A report by Scott Cacciola for the New York Times.
Tom Payne, the president of Puerto Rico F.C., is too anxious to sit during his team’s soccer matches. So he paces the concourse here at Estadio Juan Ramón Loubriel, a converted baseball stadium in a commercial neighborhood about 10 miles from San Juan, and fields text messages from his boss.
“Why aren’t they tackling more?” the boss wants to know. “We need to get tougher!”
The boss is Carmelo Anthony, whose role as owner of Puerto Rico F.C., a second-year club in the North American Soccer League, serves multiple purposes. It is a form of community outreach, a pull he felt as a result of his Puerto Rican heritage. It is an investment opportunity. And it is a welcome diversion from his day job as a starting forward for the Knicks.
“I try to watch every game,” Anthony said.
As the Knicks lurch toward the end of another disastrous season, Anthony’s future with the organization seems tenuous at best. Phil Jackson, the team president, wants to ship him elsewhere, which would require Anthony to waive his no-trade clause. Anthony has warned of reading “the writing on the wall.” Amid so much dysfunction, at least he has his other team — the one he gets to run.
The one with playoff hopes. The one that is not wedded to the triangle offense. The one with the team president who actually listens to him.
“It’s nice when his basketball season lessens, because we get a little more time with him,” Payne said.
In September, ahead of training camp with the Knicks, Anthony visited Puerto Rico with several teammates — a bonding trip of sorts. But he carved out time for soccer-related business. He spent five hours with Payne at the team’s offices in San Juan, poring over budget reports. He badgered members of the video team for promotional materials. He gave the players pep talks.
“You can tell he’s invested,” goalkeeper Trevor Spangenberg said. “He’s not just a name attached to the team that we never see. He’s been here. He’s spoken with us individually.”
For a meeting with officials from a local bank, Anthony decked himself out in his Team U.S.A. sweatsuit from the Olympics.
“And he looked fantastic,” Payne said. “Only an athlete at Carmelo’s level could get away with that.”
Anthony also rummaged through one of the team’s storage closets, which was full of gear: T-shirts, hoodies, hats, shorts. He wanted to know if he could take a few items home.
“He was in there for a half-hour,” Payne said. “And I’m like: ‘Carmelo, you can have anything you want. It’s not like everyone else here. You paid for this stuff.’”
Anthony grew up in Baltimore but visited Puerto Rico, where his father was born, when he was a child, and then again after his senior year of high school, he said in an interview last week. The trip left an impression, he said. He even contemplated joining Puerto Rico’s national basketball team before opting to preserve his eligibility to compete for the United States. (Some Puerto Ricans were not pleased. Anthony said he had managed to “smooth things over” since then.)
He has returned to the island over the years, funding the construction of seven basketball courts. Then, in 2015, an unusual opportunity presented itself: the chance to buy an expansion team in the N.A.S.L., which sits a rung below Major League Soccer on American soccer’s professional league structure.
Soccer has never been as popular as baseball, boxing or volleyball in Puerto Rico, but it does have some history here. From 2004 to 2012, a pro club called the Puerto Rico Islanders played in various leagues, and even advanced to the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League in 2009, before the franchise folded.
Anthony, a longtime soccer fan, said he had observed how the game had grown in recent years, particularly among youths. So when he learned of the opportunity to start a new club, he saw potential: to build something of his own and to contribute to a community that is important to him.
“He wanted to bring something back to Puerto Rico,” said Adrian Whitbread, the club’s coach. “There was a void.”
Some of Anthony’s financial advisers were less enthusiastic. Puerto Rico was (and remains) mired in a deep recession. It was not an ideal environment in which to start a business, especially one so dependent on sponsorship deals and ticket sales. But that, Anthony said, was kind of the point.
“We wanted to get involved when everybody was counting the island out,” he said. “I wanted to be there from the ground level.”
One of his first hires was Payne, a former president for business operations with the Los Angeles Galaxy of M.L.S. When Payne showed up to interview with Anthony at his offices in Brooklyn, he was surprised when Anthony answered the door. It was a subtle sign, Payne said, of Anthony’s hands-on approach.
At one point during their hour-and-a-half conversation, Anthony asked Payne how long he thought it would take the club to become profitable. Payne told him that it would depend on the economy.
“This is a long-term investment,” Anthony said last week. “It’s not something that I’m looking at as a get-rich-quick type of thing.”
Asked how much money he had poured into the team, Anthony said, “That’s undisclosed.” Anthony covers the club’s losses, said Payne, who added that one of his goals was to see the club double its average home attendance, to 8,000 from about 4,000 a game last season. Ticket prices range from about $8 to $50. (Anthony wanted to sell them for $5 apiece before Payne intervened.)
Payne wants to see Puerto Rico F.C. turn a profit. He knows it could take years, if it happens at all.
“Listen,” Payne said, “it’s an interesting time to be trying to start something in Puerto Rico. The economy is not good. But Carmelo’s passionate about Puerto Rico. This matters to him.”
Anthony was also drawn to the free-market principles of the N.A.S.L., which does not have a salary cap. While player salaries range from about $20,000 to more than $100,000, the eight clubs in the league can pay whatever they want. If Anthony really wanted to sign someone, he could shell out millions. His players say he cares about the product.
“You can tell he knows a little bit,” said Cristiano Dias, a defender from Brazil. “You can sit in the stands and watch two players running and tell who’s really putting the effort in. On that part, being an athlete, I think he can judge the game pretty good. On the technical part — well, I’m not so confident to say that!”
Last month, the day after Puerto Rico F.C. lost to a Jamaican club called Portmore United F.C. in a critical round of the Caribbean Club Championship (which doubled as a tuneup before the start of the N.A.S.L. season), Payne arrived for his team’s afternoon training session. He was not in a chipper mood. He had not slept well. He was still dwelling on the previous evening’s result.
“It was poor, honestly,” he said. “I’ve already talked to a couple of coaches about it. It’s not good enough.”
The club provides housing for the players in a lush, seaside neighborhood near San Juan called Isla Verde. Given the loss to Portmore, Payne said he was reconsidering that arrangement.
“I’m thinking we should move them down here, where it’s a little grittier, a little tougher,” he said.
He clarified that he was joking — for now, at least. Anthony, he said, had shown more patience for the process. “He’s really patient,” Payne said. “Look how he puts up with all that garbage in New York.’’
Payne recalled a recent trip to Madison Square Garden. “I went to a game this year,” he said, “and I was like: What am I doing paying this kind of money to watch this?”
Puerto Rico F.C., meanwhile, has opened its season with draws against the New York Cosmos and two against the Indy Eleven, the top two teams in the league last season. Anthony said he expected to pay the team another visit soon. He has big plans, which include designing new uniforms for next season.
Here, on a distant island, if nowhere else, Anthony has a team that will look exactly the way he wants it to look.