Sunday, April 3, 2011

Conspiracy Theory: Is RBNY Trying to Torpedo NY2?

Not a Great Turnout on Saturday Night
So many thoughts after last night's 1-1 draw with Houston, which brings RBNY to five points from three games, just behind Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Union. My colleague Tim has already done an excellent job of addressing the Bouna Condoul fiasco, and if you're any kind of fan you know about Dwayne De Rosario's promising debut and Henry's continued struggles in front of the net. Instead I want to pull on your ear about a conspiracy theory I have regarding the Red Bulls and a second MLS club in the New York market.

I cannot overstate how disappointing it is to watch what, on paper, is arguably the best top to bottom line-up in the league march out to a mostly empty stadium. Last night's attendance was reported as 13,664, but anyone who was at Red Bull Arena knows that's being very generous. By any objective measurement the turnout last night for De Rosario's debut in a New York shirt was massively disappointing and probably closer to 10,000. As is usually the case, some of the empty seats filled up as stragglers arrived, but even during the second half the atmosphere was not all that it could or should have been. That's no knock on the hardcore of the supporters groups, who brought the noise as they always do.

Now there are plenty of reasons why people might have chosen to stay away last night - cold weather, the NCAA Final Four, the Devils game down the road, the opponent, transportation. But those are all poor excuses when you consider that the Seattle Sounders can get 36,000+ to turn out in the rain to watch soccer played on weeknight, in a football stadium, on fake grass. By contrast, in the country's largest market the only top-flight professional soccer club can't even manage to fill its stadium halfway on a Saturday night with a superstar lineup on offer. What's wrong with this picture?

There are some who will wheel out the old re-branding nonsense again, but I've never bought that and never will. We saw what the crowds can be like when RBNY puts a little muscle behind their marketing efforts and tries to build momentum for the season. The nearly 50% increase in attendance we saw last season was nothing to sneeze at. The question is: why has RBNY failed to build on that momentum this year and gone back into its shell? Unless you're a hardcore Red Bulls fan you could be forgiven for not even knowing that the 2011 season had started. Apart from a few banner ads and one brief appearance by Austin da Luz and Matt Kassel on Good Day New York, the silence from the RBNY marketing department has been deafening: no TV ads, no billboards, no opening season three-game package, no nothing. Even an outstanding 2-for-1 ticket deal has not been aggressively pushed by the club.

Just take a look at these awesome Portland Timbers ads and tell me they wouldn't make you want to walk through a wall to attend a game. OK, so they're a first-year MLS club, you might say. Then consider this  - even broke-ass DC United has done more marketing than RBNY in 2011. Clearly, "build it and they will come" isn't working. If you don't make people aware of your product - and reinforce that awareness in a positive way - you will be ignored, especially in New York.

So is this just a case of Red Bull marketing people dropping the ball, a simple lack of resources compared to last year - or is there something else at work? Could the Red Bulls, for example, be purposely "sandbagging" their marketing efforts to dissuade Don Garber from pursuing the idea of a second team in New York? I know it might sound a bit farfetched but stay with me. RBNY no longer has any exclusivity to the New York market. Whether Garber decides to award team 20 to the Cosmos or some other group is not in Red Bull's hands. In order to play nice with the league, Solér and company have been saying all the right things - welcoming a new rivalry, etc. - but you have to imagine that any second club in the market is going to take a substantial bite out of the fanbase the Red Bulls have been striving to build over the past year and a half. What better proof could there be that NY2 would be a horrible idea than a half empty stadium in Harrison?

As they say, the simplest explanation is usually the most likely. Given the ongoing problems with PR, concessions and other issues, it's entirely possible that what we are seeing at play here is simple incompetence. But I'm beginning to wonder.
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