Fresh off a successful 2016 Major League Soccer campaign that included a conference-best regular season record and unlucky early playoff exit, the Harrison-based New York Red Bulls opened their new season earlier this month with a tough road test against Atlanta United FC, one of the league's two new expansion teams for 2017.
After conceding an early goal, the Red Bulls fought back to score two of their own and spoil the inaugural game festivities as they escaped Atlanta with a win.
The three points secured in the victory will undoubtedly prove vital over the stretch of the long, eight-month regular season, but the win wasn’t the only thing that had Red Bulls General Manager Marc de Grandpre beaming when he returned to New Jersey last week.
For de Grandpre, opening night in Atlanta not only offered a valuable opportunity to showcase his team to a nationally televised audience, it signaled a big step for the MLS, now in its 22nd season as the top flight of soccer in the country, as yet another new American market opened its doors to the world’s game.
“The league is moving in the right direction and it’s exciting for us to be a part of that excitement,” de Grandpre said. “As I told my colleagues who work in Atlanta, it wasn’t only a great moment for Atlanta, but it was a great moment for soccer across the country and something that the MLS should be extremely proud of. We were fortunate to be there and experience it.”
And considering that the Red Bulls began as one of the flagship organizations of the MLS under their former moniker, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, de Grandpre thinks it’s only fitting that the team was there to play the role of league ambassadors on opening night down South.
“It’s a very collegial atmosphere across the league where we help each other out,” de Grandpre said.
But for the Red Bulls, there is a renewed focus in the front office for any success on the field to mirror gains made both in the community and in the ultra-competitive New York City media market.
Since the team was acquired in 2006 by the Austrian parent company known for the popular energy drink bearing the same name, the Red Bulls have aimed to solidify their place in the region, aided in a large part by the 2010 opening of Red Bull Arena, the team’s $200 million, 25,000-seat soccer-specific stadium along the Passaic River in Harrison.
Ask team officials and they’ll tell you that, by all accounts, business is getting better each year. Numbers pertaining to fan engagement, attendance and season ticket holders are rising annually.
“I think we’re in a really strong position,” said de Grandpre. “Obviously, we’re always striving to get better, but I think if you look at our results over the last three years, all our performance metrics are up year over year.”
Put simply, for a professional local team in a sport that is still years away from realizing its full potential in this country, more people know about the Red Bulls today than they did yesterday.
Enter Red Bulls Chief Marketing Officer Joe Stetson and Chief Commercial Officer Amy Scheer, who over the better half of the last two to three years have worked to develop the team’s brand awareness.
Prior to joining the Red Bulls, both Stetson and Scheer spent years working for a range of professional area sports teams on both sides of the Hudson. With that sort of background, Stetson said that, coming into the MLS, a league he admittedly didn’t intensely follow, there was a notion that “soccer needs us to take it to the next level.”
“The reality is it’s actually well on its way,” said Stetson. “For us with our experience in other sports, we’ve been able to kind of take those best practices and complement it and really help.”
While much of the league’s overall growth has been organic, Scheer recognizes that the Red Bulls have a responsibility in this area to promote the game. She points to the successful growing numbers of Red Bulls-sponsored youth camps and training programs as a prime example of the plan in motion.
“I’m amazed at the breadth and scope of this club and its tentacles out into the New York-New Jersey community in terms of really living our mission of developing our soccer community,” Scheer said.
For almost 20 years, the Red Bulls had a monopoly on the market, a rare example of a single professional league team in the area. That all changed when the MLS launched its second area team, New York City FC, a few years back, providing an immediate rival.
NYCFC, which enjoys the backing of the corporate sides behind English Premier League club Manchester City and the New York Yankees, began play in 2015 at Yankee Stadium with a number of splashy signings and the hopes of soon securing its own soccer-specific stadium somewhere across the five boroughs.
Stetson and Scheer, who spent a year with NYCFC prior to joining the Red Bulls, said that, whatever the outside perception might be, the addition of a natural rival has been a welcomed boost.
“The rivalry is going to be on the pitch,” Stetson said. “The rivalry might even be on social media, with some banter, but at the end of the day, we need each other to help because we share a voice, especially in this market.”
Stetson added that, with “only so much space for soccer” in a market dominated by historic and marquee franchises in other sports, the two teams benefit from competing with one another.
“If NYCFC wasn’t making waves with some of the new signings they were doing or we weren’t making waves by winning, then that wouldn’t have helped each other out,” Stetson said.
And as NYCFC continues to search for its permanent home, the Red Bulls are focused on growing the offerings at theirs.
While team officials maintain that the stadium will always cater to soccer first, they are exploring ways to showcase the venue as a multipurpose facility. In addition to men’s and women’s international soccer matches, everything from rugby to cricket to live concerts is currently in the works.
Just last year, the stadium was home to over 90 dark-day events.
Have a corporate meeting? The Red Bulls want you to consider Red Bull Arena. A large celebration? Maybe that, too.
Are you a South American country that requires all of your citizens, regardless of country of residence, to vote in presidential elections? Then, sure, consider Red Bull Arena just like Peru did last year as a regional voting venue for expats.
“As a club and as an arena, we’ve done a nice job of setting ourselves up as the premier soccer arena in the country and we continue to grow the business,” Scheer said. “We have work to do on the business side but we go at it hard everyday and the goal is to sell out the building.”
All too often, Stetson and Scheer hear about Red Bull Arena being described as “the best-kept secret in the state.”
As flattering as that sounds, the team is ready to let the cat out of the bag.
“We really want to shout it from the rooftops,” Stetson said.
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