Red Bull Arena: Will it Matter?

red-bulls2We 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.

7 Responses

  1. the stadium will be great but empty after one season. it is all about management and the bulls have none.

  2. It is truly amazing how many people in NYC have no idea about the new stadium going up. Only in New York, could a state of the art $250 Million stadium be nearing it’s opening and nobody talks about it or even knows about it.

    Hopefully NYRB will up their marketing efforts as well.

  3. Kyle:

    You are correct… it is pretty remarkable. Yet, NYRB has shown little ability to work with the local media to get their message out. They should arrange to have broadcasts from the stadium in the days leading up to the opener that include player interviews and the like.

  4. Comparing RBA to the Prudential Center might make sense, but in the end I disagree. This is because the NHL has three NYC-based (The Prudential Center is known as MSG West to us Ranger fans) teams. The Rangers are the most popular by far, and you really should try to get the same tickets when the Rangers play at The Rock because they won’t be as cheap or as easy to get.

    The Red Bulls, meanwhile, have no competition in Manhattan or Long Island, so the toughest part is to get people to NJ and back in a quick and efficient manner.

  5. I agree with Rob. The Devils are an anomaly; despite all their success, they’re still a clear #2 in their market. Where else does this happen?

    Re: Red Bull Arena, the club seems to be banking on the arena marketing itself. If it’s as good as advertised, it should at the very least be a great draw for visiting teams (I’m in Seattle, and I plan to attend the building’s opening). But for the soccer-savvy New York market, the team’s got to be good for repeat business other than the first game curiosity factor.

  6. The difference between the Prudential Center and RBA is ticket prices. The Devils had to up their ticket prices once the place opened so they could pay back the city for their brand new arena. On top of that, you have two other hockey teams in the area. Also, the Yankees couldn’t even sell out every game in their new stadium. Ticket prices went up for both teams once their opened their new stadiums. The Red Bulls FO have frozen ticket prices for next year. It’s cheap compared to all the other tri-state area teams. And RBA isn’t going to be some boring ass stadium with the same repeated design. This is a whole new style of stadium design here in the US.

  7. As a Metro/RB fan since Day 1, I’ve watched this franchise fail miserably in marketing to the very soccer savvy NY market.

    Consider the varied groups RBNY must attract…

    -The massive youth soccer market and their families
    -Immigrants & 1st/2nd generation Americans who rabidly follow teams from their home countries
    -American soccer fans who disdain MLS in favor of better Euro, MEX, and SA leagues (a huge group)
    -Ex-Pats who love the game
    -MLS/US Soccer fans
    -Former Metro fans that won’t support a club named for an energy drink (More than you think)
    -General sports fans

    Now that the MLS season is over (in NY, anyway), the RB FO should focus on getting better personnel on the field for 2010. Should Henry sign, there’d be a tremendous buzz among knowledgeable soccer fans, not so much the larger NY sports scene, where Henry’s Q value isn’t half as high as Beckham’s.

    Given the team’s horrendous performance this season, it’s no wonder that support for the club has waned. Red Bull is clearly banking on RBA to relaunch the franchise.

    Ben, you mention that RBNY hasn’t connected with the local media, but there are weekly radio shows in both Spanish and now Portuguese (which is spoken in Newark’s Ironbound district across the river from Harrison) focused on the team and soccer in general.

    If the team is a compelling and the message gets out, RBA could be a huge success. But Red Bull can’t worry about three years from now. They’ve got to fill the stadium on 3/27/10 v. Chicago.

Comments are closed.