Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dead Horses and Red Bulls

Much has been made of the attendance at Saturday's match between the Red Bulls and FC Dallas. Some have simply expressed their surprise or disappointment at the announced attendance of 13,667, and others have used it as an excuse to dredge up the branding argument again.

I've had quite the opposite reaction to the Dallas attendance. First off, I was neither surprised nor disappointed by the number. Three weeks ago, and again last week, I stressed to everyone that attendance was going to fall off. The reasons are pretty easy to understand.
  • The Red Bulls don't have a heated rivalry with FC Dallas. People picking games for their 4-game or 8-game packages are much more likely to be selecting matches against L.A., D.C., Philly, New England, or Toronto than against Dallas. Last year's match at Giants Stadium against Dallas attracted only 9,648 fans. To be fair, that was in July and our fate had already been sealed in last years season of ineptitude.
  • Red Bull attendance in March and April is historically lower than during the summer months. Last season, coming off of our run to the MLS Cup Final in 2008, we averaged only 10,424 in three games in March and April, including a match against D.C. This was before the disaster of last season had truly revealed itself.
  • Many local schools were on vacation and families were out of town.
  • Weather was chilly, and had been forecast to be rainy for much of the week leading up to the game.
For all of those reasons an early-season evening game against a team like Dallas is the type of game that tends to be close to the low attendance for the season. A game like this tends to be the base. 13,667 is a full 1,400 higher than our average last season, 3,200 higher than our March/April average last season, and 4,000 higher than our match against Dallas last season. If 13,667 ends up being one of our lowest attendances of the season, it will be a big improvement.

But could it--should it--be even bigger? So says Tom Dunmore at Pitch Invasion, and he asks whether the "rebranding of the MetroStars as Red Bull four years ago that alienated many fans" might be the most significant hurdle standing in the way. He calls this issue the skeleton in the cupboard, ignored by the "orgy of exuberant articles" that heralded the opening of Red Bull Arena.

Anyone who has spent any time on New York Red Bulls message boards, whether at BigSoccer or Metrofanatic, knows that the rebranding is most definitely NOT a skeleton in the cupboard. The topic has been so discussed that any time it comes up now at MF, it gets sent to the "Beat the Dead Horse" forum. Far from being a deep, dark secret, it's been discussed and analyzed to death.

More to Mr. Dunmore's point though, is the question of whether or not the branding issue still keeps a significant number of fans away. He asks, "Is Red Bull really something people can believe in?" In terms of Saturday night's attendance, the question is: How many fans would have been at the Dallas game on Saturday if the team was called the Metrostars that did not come because they are called the Red Bulls? Those are the people he's talking about - the ones whose sensibilities are so offended by the brand alone that it is the difference between attending and not attending. While I have no doubt whatsoever that there are people for whom the branding makes a difference or is a barrier to their fandom, I don't believe it has a meaningful effect on attendance. Neither of us know for sure, of course. It's not an easily quantifiable thing. What I do know is that Mr. Dunmore loves to drive home his theory with a three-year-old quote.

What I saw before the season started, and continue to see now, is a softening of the stance of many anti-Red Bull voices. People have been saying that what they really want to see from their team's owner is support. What concerned many in the past, more than the brand, was that Red Bull, the owner, didn't seem to care about their team in New York. But with Red Bull's creation of a "Sporting Division," to which they appointed Dietmar Beiersdorfer, a lifetime soccer man, as leader, and with the hiring of Sporting Director, Erik Solér (also a lifetime soccer man) and Head Coach, Hans Backe (yup, another soccer lifer), fans are finally seeing a concerted effort to rectify the mistakes of their first four years of Red Bull ownership. Add to this the commitment to keeping Assistant Coach, Richie Williams aboard, a successful draft and careful international signings that are making a positive difference on the pitch, while still keeping a core of the team in place. Finally, consider the massive $200 million investment in Red Bull Arena, and the announced intent to pony up the $250,000 to bring in a third designated player (as well as the financial commitment necessary to pay the contracts of three designated players). What we are seeing now from Red Bull is support unlike any we've received from any previous owner, and unlike what most other teams in MLS receive.

Fan reaction has ranged from exuberant evangelizing, from those of us for whom the brand is a non-issue, to careful optimism from all but a handful of extreme skeptics. Threads such as "I think I'm over it" popped up at MF. Matt Doyle, who has remained a strong supporter while being very critical of Red Bull ownership, went from saying this about the new European management structure
It's just another step on the path of failure. There's literally zero precedent for success in MLS where guys with Euro management pedigrees are concerned. Either in the front office, or on the field.

Personally I think Beiersdorfer's presence means we go right back down the same old road - Queiroz, Parreira, Bora - that we traveled a decade ago. Big name foreign coach with an up-and-down career, a limited understanding of how MLS works and even less of the US talent pool... heard that one before.
To this:

Last Saturday night is the moment new coach Hans Backe officially won me over. I said in this space last year that the first thing I’d want to hear from a manager is not what his plans were for remaking the roster, but what his plans were for getting the best out of the guys already here. Blessedly, Backe made that his primary goal.
If the preseason – which is now complete with seven wins, three draws and zero losses – is any indication, he has already been a resounding success. Richards, Petke, Jeremy Hall, Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Mac Kandji, John Wolyniec, Bouna Coundoul… all these guys who suffered through 2009 have been given a lifeline for redemption in 2010. All appear to have grasped the chance with both hands. Backe has been methodical and never capricious in identifying who brings what to the table. And the reward is a team brimming with cohesion and confidence on the eve of the season opener.
To be clear, I'm not saying that anyone is more open to the Red Bull brand. In fact, I'd guess that they still have the same feelings, whatever they were, about the Red Bull brand. But they are becoming sold on the team because the Red Bull corporation is now acting like a sports franchise owner with regard to the New York Red Bulls. And not just any owner, but a rich owner who wants and expects success, and sooner rather than later.

If - and yes, this remains a big if, but it seems more plausible now - this team starts to find success year-in and year-out, and management brings in a couple international stars with drawing power, attendance will rise, Red Bull Arena might even sell out once in a while, and the Metrostars era of the team will be remembered as an important part of our history, but one that brought frustration and mediocrity until we finally got an owner who decided to commit its resources to building a winner. Rooting for "Metro" will be akin to rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. 100 years from now, it might be akin to rooting for the Houston Colt .45's or the Boston Beaneaters.

But for now, to the fans (and players!) who are disappointed by the failure to bring in 20,000 to the Dallas FC game: Understand that a beautiful new arena and a nice start to the season is not going to magically erase 14 seasons of mediocrity. The arena and success on the pitch are important catalysts to generating higher attendance going forward. The main thing that will grow the ticket base is creating a positive live game-day experience. People need to want to spend their precious free time and hard-earned money going to see the Red Bulls play live over staying home and watching for free, or choosing any other summertime activity they might do with their friends or family. That depends 100% on them going and having an absolutely fantastic time in a great atmosphere.

The Arena goes a long way to solving the atmosphere problem, as we've gone from a concrete cavern to an intimate, loud, buzzing, exciting home for the fans and players. The rest will come with success on the pitch, and maybe a couple of stars to cheer for - whether they're up-and-coming U.S. Nationals or older, established foreign stars. It took 14 years for this team to dig its hole. It's going to take some time to climb out of it. One thing I'm sure of, though, is that an ownership committed to building a winning soccer team will push the branding issue to the fringe of New York soccer fandom.

13,667 for a Dallas game on a cool April night is thousands more than we ever could have expected in Giants Stadium a year ago. It also leaves a lot of room for improvement. What you can do to help is: go to the matches when you can, tell friends and encourage them to come along. When you're at a match cheer as loudly and strongly as your vocal chords will permit. Heckle our opponents. Hassle the refs. Cheer and sing for your team. Create an infectious environment that will make new fans want to come back again and again. Then the few remaining who can't bring themselves to root for a team called "Red Bulls" won't matter because there won't be any tickets left for them.

The skeletons that kept fans away aren't in the cupboard. They've been found and examined thoroughly, in exhaustive detail. Dental records have been checked and it turns out these bones don't belong to who many thought they did. Head to the cemetery and look for the tombstone that says, "Here Lies Mediocrity. He Browbeat the Hopes of New York Football Fans for 14 Years." Pop open a can of Red Bull and pour one for your homie. Then hop on the PATH train and take in a Red Bulls match. Swing by the Ironbound first. You'll have a great time.

(P.S. I'm already expecting an "I wouldn't bury this team's history of mediocrity yet" comment. Like with any horror movie, there's always room for a sequel! (Bride of Mediocrity?) I know. It still doesn't change my point that a lousy game-day experience, from a uninspiring team in a horrible venue has way more to do with the state of the Red Bulls fan base than their name does, and that as those problems become history, so will low attendance figures.)
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