NYC soccer leagues struggle for field space



Soccer leagues are flooding the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in Manhattan with permit requests to reserve fields. The Parks Department, however, cannot satisfy the growing demand for recreational soccer because of a failing permit distribution system and a lack of usable soccer field space, said league organizers.

As of September 2019, the Parks Department has already received 2,316 permit requests to reserve field space for soccer games in Manhattan, almost 100 more than in 2018, Parks Department data shows. Soccer yielded 169 more requests than softball/baseball in 2019, for example, which declined between 2018 and 2019 while soccer requests have grown. But with rising demand came rising rejection: about 36.5% of soccer permit requests were denied or left pending this year, compared to about 27% in 2018.

The system inhibits growth for leagues that cannot get new permits, while miscommunications about permit awards has left groups such as NYC Footy, an adult soccer league, scrambling to find new field space mere days before play was set to begin. Owing to a shortage of fields with lights, leagues like Williamsburg Co-ed Soccer have lost entire seasons’ worth of play. And private-owned fields can be expensive and therefore inaccessible to smaller organizations.

When allotting field space, the Parks Department prioritizes youth leagues first, followed by adult leagues requesting permit renewals for “in-season” sports, according to Parks Department rules. League organizers call this process the grandfathering system, which allows adult leagues to apply for up to 32 hours per week of field space in most cases — over four one-hour games a day. The grandfathering system directly prohibits soccer league growth because it awards field space at parks where fields for different sports overlap, like at Randall’s Island, Central Park’s North Meadow and DeWitt Clinton Park, pitting sports like soccer and softball against each other for space.

Tarek Pertew of NYC Footy said he believes that despite the efforts of Parks Department officials to fix isolated problems, an antiquated permit system has inhibited his league from growing. “Unfortunately, we are always plateauing because there’s just no other additional permit that we can offer the demand,” said Pertew in a phone interview. Once Pertew finally received permits for fields Manhattan, he said his league’s size doubled.

The Yorkville Sports Association, for example, has held continuously renewed permits for weeknight fall softball games at DeWitt Clinton Park for about 35 years, said president Al Morales. When softball leagues like YSA renew their grandfathered permits on these shared fields during soccer season, soccer leagues get shut out. This year, the Parks Department denied 376 more soccer applications than softball/baseball applications, despite soccer leagues filing 169 more total requests, Parks Department data shows.

League organizers acknowledge, however, that the grandfathering system helps keep leagues afloat. “In many ways I’m defending these incumbent leagues at my own expense because we’re not breaking into parks, because we can’t break into these grandfathered in permits,” said Pertew.

Pertew also said that a shortage of fields with lights inhibits league growth. President of Williamsburg Co-ed Soccer, Leala Abbott, said she believes a dearth of usable field space such as fields with lights is the main problem. “It has nothing to do with permits,” said Abbott in a phone interview. “It has nothing to do with grandfathering. That is a symptom of a larger issue.”

Abbott said her league of roughly 2,500 participants lost six to seven months of soccer in the fall and winter of 2018 because the field her team was borrowing didn’t have lights. Thomas Hunt, who used to run a soccer training organization called 510 Soccer, also said non-lighted fields inhibited his organizations’ growth.

The Parks Department says they are attempting to clear space for “younger, in-season” leagues who continuously lose fields to “out-of-season” leagues, wrote a Parks Department spokesperson in an email. Parks Department rules list “baseball in the fall” as “out-of-season.”

One attempt at DeWitt Clinton failed. The Parks Department declined to renew YSA’s permit for Wednesday nights at DeWitt Clinton to clear space for soccer leagues, but no league was able to attain the permit for a prime Wednesday night slot as of September, public permit records show.

The Parks Department did not know why no league held the permit, but said a pending application does exist, wrote the spokesperson.