There has been considerable talk about Major League Soccer (MLS) building a stadium in New York City. And much of it has come from media who haven’t really been following the story, yet they are now jumping in without a full grasp of the big picture…or many of the finer details.
But rather than debate the details (there’ll be plenty of time for that), I’d rather focus on the bigger question, which is why New York City deserves its own soccer team. And since the bulk of the objections center around the claim that New York already has a team, which is struggling to fill its stadium, that is the issue which I hope to address here.
Look At The Numbers
With an average attendance of 18,825, MLS is the 3rd most attended sports league in the United States. And its attendance ranks 8th worldwide, ahead of France’s Ligue 1, Argentina’s Primera Division, and Brazil’s Serie A. Yes, more Americans come out to watch their top league than do fans in Argentina and Brazil, two nations synonymous with the game. That’s fantastic news for MLS.
However, things aren’t quite as rosy for the New York Red Bulls. The team is having one of its best seasons ever, yet the club is still struggling to fill the seats. Red Bull Arena is currently averaging 17,664 per game, which is only 70 percent of the stadium’s 25,189-seat capacity. Despite being in the most densely populated area of the United States, Red Bull Arena is actually lowering the league’s average attendance.
This, of course, causes some to question why MLS thinks New York City can support a second team. And that’s a fair question, if you assume New York City already has an MLS team. But I’ll get to the geography in a minute. For now, let’s stick to the numbers.
Since there isn’t an MLS club playing in New York City at the moment, it’s hard to make a direct comparison to the Red Bulls attendance figures. So let’s compare the friendlies played in the area this summer.
Red Bull Arena: 21,701 for Tottenham Hotspur vs. New York Red Bulls (having been there, I’d say this was a rather generous assessment), 15,166 for Lyon vs. Montpillier in the Trophee des Champions (a game that actually meant something), and 14,651 for AS Roma vs. El Salvador.
New York City: 49,474 for Real Madrid vs. AC Milan at Yankee Stadium, 39,656 for Ecuador vs. Greece at Citi Field, 38,202 for Chelsea vs. PSG at Yankee Stadium, and 31,901 for Ecuador vs. Chile at Citi Field.
Clearly there are plenty of soccer fans in New York City, which – with 8.2 million residents, more than twice as many as Los Angeles – is the largest and arguably most diverse city in America. In fact, if you look at the turnout for the Real Madrid vs. AC Milan friendly, it was only 715 people short of what it would take to fill both the 25,189 seats at Red Bull Arena and the 25,000 seats projected for the proposed MLS stadium in New York City. And since that friendly was a sellout (at least for the way the stadium is configured for soccer), there’s a good chance that there would have been at least 715 additional people eager to attend.
So why aren’t all these New York City soccer fans filling Red Bull Arena? Some might attribute it to the quality of the competition, with the European clubs and foreign national teams having a larger fanbase than a 17 year-old MLS franchise. But the friendlies at Red Bull Arena also featured European clubs and foreign national teams – including one game that actually meant something – yet still averaged only 43 percent of the turnout that the New York City venues drew.
Clearly there are other factors at work. For the benefit of those not familiar with New York City, I suggest we start with a little geography lesson.
The Lay Of The Land
Red Bull Arena is located in Harrison, New Jersey, which I jokingly refer to as Paradise on the Passaic (think Detroit without the nostalgia). The stadium, which is quite wonderful once you get there, is around 10 miles from New York City. That may not seem like very far to those not familiar with the lay of the land around here. But, as is the case with so many businesses, location is everything.
To get from New York City to New Jersey (the two are separated by rivers), motorists have four options to choose from – two bridges and two tunnels – all of which generally have some degree of congestion (from moderate to horrific) during the hours when games are typically played. As New Yorkers tend to be more comfortable with public transportation than most (many of us who live in Manhattan don’t even own a car), there is also the option of taking the PATH train, a light rail line designed to bring commuters from northern New Jersey into Manhattan during the work week.
The PATH To Red Bull Arena
In terms of speed and convenience, the best way to get to Red Bull Arena from Manhattan is to take the subway to one of the six PATH train stations (most of which are located in downtown Manhattan) and then take the PATH’s Newark line to Harrison, which is the second-to-the-last stop. The most direct route would be to take the subway to the PATH station at the World Trade Center, which is only four stops from Harrison. The northernmost PATH station is at 33rd Street in Midtown, but that is nine stops from Harrison and involves switching trains.
I live on the northern edge of the Upper East Side, one of Manhattan’s largest residential neighborhoods. Last month, I went to Red Bull Arena for the Tottenham friendly and it took us an hour and fifteen minutes to get there – during rush hour – and an hour and forty-five minutes to get home. That’s my fastest time ever, as there have been games where it’s taken me two hours or more each way – again, using the subway and PATH train. But generally the commute is somewhere in between that – a total of 3-4 hours in transit for 90 minutes of soccer.
If you live in any of the other boroughs of New York City, like the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, it would be an even longer subway ride to one of the PATH stations. So add anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, though certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn may very well have a shorter commute, given their proximity to the PATH station down by the World Trade Center.
Of course, most of these New Yorkers who live outside Manhattan also have cars. Yet, for many of them, driving to the stadium still takes around two hours each way, often times more. That’s 4-5 hours in transit for a 90-minute match, which mirrors my experience driving from Manhattan. In fact, my brother and I once splurged for a limo, thinking it would take the edge off sitting in traffic for all that time. But it was still a nightmare…we almost ran out of booze!
In addition to the options of driving or taking the train, Upper 90, a local soccer store, runs a regular bus to Red Bull Arena, as do soccer pubs like The Football Factory. This is typically faster than driving yourself, in that there are special bus lanes on the highways, but much of the congestion is on the sides streets surrounding the stadium, which don’t have bus lanes. Though, as with the limo, at least you can start tailgating that much earlier.
What’s A Reasonable Commute For Fans?
Given the challenges of getting to Red Bull Arena from New York City, I was curious to know what fans in other cities go through to get to games, both in MLS and abroad. I recall a rather long walk from Craven Cottage to the nearest Tube station on my last excursion across the pond. I imagine some of the more urban stadiums offer easier access. But what about other MLS stadiums? Are other MLS fans spending 4 hours in transit for 90 minutes of soccer? Are New Yorkers simply “lazy,” as some have claimed?
The Union’s PPL Park is a little smaller than Red Bull Arena but, given its location in the suburb of Chester, I thought it might make a good comparison. Plus, despite having a crappy season, they are still filling the seats. So I reached out to Eric Nash, host of Vuvuzela: The World Soccer Show, a soccer podcast based in Philadelphia, to find out what the commute is like for fans in that city.
Nash informed me that Union fans typically drive to the stadium. In fact, when visiting Red Bull Arena recently, he was surprised by the number of people using public transportation.
He admits that parking at PPL Park can be a real pain, taking as long as an hour to get out of the lot after a game. On top of that, he noted, the parking fee is twice as much as they charge at Red Bull Arena. But overall, depending on where one lives in the Philadelphia area, it looks like the average commute to and from games at PPL Park would be anywhere from 1.5-2.5 hours, well short of what New Yorkers can face heading to Red Bull Arena.
I also thought Chicago might make a good comparison, given the size of the city and it’s relatively robust public transportation system. So I contacted Dan Martin, Director of Communications for Section 8 Chicago, the Independent Supporters’ Association for the Chicago Fire.
Martin said that transportation has been a hot topic ever since Toyota Park opened in Bridgeview, a Chicago suburb, back in 2006. As in Philadelphia, most Fire fans drive to the stadium. Public transportation exists, but it takes a good deal of “planning and patience” to navigate the options on game day (as opposed to when the club played at Soldier Field, which was far more accessible).
To circumvent this and help fans get to the stadium, Section 8 regularly runs beer buses from the city proper. Various bars and other groups run similar buses as well.
Martin explained that the time it takes to drive to the stadium varies widely, depending on where in the city fans are coming from. Factors such as the time of the game and other events along the route can have an impact as well. But, for the most part, he estimates that it would take around 25-35 minutes to drive to Toyota Park from downtown, assuming there is no construction, accidents, or other hassles.
Hassles aside, that’s a fairly reasonable commute for most fans, spending less than two hours in transit for their games. True, Chicago is a fairly spread-out city, so people may end up coming from further away, but it still sounds better than the schlep from New York City to Red Bull Arena.
I also picked Portland, and not just because I dig the Timbers. I thought the whole progressive mindset out there might yield some interesting results, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Garrett Dittfurth, Chair of the Communications Committee for the Timbers Army’s 107 Independent Supporters’ Trust, explained that a public transportation pass was one of the options available when purchasing season tickets for the Portland Timbers. He noted that roughly 6,000 season ticket holders (the 20,438-seat JELD-WEN Field has consistently sold out this season, despite it being a fairly crappy one for the team) opted for these passes. They can be used for the city’s light rail system, which has a station just outside the stadium, as well as the numerous buses that stop nearby.
Bicycles are another option in Portland. Dittfurth estimates that at least 1,500 people peddle their way to games. As for those who prefer four wheels, there isn’t a lot of parking available for cars near the stadium, but season ticket holders can also opt for special rates for what spots there are.
Again, travel times vary depending on where the fans are coming from around Portland. For Dittfurth, it takes him about 30 minutes by bus each way, plus another 10-15 waiting for those buses to come. But he figures the average game-day commute is probably around 30-45 minutes. Again, that’s less than 2 hours in transit for a 90-minute game, which isn’t bad at all.
While this “survey” is far from scientific, it doesn’t seem like New Yorkers are being “lazy” in their reluctant to spend 3-4 hours in transit for a soccer game. Given the location of Red Bull Arena in relation to the city, it’s simply not going to draw many fans unless the club addresses its transportation issues – from improved vehicular access and regress to renovations to the Harrison PATH station (currently one double door provides access for all the fans coming and going).
If anyone is to blame for the poor attendance at Red Bull Arena, a case could be made for the fans in northern New Jersey. After all, the area is a soccer hotbed, like St. Louis and Southern California, historically producing some of the finest players to ever take the field for the United States. And everyone in Jersey has their own car, so transportation shouldn’t be as much of a problem.
If you look at the combined population of the three counties surrounding the stadium in Harrison, excluding the New Yorkers across the river, it’s around 2 million. That’s larger than Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Montreal, and Vancouver - all of which have a higher average attendance than the Red Bulls this season. So why is it that such a soccer-mad section of our country can’t muster more than an average 17,664 fans per game? Which brings us to…
What The “Heck” Is Wrong
With The New York Red Bulls?
Ultimately, I place the brunt of the blame for Red Bull Arena’s attendance woes on the franchise itself. The New York Red Bulls recently fired Chris Heck, President of Business Operations. Heck was hired after Erik Stover, the club’s Managing Director, stepped down last June. Why the heck they thought Heck, a former NBA executive who has been described as both arrogant and ignorant, could right their ship remains one of the many mysteries behind the Red Bulls. There has always seemed to be a disconnect between the Red Bulls management and local soccer fans. And the apparent revolving door in the executive suite indicates that there are indeed serious problems in Harrison.
I know that the club was slow to embrace the surrounding community when it opened Red Bull Arena back in 2010. And surely that has cost them in terms of local support. But their academy is really taking off (U16 national champions this year) and they now have two Jersey boys on their first team squad, including one starter: Connor Lade. As I learned from the folks at Ajax, that’s bound to help boost attendance.
I don’t know what kind of outreach the Red Bulls have done in Newark and the surrounding communities, but I can tell you that the club has largely ignored the New York City market. On this side of the Hudson, you’d never even know that the Red Bulls exist. You can find their gear in the local soccer shops, but the selection is often dwarfed by what’s available from the big international clubs – and even the old Cosmos 2.0 merchandise.
The good news is that I’ve noticed more engagement from the club in the past year or so. I’ve seen players make appearances – at two events in Harlem and one downtown – on behalf of different soccer charities, which is fantastic. And I also saw some youth coaches at an amateur five-a-side adult tournament here in the city this summer, though it was sponsored by the Red Bull parent company, not the local team.
Missed Marketing Opportunities?
Is New York simply not a soccer town? Based on the crowds that turned out for this summer’s friendlies in Queens and the Bronx, that’s clearly not the case. Soccer is thriving in New York City. But beyond geography and trasportation troubles, it’s also a question of engagement.
When the MLS All-Star Game was played at Red Bull Arena last summer, the league placed some ads around New York City, but I’ve never seen anything produced by the Red Bulls. Maybe there is a billboard by one of the tunnel entrances that I haven’t seen (which is only good if you are targeting commuters), but nothing in the subways or on bus shelters (which is good if you are targeting New Yorkers). And I’ve looked into the cost of those platforms and they’re surprisingly inexpensive. Even cheaper are ads in movie theaters, before the show, and I know the club already has well-produced video clips because I’ve seen them on the big screen at Red Bull Arena.
Or what about a Red Bull shop somewhere in Manhattan? There are still some New York City neighborhoods without soccer shops. Create a connection to the club here in the city. Not only could they use the store to sell their branded merchandise, but the club could also host player appearances and other events there as well.
But even if they are not willing to invest in advertising or real estate, would it kill them to send a few players to visit some of the many youth soccer clubs around the city? If you visit any youth soccer practice in New York, you’ll find most of the kids wearing jerseys of foreign clubs. The only local side you’ll likely see represented is the Cosmos, and they won’t be fielding a professional team until next summer (and then only in the NASL).
And if some stars from the Red Bulls were to show up and meet these kids, I guarantee you that some will ask their parent, “can we go see them play?” The next thing you know, the rest of the team is going to Red Bull games as well – and wearing Red Bull jerseys at practice.
Better still, there are a few local youth tournaments, which would enable them to reach a broader audience with fewer visits. For example, the Manhattan Soccer Club’s Kick-Off Classic is held in early March, right before the start of the MLS season, and brings together more than 500 youth teams from around the area. Imagine the interest a visit by Henry might generate? Become a sponsor, like Upper 90, and they could sell tickets and merchandise on the spot.
It’s not rocket science, folks. Sometimes all it takes is a single spark to ignite a flame. But you still have to produce that spark. The Red Bulls, like the Metrostars before them, have consistently failed to produce even a spark in New York City.
A Great Product On The Pitch
Wanting to embrace MLS and support the Red Bulls this season, I purchased a partial ticket plan (I’m a 46 year-old single guy…commitment clearly isn’t my strength) and have been quite pleased with the experience. In fact, I have really enjoyed myself every time I’ve watched the Red Bulls play. They have a great team this year, and haven’t lost a single MLS home game all season. And, despite the club’s refusal to even communicate with me as a journalist, I still wrote about their games against the Colorado Rapids, San Jose, and Philadelphia (my favorite, to date).
True, the talent and level of play in MLS are not as good as some of the European leagues, but they are still a lot better than most who follow the European game realize. And little can compare to actually being at a stadium, watching the match in person. Especially when you consider the atmosphere created by supporters clubs, which always put on a great show at Red Bull Arena.
However, despite the immense entertainment factor of attending the games, I still have trouble accepting the New York Red Bulls as my local MLS club. Imagine if a team built a stadium two-hours away from your home, and then declared themselves your team, even though they never bother to engage your community. That’s what it’s like being a New Yorker and trying to support the Red Bulls.
The Bottom Line
The location of Red Bull Arena limits the club’s following among New York City soccer fans. And, given the massive attendance at venues located within the city this summer, there clearly are sufficient fans in this soccer-mad city of 8.2 million to fill at least two 25,000-seat arenas. Combine that with the potential media coverage generated by a team here in New York City, the media capital of the world, and one can see why MLS is so eager to build the stadium.
In a way, this can be good news for the New York Red Bulls as well. And I’m not talking about the creation of a local derby, or the fact that the league will ultimately end up in a better financial position with a team based in New York City proper (though both of those are compelling factors). The bigger benefit is that this might just be the wake-up call the Red Bulls organization needs to finally get its act together.
The Red Bulls have had 17 years, including their previous incarnation as the Metrostars, to tap the New York City market. Yet the Cosmos 2.0, for all their flaws, managed to capture the hearts and minds of more soccer fans in a single year, without even fielding a professional team, than the Red Bulls have had in their entire history.
If the Red Bulls are smart, they’ll turn up the heat and start an aggressive campaign to win the hearts and minds of as many New Yorkers as they can before that “second” franchise arrives. Because once MLS builds that stadium and has a team actually playing in New York City, it’s going to be even harder to fill those seats in Red Bull Arena.
Which brings us back to the struggle to fill Red Bull Arena. Don’t blame MLS for that. Don’t blame the Cosmos for that. Don’t blame New Yorkers for that. Blame the Red Bulls. Not their fans, or their team, both of which are top-shelf. Blame the club’s management, which has simply failed – time and again – to tap the massive New York City soccer market.
But now the clock is ticking. The Cosmos 3.0 may be fielding a team in the NASL in 2013, likely playing way out in Hofstra – twice as far from New York City as Red Bull Arena. And even if MLS manages to get a land-swap approved by legislators this fall, a stadium in Queens – or wherever it ends up being located – is still several years away.
The Red Bulls have a window of opportunity. They can address the congestion at the Harrison PATH station. They can work on ways to improve traffic patterns and parking issues around the stadium. They can hire people who understand the game, and are willing to invest in engaging the New York City market - not to mention the 2 million New Jersey residents who live in the surrounding area.
And they can get rid of Rafael Marquez.
The great atmosphere – and empty seats – at Red Bull Arena earlier this season.