We have repeatedly posted about the excitement surrounding Red Bull Arena and all that it could mean for the franchise and MLS. The stadium is beautiful, is intended to help revitalize Harrison, NJ and will be a showpiece for soccer in the United States. However, the questions remains; will the new stadium impact Red Bull attendance or the team’s profile in the New York media market? Based on our experience Saturday night in Newark, the answer is still very much in question.
For those who don’t know, in October 2007, the Prudential Center opened in Newark, NJ as the home of NJ Devils of the NHL, Seton Hall basketball and more. The stadium is state of the art, cost more than $375 million to build and was intended as part of a downtown revitalization for the City of Newark that included retail, residential units and more. The Devils are a perennially good team, and have won three Stanley Cups over the last 15 years. Newark and Harrison are essentially neighbors, so the Prudential Center represents an interesting comparison for Red Bull Arena.
On Saturday Night, I took in my first game at the “Pru” as the Devils hosted the team formerly known as the Hartford Whalers. I had dinner with 5 friends in downtown Newark and then walked to the Arena among a sea of red jerseys. We had purchased tickets on Stub Hub for essentially 60 cents on the dollar. The facility was beautiful, yet remarkably, only about half full. And this is the issue. Just starting its third year, the bloom is already off the rose.
Our seats were 15 rows from the ice and we could have walked down much further and found 6 seats together. The most expensive seats were essentially empty (although many are reportedly sold). The upper level was more crowded, but whole sections were largely unoccupied. Attendance was reported as 15k, but the sense from those around me was that the number was closer to 10k. In sum, a beautiful new New Jersey Arena in its third year, with a powerhouse team as a tenant, was half empty on a Saturday night in October. It is also worth noting that the New York Mets couldn’t generate sell-outs for their new stadium in year one in Queens.
This is the nightmare scenario for the the Red Bulls. Build a sparkling new stadium with all the amenities, public transportation accessibility, natural grass and fill it with star players. Pack in crowds for all 25k seats for a few games and then slowly watch attendance drop off. Sure, the new revenue streams will be outstanding (recall that Rio Tinto has raised RSL’s revenue 42%). But will Red Bull be happy with 13k on a Saturday night in August? Many in the New Jersey/New York area have no idea the new stadium exists and thus there is limited excitement about its debut.
Many American soccer fans think that the stadium will be a savior for a franchise that sits dead last in MLS. Others believe that Red Bull management has been playing opossum, saving resources for the big opening. The latter may be correct, but the former seems a bit of a strectch. Stadiums generate revenue, but they are no guarantee of long term attendance increases (hello FC Dallas). My experience at the Devils game was oustanding (even if the Whalers went down to defeat), but shocking in the emptiness of the building.
So the question remains; will it matter? Will Red Bull Arena take the franchise to new levels and elevate soccer in New York, keep interest at the same level or something different? We take a middle view…if the team does well in its new digs, interest will increase, but a middling team will continue to receive middling interest in any venue.