Despite being the cultural center of our nation, New York City is an inherently very eclectic city. One could ramble on for hours about all of the various intricacies of the metropolis: its hustle and bustle nature, the nightlife, its skyscrapers and sprawl, taxis and subways, the glitz and glam of 5th Avenue, all the shows and performers, a vast array of five-star restaurants… there’s literally too much to talk about.
But the thing I love most about the city is its cultural diversity and the influence it has on the city. Millions have immigrated to the Big Apple from all four corners of the globe, and they’ve all managed to influence the city’s aura and feel by bringing with them their traditions and culture. And as you might imagine, a love for football is something that many of them brought in tow.
For that reason, New York has become the nation’s defacto-soccer capital. A quick walk down the streets of Manhattan will tell you as much: in my three days in the city last week, I saw people wearing the shirts of Napoli, Chelsea, Palmeiras, Arsenal, Barcelona, PSG, UNAM Pumas, Borussia Dortmund among others. Make a short hop across the Hudson River into New Jersey, and you’ll find one of the country’s preeminent soccer stadiums in Red Bull Arena. Pick up games can be found at literally every park in the city at nearly any hour. And it’s long been known that MLS wants to place a second team in the city, and they may resurrect the legendary Cosmos to do so.
But one of the other footy features of the city that can’t be overlooked is its vast array of soccer bars. In my hometown of Cincinnati, there are only two or three bars that consider themselves to be of that vein. But if you’re hoping to watch with a crowd, you better hope it’s a major final or an important US National Team match. New York’s soccer pubs, however, are not only light years ahead of those in the Midwest (apologies to Chicagoans: you do have a few good spots in your town), you actually have a choice on where you get to watch.
One of those options, in my humble opinion at least, stands out from the crowd: The Football Factory at Legends. Located directly across West 33rd Street from the Empire State Building, Legends could generally be classified as an Irish Pub, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After descending a wrought iron and marble staircase into the basement, you find yourself in a football fan’s paradise. Eighteen HD TV’s hang among a vast collection of flags, scarves, jerseys and pictures from the game, meaning you can watch just about any match so long as you can find a satellite feed or internet stream.
And luckily, I was able to arrange a sit down with the man behind The Football Factory, Irishman Jack Keane. Over a steady stream of pints, Jack and I spoke in detail about just how he was able to spawn one of the finest soccer pubs in the land of the free.
First off, thanks for having me in today for a chat, and for the beer! Can you tell me a little about how Legends and The Football Factory came to be in the first place?
I had been in the bar business since the ’93-94 season over here, and had kind of pioneered the idea of the “soccer bar” at another location downtown. And in November of 2010, the owners of Legends gave me a call and said, “We have a fabulous location here in Manhattan — right across from Empire State Building — and we have a floor that’s not really being used that much. Would you be interested in trying to get your football crowd to come up here?” And after seeing the location, I thought to myself it would be a crime not to try it out. At the time there were 5 TV’s, no website, and there was no social media. But the space and location were amazing, and the owners, I felt very comfortable with. I thought, “If we can get somebody in here that can help us build up in the social media and market this place, we could be on to something special.”
Well, a good friend of mine that owns First Touch magazine suggested I use a very skilled fellow young Irishman named Robbie Kennerney to help build a website and get our name out there. I pitched the entire idea to the owners. They didn’t want to hire him. Regardless, I still told Robbie to do it, and after he finished it, I took his excellent work back to the group and pitched it again… and this time I didn’t take no for an answer.
Okay, so something that’s confusing to me: there’s Legends, and then there’s The Football Factory. What’s the deal with the bar having two names?
When I arrived here, I knew Legends was a very nice bar. When they opened in 2008, they wanted to establish themselves as the corporate American sports bar in Midtown Manhattan. Certainly, they were doing their business, but things weren’t going as well as they would have liked. So when I came in here, I let them know that while I loved the name Legends, I needed to give the soccer part a different name to give it credibility.
Intriguing. How did you land on The Football Factory?
I loved the book and loved the movie, so I thought to myself “Why don’t I name it The Football Factory“. Funny enough, the man who wrote the book, John King, showed up here to have a few beers upstairs. I asked him if he would mind, and he said not at all. A week later, a copy of the book came over which was signed by John, and later came a poster of the movie that hangs above the stairs as you come down.
So with all of the stiff competition, what makes you guys stand out from the competition.
There are a million places across the country that will show the big matches, which is fine and good luck to them. But I feel that we are the only bar in the country that exists solely to show football and to serve the football community. And it certainly didn’t hurt that I brought with me a core group of about a thousand football fans from my previous bar.
The backbone of what we do here is the supporters’ clubs. Every time a group of lads come in to watch a game, we encourage them to get together, let us develop a Facebook page for them, let us add them to the supporters’ club list on our website, and to contact their club to let them know that they’re forming a New York supporters clubs — something every club wants. If you’re passionate about your club and if you want to meet and watch your games — whatever day, whatever time — the promise I’ll give you is I will always be here, the bar will be open, and your game will be on.
This happened just last week with four or five Palmieras fans who were in here for the first time to watch the first leg of the Copa do Brazil final. I told them, “Guys, it was nice to have you in, please come back next week for the second leg. And if you have a banner, bring them in and I’ll hang them up. The next match, about 25 showed up and they were delighted after they won the cup. I told them, “Look, let’s get you that Facebook page and this will be your home… and I’ll see you next Sunday for your derby match against Sao Paulo.” So now a bunch of guys who might have gone different directions on a Sunday, they know that they have a place to go. Palmieras New York was born.
It seems like building and embracing the culture is a big part of what you do.
Seven days a week, I will be here for those who want to watch football and help with other football activities. But it’s also about the sense of belonging. Especially in a city like New York, where — despite there being so many people — you can still feel very alone. So while we get the hardcore fans who are only here about the football, they still have girlfriends and wives from the old country that want the social aspect. So while the men will be up here at the bar drinking beer and shouting, the ladies can sit back and have a glass of wine and talk with fellow Parisians if that’s what they’d like to do.
So what all do you guys do to get your name out there to those fans?
We partner with everybody, and every day we promote something different. Our website, in my opinion, is the only bar website in the country solely devoted to football. And we’ve got over 55,500 followers on Facebook that we broadcast out to. We have a blogger named Steve Nanfam who writes on our site. We have relationships with the teams we sponsor, such as Barnsworth Rovers (“Manhattan’s Top Amateur Soccer Club”). We’ve partnered with an organization called America SCORES, an organization that integrates soccer, poetry and service-learning for underprivileged youth. Their big corporate fundraising tournament had their draw here just a week or so ago. The guys from KICKTV filmed here during the Euros. Like I said, anything that’s football related, I’ll open up my doors for them.
So let’s talk about the bar itself. No less than 39 scarves and 34 framed kits adorn the walls around the bar. Signed pictures and memorabilia hang all over the place. It’s really an incredible collection.
We’re trying to be as diverse as possible. But thing is, there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t up at the moment. If you were to come back in a month, when everything is up, it’s going to be a fabulous collection. And we’re adding to it all the time. Just recently a Nottingham Forrest fan sent me a group of signed photographs from the team that won the European Cup in ’79-’80, because he’d “rather it be here for people to enjoy.” Another great thing we did about six months ago was form a partnership with Icons, the big international suppliers of signed paraphernalia. Anything that has an order sticker on it, you can take the number off the bottom and use it to easily buy same signed kit off their website.
Have you ever had any famous faces stroll through your doors for a pint and to take in a match?
Many. In fact, Lothar Matthäus was in here about two months ago filming a show for German television about his life. Matthäus is a larger of life in character in Germany, where he obviously captained a World Cup winning side. One of the episodes he and his girlfriend were sat right where we are sitting, and the film crew were over there filming the two of them having lunch, and [he and I are] interacting as well. That episode will actually air on German TV the first week of September.
From the videos on your site to the stories out on the web, it looks like you guys have had some pretty massive crowds for live matches. How many fans normally turn out on your average match day?
It depends. We show over 100 live matches a week when the European season get’s going, even if it’s not on a satellite channel, we can stream it off the internet. And if it’s a 7:00am kickoff, even if it’s for two people, that’s great. When Bundesliga matches kick off, we could have a 100 people in here at 9:30am. Then for EPL matches, we’ll have fans down here, up on the main floor and on the mezzanine throughout the morning. La Liga Italian matches come on in the afternoon, and of course the MLS games as well. For Red Bull games, they’ll bring in between 75 to a 100 for a viewing party.
I’m assuming that the crowds get even bigger during the major tournaments, too. What’s the largest crowd you’ve seen so far?
On Champions League Final day, conservative estimates say there were 1800 people on all three floors. It was like a terrace in here, where you couldn’t get up the stairs. During the Euros, we closed the doors earlier to cap it off at 1500.
On big events — even those that aren’t “big games” — we can get a show of strength from a New York supporters. We organized Red Bull Fans during the “101 Night” back on May 5th, and held a march of 800 from Greeley Square up 33rd before the match. ESPN gave it a mention, and we even had the street closed!
So tell me a little about yourself: with all these different supporters groups here, you must have a club you support yourself.
Oh yes, ever since I was a boy I’ve been a Manchester United fan. I was seven when they were relegated! In fact, my very first poster I ever put up in my room celebrated them being champions… of the second division. I actually got to meet Sir Alex a few years ago, and had the privilege of talking with him about the old days of the game!
As a card-carrying Spurs fan, I was a little surprised not to see any Tottenham groups listed on your site… might that have something to do with The NY Gooners residing at the top of your list?
Ha… those are actually listed alphabetically.The Spurs group, ironically, have a little bit of a history in New York for violence. There’s a couple of them that want to mix it up a bit, and they can’t really do that in bars. I’ve heard through the grapevine that they have moved on to another bar. But I certainly get Spurs fans in here every match, and they’re always welcome!
So with the continual growth in popularity of the game, and the match day “pub experience” becoming a mainstay in watching matches here in the States, are there any plans to take the Football Factory experience to another market?
When I see over the last 20 years over how much the game has grown to be accepted, we’d love to have our own three-story location just for the Football Factory here in New York. But no matter how good the last game was, the most important one is always the next one: there’s always the next level. So in my point of view, there’s a hope to have a Football Factory in all major cities in the US. There certainly would be no point in bringing it anywhere beyond America, because there’s no point in trying to sell football to an audience that’s already been sold.
But for the mean time, I just want to bring the community together in New York, and be the focal point for them to watch their games.
Well, Jack, if I do say so myself, you guys here at The Football Factory here at Legends are doing just that. Thanks so much for your time, your dedication to the sport, and for everything you’re doing for us fans.
As you might imagine, the above is just a short snippet of my lengthy conversation with Jack at The Football Factory. Be sure to check back in this space as I plan to place the entire recorded conversation on the site, as we talked quite a bit more about his experiences as one of the nation’s finest soccer pubs, the city itself and football in general. You can also see the full album of pictures I took prior to and after my time talking to Jack on the blog’s Facebook page. And in the mean time, if you happen to be in Manhattan, stop by 6 West 33rd Street to get yourself a pint and soak in the experience.