The Sweeper: Will Fans Fill Red Bull Arena?

Red Bull Arena

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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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