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.

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