Red Bull: Fizzing Out in New York and Austria

Red Bull has not given wings (forgive me) to the football teams it has taken over in recent years in New York and Wals-Siezenheim, Austria. Let’s look at the impact they’ve had in both places.

New York’s MetroStars were a troubled organisation, but their rebranding as Red Bull New York has hardly had fans beating down the door to Giants Stadium. Whilst that story is familiar, Ian Plenderleith this week linked Bruce Arena’s failed tenure to the Red Bulls corporate approach to football.

You have to bear in mind this isn’t just a soccer team. When Red Bull takes you over, their job ads say things like: “Candidates must demonstrate an understanding of fundamental business concepts and be familiar with current trends in the marketplace.” That’s not for the director of marketing, that’s for the post of director of youth soccer and player development, advertised earlier this year.

Arena’s a soccer man to the core. Red Bull’s a company that happens to be involved in soccer. Last year, I received some lively e-mails telling me that I was an idiot for questioning the wisdom of allowing a firm like Red Bull to invest in MLS and re-name a team after a brand. This league needs all the money it can get, I was told. If they want to put money into the game, why should we complain?

That’s a fair point, but large amounts of corporate money rarely come without conditions. Red Bull makes big demands, and it wants both business and sporting success in return for its investment. In Arena’s case, the company was bigger than the man. But when Red Bull discovers that the company can’t be bigger than the sport, how long will it stick around in soccer?

Marc de Grandpre, Managing Director of Red Bull New York, strikes me as well out of his depth. His testy conference call about Arena’s departure will hardly fill fans with confidence (“I’d like to stay away from specifics.”), as he seems to equate “resource-allocation” as inevitably leading to immediate Championship success.

Meanwhile, in Austria, it’s been over two years since Red Bull took over the club founded as SV Austria Salzburg in 1933. They rebranded it as FC Red Bull Salzburg, changed the colours and even attempted to list the club’s year of founding as 2005. Indeed, it was the attempted erasure of the club’s past as much as the renaming (Austrian clubs have long often inserted the sponsor into the team name) that most irritated supporters with a club source stating on record that “as far as Red Bull is concerned, there is no history, no tradition.”

Austra Salzburg Fans Protest

Such inflammatory statements ensured that conflict with the traditional supporters would escalate, as this Football Supporters’ Federation pamphlet [PDF] explains:

Action was soon taken when a number of longest established supporters’ clubs joined up to form the umbrella group “Initiative Violett-Weiß” the main aim of which was to defend the traditions of Austria Salzburg through peaceful protest. Initial campaigns received encouraging local and national media coverage and attracted support from terraces across the world, most notably in Germany and Italy under the slogan “Gegen den modernen Fussball / Contro il calcio moderno”, meaning “Against Modern Football.”

Faced with some unpleasant PR, Red Bull’s corporate machinery soon hit back. “Critical” banners, such as ‘Violet & White Since 1933’ were banned from the stadium and half of the Südtribüne terrace, traditional home of the vocal violet and white supporters, was turned into seating.

An unsavoury fire-work throwing incident at the peak of the conflict was then used by Red Bull to deal with the issue in a more heavy-handed way. Whilst the six culprits were soon identified and prosecuted, Red Bull issued stadium bans to more than 50 supposed trouble makers, one of whom later turned out to be a grandmother who had purchased a ticket as a birthday present.

Negotiations between the supporters and the club soon petered out. In the vein of FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon, the protesting Violet-Whites supporters’ decided to form their own club — rescuing the name and colours of SV Austria Salzburg — in 2005, playing at the 1,200 capacity ASKÖ-Sportanlage stadium. The breakaway of the club’s most vociferous supporters has left Red Bull games to be (as the corporation desired in the first place) sterile, stage-managed events according to reports.

SV Austria Salzburg Fans

SV Austria Salzburg (see pic above) have progressed impressively, promoted from the bottom level (2. Klasse Nord) of the Austrian pyramid last season and leading the league again this year.

Red Bull Salzburg were also initially successful, winning last year’s Austrian Bundesliga comfortably. This year, though, they lie in a disappointing fifth place, and they’ve already managed to crash out of both the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. Red Bull’s hopes of creating a globally successful footballing franchise brand seem to lie in tatters.

Plenderleith’s earlier question stands out: one really does wonder how long Red Bull will stick around in soccer, and few would shed tears over their departure.

Photos by YellowFilter, Hauben and Don Martin 37 on Flickr.

4 thoughts on “Red Bull: Fizzing Out in New York and Austria

  1. Dubya

    While I won’t absolve Red Bull completely in the New York fiasco (de Grandpre should have been bounced back to the beverage-selling part of the corp a long time ago in favor of someone who, you know, has worked in soccer before), Arena wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire here. It wasn’t Red Bull that demanded the Dunivant-and-cash-for-Goldtwaite trade. It wasn’t Red Bull that gave Wynne to Toronto. When it was obvious to people who didn’t even watch the game that we needed some help in the defense back in the summer, it wasn’t Red Bull that hitched its wagon to old man Sanneh and, when that fell through, responded by buying…a forward. We could have given Arena another year or two, but I can’t completely blame Red Bull for being disappointed with the way this team and season was put together.

    (This is where I’d go on for a while on how Red Bull still needs to know that MLS and its rules are different than the rest of the world’s, and understanding that would help them in the long run, but…)

    And just a heads up regarding Salzburg…while they did crash out of the Champions League, that isn’t anything unusual. Austrian teams haven’t exactly set the world on fire in the CL (three teams this century have entered, only one since the change in format, and none with much success), and while Red Bull may be in fifth, they’re only two points out of first. If Red Bull is disappointing this year, the entire league is.

  2. Thomas Dunmore Post author

    Interesting stuff Dubya. Still, I’d say the Arena affair does illustrate Red Bull’s massive ambition, lack of knowledge of the game and their resulting lack of patience. De Grandpre’s comments are really quite remarkable — he repeats again and again that he expected that simply investing money would lead inevitably to MLS Cup victory (stating clearly that was the only thing which could have saved Arena’s job).

    Given the playoff structure, not to mention the parity enforced by the salary cap, that seems an amazing demand to make of a coach in his first season. No wonder Arena made bad decisions under that pressure, frankly. Not that I think Arena did a good job and we don’t know whether he’d have improved things, but it seems Red Bull looked at Chelsea’s instant success under Mourinho (for example) and thought that it would be straightforward to buy the MLS Cup and create a winning brand.

    As for Red Bull Salzburg, it’s a good point that they are not exactly struggling and Austrian teams don’t generally do well in Europe (though Salzburg did make the UEFA Cup final in the 1990s). But again, the point is Red Bull did not buy them to just be competitive in the Austrian league. They wanted to make the team a force in the Champions League, and a European-wide brand of success, and they wanted it quickly. But it really doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, and one has to wonder how long they’ll stick both situations out.

  3. tzimaki

    I believe another factor is the tremendous amount of difficulty in being successful in sports in New York City. In theory, there should be no such thing as rebuilding and each year should be a winning season.

    The Red Bulls have failed as a soccer team because they’ve failed to win so much as one major championship.

    As a New York team, they’ve failed due to their lack of ability to make themselves the center of the league.

    Soccer fans aren’t coming because the team doesn’t win. New Yorkers aren’t coming because nobody cares about the team.

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