold secrets.

So say the Wilpons (Met’s owners) come to you…

That’s the kind of entity and ownership that I am looking for to dignify and elevate and benefit from the Cosmos. I’ve worked too hard, mentally, physically, and monetarily to not see that happen. Something like that would be a gain to everyone—to the entity, to the Cosmos, and to the fans. And the world. This is a global game, and the Cosmos are our global brand. We don’t have to worry about jealousy now. Some people will say, “Hold on, we’re gonna create another Yankees. We don’t want another Yankees. We want a league that is all the same.” But no matter the Cosmos brand will shine. This is not a joke. In 1983 I owned Lazio, a first division team in Rome. You see, some people don’t know who Peppe Pinton is. Why is it then surprising that people are upset that I own the Cosmos? I purchased Lazio and then exited there because of my love for the Cosmos, my love for New York—it was more than my love for Lazio or the country even where I was born.

What’s the next step?

The next step is very simple. What I realized at Lazio, and what makes sports so great in many places, is to have a second franchise in the same city. Rome and Lazio. Inter Milan and Milan. Juventus and Torino. Particularly—and I think MLS is doing this in LA—the New York market. You need to create competition—Mets and Yankees. You could have Red Bull and Cosmos here in New York—and they could be playing in the same stadium for heaven’s sake. I played Lazio in Olympic Stadium with Roma. No big deal. The economics become much better. Stadiums have empty dates that need to be filled. They are already building their own stadiums all over MLS. Now let’s fill them, while creating rivalry and fan appeal. What needs to be done is lift this asset which is free and clear—I repeat: free and clear for any team. There is no doubt, no loophole. Someone can have the same franchise that Pele and Beckenbauer played for. They get all the trophies, all the history that I have preserved. We never went bankrupt, never went away—it’s the same as it was 30 years ago. It’s the same company. I am the principle of this company and so many people say why don’t I give them back? I am interested to see what anybody has in terms of ideas. I spent three years working with Andrew Murstein who came to me and wanted to start a New York franchise. Legal fees and other costs alone I paid. I was very willing to give it over for what he wanted. I never negotiated any more or less from him. I have reached out to the Mets organization. I basically said, if they were to acquire a franchise, the Cosmos is an available brand to them. I didn’t discuss money. There was no discussing money, and at the time no interest from them to go forward with a franchise, so I have not spoken to them since.

cosmos posters

Bottom line, what do you want out of such a deal?

I have never said I even needed to be at a press conference. Make no mistake, I want people finally to know who I am. I have never been an egotistic man. There is no ego about who I am. I have done so much in soccer and out of soccer. I basically retired from soccer at the age of 38. So this is not my entire life. This is not about ego. The trophy case alone of the Cosmos is probably worth a bundle of money, but this is not about me, this is about the people, the fans of New York. They deserve the Cosmos.

I want to refrain from speaking on behalf of the league, but I am open to the league. I have always had an open door with the league. I have had great communication with the league. I have had people from the league in my office, and I have toured the league’s offices.

The Cosmos have a brand name that will make millions for a franchise. I don’t want to knock any other franchises out there, but name one for me today in the U.S. that has reached the level of magnitude that the Cosmos reached. It’s been a long time, but people still know it all over the world. If I am a soccer investor, I would like to embrace this—and you don’t have to embrace Peppe Pinton. It’s never been about that. I am not taking anything away. On the contrary, I have preserved something for the people to have back.

I don’t want to give anybody suggestions, but for a period of time, they could be sharing a stadium until another one is built here. And with the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland coming into the league, I think it is the right time for the Cosmos to follow those former NASL brands into the league. I have to be very careful because at times the Cosmos has not been embraced the right way from soccer. But when the league signed Beckham, people talked about the Cosmos. It was Beckham-Cosmos, Cosmos-Beckham. The Cosmos paved the way for soccer. The Cosmos did a lot of work and still do. We’re working on youth development with the Cosmos camps and through that and other areas keeping the brand out there. We were also the first on to use some of the best portable soccer goals when working with these amazingly talented soccer youngsters.

After all the back and forth over the years, what would you like people to know about you?

People don’t know me. And I want them to know me. I mean, why shouldn’t I be the owner of the Cosmos? You could own it if you did the right thing back in the day to own it. Why shouldn’t I be the guy to own Lazio? I bought it, so I owned it, and then I sold it. So why should anybody be the owner of anything? I am the owner of the New York Cosmos, and the people are the owners of the New York Cosmos, so let’s try to get them back—not to fill my pocketbook; that’s not what it is all about. If people think that, they are wrong, about the brand, the dignity, and the people who want them back. Some people thought the Cosmos were too much to handle in the soccer market, to live up to MLS’s reputation—but that is stretching it.

Why do you think you’ve often been portrayed as the villain?

It surprises me because I know who I am, and the people who know me, know who I am. There is such a sense of jealousy out there that is very rich toward me, because of the power of the brand and how many people want it. And they wish they had it themselves. This is after the fact. Where were people from 1985 to 1995, when MLS came. The Metrostars approached the Cosmos, and at that time I was not asking any money. I was just not interested. I didn’t think that was the right time, but this is the right time. The league has done a marvelous job. People are making big investments with the league. They are committed to it. The interest is rising. And now the Cosmos could play a role and help them continue growing. The Cosmos would be better today in a name and market point of view than it was before, because the league is very very strong and here to stay. Everything is there for the Cosmos to return and thrive. Nevermind how many people you could pull into the stands. The Cosmos is a brand that will be globally recognized. A lot of people who talk bad about me, but the fact is, if we want the Cosmos to come back we need to stay positive.