The Sweeper: Will Fans Fill Red Bull Arena?

Red Bull Arena

Big Story

Missing amidst the orgy of exuberant articles about the opening of Red Bull Arena for the 2010 MLS season was much serious consideration of whether and why fans would actually come to fill it to watch Red Bull New York play there.

After a good announced crowd of 24,572 nearly filled the 25,189 capacity stadium for its opening MLS game last month, a mere 13,667 people showed up at Red Bull Arena on Saturday for the Red Bulls second game there against FC Dallas, barely half filling the stadium. Actually, 13,667 was the announced crowd — whether that number showed up is another question. At least FC Dallas will have felt at home.

Of course, we could say the glass is actually pretty full. Red Bull’s attendance for their second game last year was a pathetic 8,508 announced fans. Attendance is up a stunning 82% overall, a breathless piece will surely soon say.

It won’t, though, fool anyone. Red Bull have spent an enormous amount of money on the stadium to build what has been trumpeted as a near-perfect soccer stadium, and in recent months, they have spent a considerable amount of money marketing the team and the new venue. They managed to get the press on side with puff pieces extolling a new “cathedral of soccer”, easily accessible by public transit to the hordes of soccer fans in America’s largest metropolitan area. 13,667 just won’t do as the result of expenditure running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

For once, the team did its part to open the season too, winning against the Fire at the home opener and then beating Seattle away, before falling to Chivas USA.

But, it’s pretty clear in MLS that winning or not winning are not the determining factors in attendance.  Toronto are into their fourth sold-out season, and despite some growing concern over the mismanagement of the team on the field that’s still yet to make the playoffs and again looks pretty dismal this season, the fans keep coming back in enough numbers to make the club one of only two profitable entities in MLS. Loyalty rises above the team’s mediocrity (to be generous).

Meantime, the Columbus Crew, despite having had the best team in MLS the past two seasons, sat in the bottom half of the league’s attendance numbers once again in 2009 at an average of 14,447 fans. They kicked this season off in front of a crowd lower than that.

As FC Dallas has shown, getting a nice new stadium is not the answer alone, either, with five figure crowds now a dream for a Major League team, a sad state of affairs.

The second game is, of course, too early to judge how attendance will pan out for Red Bull this season overall. An uptick in summer weather on the east coast is surely fair to expect.

And MLS’ recent rule-changes will allow Red Bull to pump more money into the team with better reward by signing a star or two after the World Cup. They will hope it is that star player or two, along with some success on the field, that will bring a crowd fit to match the new arena consistently.

But, the ghosts of the ghastly management of the team since 1996 and the rebranding of the MetroStars as Red Bull four years ago that alienated many fans continue to drift around the sparkling new edifice, largely unspoken of by the press. Everybody from MLS headquarters to Red Bull fans sick of hearing about it have been holding a tight grip on the padlock to the cupboard those skeletons are kept in.

So we will repeat for the second time in a month, even though we know Red Bulls fans will loathe us for it, the words of the Metrologist from three years ago on the first anniversary of Red Bull’s rebranding of the team:

Who can scream out Red Bull songs with a straight face? Unintentional self-parody at its worst.

Is Red Bull really something people can believe in, and become evangelists for in their corners of New York and New Jersey’s soccer communities?  Despite a stadium fit for any fan, that question remains very much open.

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39 thoughts on “The Sweeper: Will Fans Fill Red Bull Arena?

  1. Matt

    Here we go again with the branding stuff. Yeah if we were the Metrostars we would have had 20k easily on Saturday.

  2. Matt

    Also FWIW on Saturday the atmosphere was good, 13,600 or not. I’ve met more “new fans” over the past month than I had in four years at Giants Stadium. I suspect you will see an uptick for the Phily game and attendance will improve as the season goes along, especially if they sign a star or two. Like it or not that’s important in NY< at the very least to get mindshare with media and fans.

    Metrologist and his dozen friends who have issues with the Red Bull branding have nothing to do with it, however much they'd like to believe it.

  3. Patrick Cook

    I am season ticket holder and I didn’t make it to the game because of a family event. The weather wasn’t ideal on saturday. It was barely 50 degrees and overcast. Also, a game against the poorly followed FC Dallas didn’t help. I also think that unless you are a follower of the team, you really do not know about them. You never see ads on subway trains or busses, or on local news channels. Their marketing campaign needs to be ramped up and my understanding is that it will be after the world cup when they sign one or two new DPs.
    In respect to the idea that winning does not bring up attendance, your example is the Columbus Crew, a poorly marketed club owned by the cheap hunt family. Also, the Red Bull corporate image that pushes fans away is not that big of a deterrent. The bigger deterrent is that we are coming off a season that we won
    5 games, even my friends that that don’t follow soccer knew that, New Yorkers will not support a losing team, you see that with all the big new york teams too. After a bad year, it takes time to regain new yorkers trust. So the loss to chivas was a hit and as the weather gets better, I think we will see the crowds improve but you need to understand that this is the first year that main stream local media has finally took notice and it takes time.
    By the way, I live in the Hudson Valley of New York, not New Jersey.

  4. Mark Fishkin

    I think there are many reasons for Saturday’s sparse crowd at RBA:

    1) RB aggressively marketed a 2-game opening package for Santos & Chicago. The FCD match was selected on few mini-plans.

    2) RB hasn’t marketed the team since the Santos/Chicago opening matches.

    3) FCD isn’t exactly much of a draw.

    4) Temps in the low 40s at game time.

    5) The match was televised in HD on local cable.

    6) There is scant coverage of the team in the local media.

    Season tickets year over year have jumped from around 5,900 to over 8,000. The point you’ve made over and over and over again, is that fans aren’t “connecting” with the Red Bull brand. When the additional DPs join the club after the World Cup, they’ll be a big jump in attendance. While there are certainly fans that won’t support the team over the ownership & team name, I’m confident that there will be (as you note above) a significant attendance increase when all is said and done.

  5. Tom Dunmore Post author

    I don’t buy the argument that last season’s poor performance by RBNY is the problem. Attendance in 2009 started off dreadfully even though RBNY came off a 2008 season reaching the MLS Cup final.

    I’d also say barely over 2,000 new season tickets — especially starting from such a poor base number — for 2010 is a seriously poor number given the brand new stadium and all the hype.

    I’m also not convinced the opposing team has much effect on the relative draw at MLS games, unless that team has a superstar or brings massive travelling support, all of which are rare occasions. If there’s statistical evidence otherwise I’d like to see it, but FC Dallas is Kansas City is Colorado is San Jose (against whom the Fire drew over 20,000 at their last home game, a massive leap on 2009).

    If RB really aren’t marketing the team now the opener has passed, that’s a sign of sheer insanity on their part and should be a big concern for fans.

    How many people really stayed home to watch the game in HD on cable instead of going to the match? Really?

    Local media coverage a problem? I’ll give you that one.

  6. Mark Fishkin

    NY is an extremely savvy soccer market, and I don’t have to tell you that many soccer fans in NY (and Chicago) view MLS as a minor league.

    The lack of marketing has been and continues to be a big concern for fans. I am not defending the front office, but the club spent over $2 MM on advertising for the openers. While that represents a nice investment, it’s a drop in the bucket in a major market like NY. For the first time, though, fans saw a wise, strategic marketing buy that included the PATH line (which provides access to the arena), and takeover of the Port Authority: http://vimeo.com/9857088, etc.

    If you’re RBNY, and you’re on the verge of signing Henry, Raul, del Piero, whomever, do you continue to spend marketing $$ now, or wait until after the WC when awareness of soccer is at a high?

    As for the notion that the visiting team doesn’t impact attendance, I’d argue that Revs & DC games have drawn better than matches v SJ & FCD. Haven’t done the analysis, but feels right.

    As for TV ratings, anecdotally I know a few folks that stayed home on a cold night to watch instead of attending. Does that account for an 11k drop for the Chicago match? No, but a look at the sparse attendance in the “sold out” East-side midfield sections would indicate the weather played a role.

    The success or failure of RBA will not be decided in April of 2010. Or even in 2010.

    Thanks for providing the forum to discuss, Tom.

  7. Tom Dunmore Post author

    I do agree with the last part, Mark, absolutely.

    The return on marketing $$$ is an interesting question. It has to be a major concern that even a $2m drop didn’t sell out the opener with all the free press around it as well, and that it didn’t have a considerable impact on season ticket sales or follow-up to the second game given that level of expenditure.

    But overall, a flat start to a new stadium can take a long-time to get over. Toyota Park opened pretty weakly in 2006 and it’s taken the Fire a while to build a buzz around the stadium and the club again since, quite honestly.

  8. Dannyc58

    So, it would have been a sellout or closer to if people could sing about Metrostars? Seriously?

    That would add 200 MAYBE, at most.

    Move on. They are the Red Bulls. Deal with it.

    The idea that “Metrostars” was some organic name with long cultured history is comical. Nike chose it thinking they could sell merchandise based on the name.

    How the hell is that different than Red Bull?

  9. Matt

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with someone who refuses to go to MLS/RBNY games because of the branding of the team. Most are either not aware we have a team, prefer the EPL or another European league, or are simply not soccer fans. There are of course a handful of former Metro fans who like to drop by message boards and wind people up, like Metrologist. The bigger issue is one of of media attention and competing for space in a nine-team sports market. There are a handful of other factors to consider regarding the FC Dallas game, many of which Mark has outlined. Weather was not great, opponent was not a draw, etc.

    The large majority of those of us who show up for the games have no problem singing Red Bulls chants. I welcome you to drop by the GSS pub when Chicago come to town next year and you can see for yourself that we do in fact exist. We can – and do – scream out Red Bull with a straight face. If they waved a magic wand tomorrow and called the team New York Empire SC or something that would not magically give us 3,000 more season ticket holders. So this issue is not a skeleton that has been kept locked up in a closet. It’s been hashed to death on message boards for a good four years now. Most of us have moved on – a few have not and good luck to them. If/when we ever get a NY2 team they’ll be able to sing for their team and feel good about it.

    Your post strikes me as perhaps a little hasty. It’s one early season game. In the corresponding fixture last year we drew an announced crowd of about 9,500. DC United, who like to crow about their attendance, drew 15K for Dallas last year on a Saturday in the spring. So let’s give us more than two league home games before we drag out the “people can’t connect with Red Bull” meme again.

  10. Tom Dunmore Post author

    The point isn’t that if Red Bull were still MetroStars, the stadium would be magically full or that MetroStars was a storied franchise with a name going back to 1907. I’m not sure how many times I can explain that.

    The point is, so much of the coverage of the new stadium completely ignored the scale of the colossal failure the club has been in both its forms, but the total rebranding of it in 2006 was the precise opposite way to go in fixing those problems.

    Mainstream coverage recently has simply accepted that Red Bull building a great stadium is the answer now, and the problems of the past (going deep back into MetroStars days) have been whitewashed over. What I’m saying isn’t that the rebranding is the only problem, but that it was a “solution” that was nothing of the sort to get people to believe in this club.

  11. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Matt, I’ve been to a Fire game against RB in NJ before, and I met many RB fans at the draft in Philly earlier this year. I’ve got no problem believing some of you can buy into this, and I have a curious respect for that passion despite it appearing rather absurd to me (but then, all forms of fandom including my own are absurd anyway). The problem isn’t finding 300 hardcore fans, though, it’s turning it into a passion that’s easily spread by thousands of people to thousands more to fill the stadium outside the hardcore — I’m not convinced that is as easy when the club is branded Red Bull as many here are saying it is. Maybe I’m wrong, but right now, there’s little evidence otherwise.

  12. Dannyc58

    Tom,

    You act like Metrostar is some organic name of local lore. It was made for branding as well. All teams are simply branding or an attempt to brand at this point.

    I’m sorry it bothers you but I’d say 95% of the people just go to support their team.

  13. Patrick Cook

    tom, as you said, it is going to take time. I am first time season ticket holder and I would never think about going to a game in giants stadium and everyone i take wants to go back again, it will take time in this very soccer savvy market. Also New York is different than Chicago because of the amount of sports teams, we have. We are close to sports saturation. If you come to a game, you see that most of the people there are not your typical sports fan, they are different and know that we have a home, it will take time to grow. in the words of coldplay, no one said it was going to be easy

  14. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Danny, there’s one thing to have a name that’s originally crap, but when you’ve given it ten years of effort to support just seeing it disappear for an even crappier name has to mean something, surely. If it doesn’t, what’s the point in all this? It might all be silly at the root of it, but it’s a silliness we as supporters invest in and when even that is taken away at the whim of a Red Bull, it has to hurt.

  15. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Patrick — with respect, Chicago is about as sports-saturated as New York and is a much smaller metropolis. The Bulls, Cubs, White Sox, Blackhawks and Bears aren’t exactly small-time.

  16. Eric Mangol

    One more thing to throw into the mix – a lot of New Jersey school districts were on spring break last week – I know I missed the game because I was away on vacation with my family.

  17. Dannyc58

    Tom,

    I’m not a fan of “Red Bull” as a name, or as a drink. However, if you love soccer and want it to succeed here in the states, it feels as silly to me (as Red Bull name does to you) to let that stand in the way of your support.

    Red Bull gave people a $200mm stadium without taxpayers money, and ONLY for soccer. No stage in one end.

    They have their faults, but so does AEG, Hunt Group, etc.

    The name sucks, but if you truly want the sport to survive here that feels like an excuse not to go–not a valid reason (in my opinion).

  18. Matt

    I don’t look at it as “buying into” something. It’s about supporting my team. I love soccer, love attending games and love spending time with felllow fans. It’s the same all over the country (and world). My team happens to be called the Red Bulls. In KC they have the “Wizards” and some strange people in Chicago like to yell things about “Fire”.

  19. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Matt, we as supporters look at it like that, sure. I know I do. But the team is marketing something and selling something that, yes, we buy (or not). How you get people to buy that or not is going to depend a lot on what the team is called and how that is marketed to people.

  20. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Or to put it another way, Matt — we as supporters need to believe we’re not “buying” something when in fact we are (which is fine by me), because we want to believe in the club and community beyond a mere economic transaction. Otherwise it would be quite difficult to justify the level of investment we make rationally, and to do so much free marketing for a profit-making entity (such as those of us that work hard to bring friends to every game, as I’m sure you do).

    You need to feel you’re not just buying a branded good, but something that means a little more. Maybe that’s harder to do when what you’re selling is quite literally a well-know soft-drink brand already, especially when the team wasn’t called that for the first decade of its existence.

    Maybe I’m overly-romantic, but it also makes business sense to me — sell to the heart, and the club will sell itself through its supporters’ passion.

  21. Matt

    I see a lot more evangelizing going on now. I managed to get my friend Paulo, a Portuguese football fanatic, hooked as a Red Bulls fan, and he was there with me on Saturday, new RBNY scarf around his neck. I met a group of Manhattan teachers on the PATH train on Saturday who had never been to a Red Bulls game before. None of them seemed to give a second thought about the name of the team, other than the snarky British Liverpool fan who found the “Let’s Go Red Bulls” chant a little dorky. They all enjoyed the stadium and said they would come back for more games.

    So it’s happening, but it’s all going to take time.

    Lack of stars, bad results and a really poor stadium were the big issues. The last one has been solved, and we seem to be working on the two other parts.

  22. Patrick Cook

    Also, New York is a baseball town, everything else falls in behind that. In New york, you see the Devils, Islanders, Nets, Knicks, and rangers struggle with attendance. The last two are because of past season’s results and absurdly high ticket prices. Tom my comment was ignorant, Chicago is by no means small time, i meant that there is a different type of fan in New York, that may or may not be in Chicago, that will not take second rate sports team. I think that if the Red Bulls win a mls cup, it will add legitimacy to the name because i have met too many people that will not watch it because there is something better out there(European soccer). I love the American way of soccer because it is more physical, flopping isn’t as big as a problem and there is a toughness found here that i don’t see when watching European Football. Soccer is American form the name to the way it is played and the reason i like MLS more than Europe but people have trouble seeing that the American game is different and people believe it is because the players and coaches are not as good as their European counterparts, which is true but there also a different type of game here. That problem is prevalent in New York, all Red Bulls fans have experienced that

  23. Erik V

    MLS as a league decided to have it grow slow. That has limited teams for years and unfortunately for New York there was some disastrous miss management too. In New York the other sport teams RBNY competes with spend like crazy and that is some thing RBNY will never be able to match.
    I think when we look back ten years from now we will see that this year was a historic year for soccer in New York and all of that is because of the Redbull organization. Not only did they build a stadium that makes watching soccer a thousand times better than the old stadium they are also part of the owner group that pressured MLS to expand the DP rules and ad the home grown spots. These moves together are going to make the sport bigger and bigger in America and New York in the long run. So not having a sell out crowd at the second league game at the new stadium is not a big deal and definitely not a sign of something being wrong.

  24. scott mck

    I would just like to say that I very much appreciate this forum Tom, and the intelligent debate therein. Cheers to all.

    As far as naming conventions and advertising… I am generally suspect of any advertising, period. I know that I’m a minority in this regard, and can be a bit of a nit-picker about such things. Rarely do I believe that someone or some company has given me such value, or such a good deal, that I will rep them to my friends and family unprompted. So I am very concious of what brands I wear and any logos that I may have to advertise as a result. Free ad space on my body? We’ll see about that…

    When the Fire signed the initial sponsorship deal with Best Buy, I scoured the internet to find a gently used jersey that simply displayed the Fire name across the chest (I was OK if it had ‘Honda’ on the back). Eventually I was able to find a suitable jersey that had a design I liked, and willingly advertised for just 2 brands (Fire, Puma) instead of the 3 I would have if I purchased new.

    As long as my Puma jesresy isn’t threadbare, I’ll be content. But once that day finally comes, will I be looking for a new jersey, or something else that doesn’t have a sponsors logo? Probably the latter, but you never know. I’d probably be happy if a local company, like Wrigley’s, decided to buy the add space. ‘Big Red’ on a Fire kit? Works for me.

    That being said, had Best Buy bought not just ad space but the team itself, how much of a difference would that have made? I think it is very different to cheer for The Chicago Fire presented w/Best Buy, as opposed to The Chicago Best Buy Yellow Sales Tags FC.

    I hope that all make some sense, I’m on serious allergy meds.

    S-

  25. FootballMS

    Good to see substantial crowds around the £25k, this makes for a sustainable attempt at attracting big name players to the league and of investing in producing young players

  26. WonsanUnited

    I have to say I’ve been disappointed with the Red Bulls ticketing system. I’m a season ticket holder and I can order extra tickets for games onto my account, but for some reason it wouldn’t allow me to buy tickets for my friends in the supporters section where I’m seated. I assumed it was sold out, but when I got into the stadium it was only a little more than half full. They’ve been holding tickets so people will buy 4-game and 8-game packs and I just think that’s unfair.

    But the weather was pretty crappy on Saturday and FC Dallas is a no-name team. More people will come for the east-coast rivalry games with Philly, NE, DC, and TFC.

  27. Guvna

    Waaay too early to call it either way. My 2cents: I went to less than a handful of games at Giants stadium, and I love soccer. It was too much of a hassle to get to, and when you got there, the stadium holds, what, 80k seats? It was never going to have atmosphere, and so I just couldnt get into it.

    I have already bought 5 games at RBNY. I am extremely optimistic for the club now that they have the stadium. I couldnt give a toss about the branding. Honestly! I never thought MetroStars was a proper name to begin with. At least with RB you know the brand, and anyone who knows sport will know that they are major sponsors in sports. Its not like they sell toilet paper or condoms lol. As someone who plays after work, I can tell you redbull gives me enough wings to play 2 games after a 10 hour work day :)

    While I am convicned that this spring/summer will see a huge increase in fans, I think the overall growth in attendance will manifest itself over the next few years, with ot without the boost of a post-WC mega signing. It just feels different now. I think you’re even seeing it on the pitch too. I’ll be there to welcome Philly. I have the Toronto game too. I will also be there to boo LA. Go RBNY!

  28. Micah

    @PatrickCook

    Check your NHL attendance numbers. The Rangers draw very well (near capacity) and the Devils draw in the high 80 percentile. Islanders are second to bottom though so your criticism of them is valid.

    http://espn.go.com/nhl/attendance

    I think the new stadium location will work wonders for NJRB in the future. Especially if they continue this season with their winning ways. Shockingly a lot of soccer fans still don’t know where the stadium is or that they can take the PATH there. But rest assured, this Fire fan told many a New Yorker how to get to Harrison.

  29. Matt

    A lot of fans don’t even know we have a soccer stadium. I was talking on the phone tonight with someone from work who is a soccer fan. Her daughter is one of the top youth players in Connecticut. She wasn’t even aware that the Red Bulls were playing in Harrison and only has memories of turgid games in a nearly empty Giants Stadium. I think people underestimate how many fans were turned off of MLS by seeing games in that mausoleum.

  30. Patrick Cook

    @ Micah, yeah you are right about that.

    @mike, you are right about the image that Giants stadium has plagued the team. Also, the team has made youth soccer and families not that big of a deal when it comes to marketing and more of the nyc youthful, crowd. They need to definitely market more in New York and Connecticut if there are going to be a NY-metro area team

  31. Jamison

    The attendance for the Dallas game was subpar, no doubt, but I think more so than the team name or the lack of marketing, it was the team- in all of its versions- being a generally losing disaster for a decade and a half that causes gate numbers like that. New stadium is nice and all, but people made some comments about us being a ‘winning’ team this year, remarking with surprise that the 2-1 start didn’t do more to get people back for game 4.

    You can’t erase 14 years of failure in 3 games. Just can’t. I’ve been a Knicks fan since I was 10. In the 90s, they were great, and sold out every game. Now, they suck. Going 2-1 next year won’t mean d!ck for selling out game 4 for them either, in a sport people care about, with a lot of marketing, with tons of media attention… because they’ve been ass for the last 8 years. NYRB is no different. If they become a consistent, winning side that produces league-leading results like the Knicks used to, people will show up in better numbers. They would get a bump from the likes of Henry/Raul/Del Piero etc. if they were to sign them, just as the Knicks would if they signed Dwayne Wade. But, there are few Beckhams out there (just as there are few LeBrons out there) to go from 13k to instant sell out in all home games, and this market- whatever the team is called, however much marketing they do- isn’t going to forget 14 years in 3-4 games. They aren’t going to forget those 1-2 times they went back when they played on plastic and threw the likes of Taylor Graham out there with a straight face.

    If they go 20-5-5 this year, hey, you’ll see more than 13k at the gate in October. But, aside from the goofy name and the product branding issues, the real thing this team needs to do is make people forget how bad they used to be, replacing it with only a feeling of how good they are now. Until THAT happens, 13-18k will be more common than 23k.

    And, I was one of the NY fans Tom met at the draft. I wish the team name was different as it would prevent us from having this argument ever again (and I’ve had it enough), but the team name is still somewhat far down the list of issues for most people. I will always go to games (to a point) because I love this game. I’d like to not have an Austrian soda albatross on my back, but, when you get 3 DPs and a beautiful stadium, it does hurt a little bit less.

  32. Spicy McHaggis

    I’ve seen a lot of “oh, the weather was not very nice, my prawn sandwich might get a bit of rain on it” responses. The weather wasn’t nice? Really? Aren’t all of those seats covered with a huge glass roof?

    What a bunch of poncy poshes.

    Good luck to you New York Energy Drinks, with a supporter base like that you’re going to need it. Maybe you could have a “Free MAN-icure” promotion night or a “How tight is your Replica Kit Shirt?” night, or “Prada Strappy Sandal Giveaway Night” to get numbers up.

    And they call US “customers”.

    For f**k’s sake.

  33. Larry Queen

    The branding of the team as the Red Bulls is a nightmarish embarrassment. The point you made about singing Red Bull songs at the game further underscores the folly of the management’s decision.

    If there are no copyright infringements, my vote is to go back to the original NASL name of The Cosmos. The branding of that name alone would help tremendously. Can you imagine the overwhelmingly positive response to the return of the New York Cosmos?!

    I haven’t been following the branding debate, but I have long maintained that rebranding the team as the Red Bulls was an egregious mistake, and, frankly, as much as I love the game, I have an issue on principle of allowing myself to fall in love with a team with such an obsequious name.

    That said, the team really needs to find within their budget to spearhead an ad campaign in the subways and on the busses around the city. I’m consistently amazed that I never see a single ad for the team here. Hell, I’ve never even seen an ad featuring the beautiful new stadium!!

  34. Favre Jerseys

    I am season ticket holder and I didn’t make it to the game because of a family event. The weather wasn’t ideal on saturday. It was barely 50 degrees and overcast. Also, a game against the poorly followed FC Dallas didn’t help. I also think that unless you are a follower of the team,

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