I’m Surprised Red Bulls Fans Aren’t Living in Padded Rooms – Question of Club Identity as it Relates to Red Bull New York

PicassoI woke up Sunday morning with good intentions.  After browsing around online for a bit my goal was to do some laundry and get work done.  Then I landed on this post over at Empire of Soccer, and began my descent into the rabbit hole.

First of all, go read that post.  All credit to “RBNY Optimist” for generating the ideas that set me on the path to writing this.  Wish I knew specifically who the writer was so I could give more credit by that chosen handle will have to suffice.  Honestly, go read the post, react in your own way.  This is simply my extended reaction.

Let me preface this by reiterating that I am not a New York Red Bulls fan.  I am not pretending to be a fan, nor do I claim to be speaking for the fans.  I know plenty of Red Bulls fans, I’ve attended many games, watched many more on TV.  I follow the Red Bulls and I generally want them to succeed, but I’m not invested.  I just enjoy observing the team and the culture around it, irrespective of the actual outcome of games/seasons.

For whatever reason, with soccer, I never really connected with any particular team.  It’s always been more about the game as a whole, which is totally different from how I follow other sports.  When it comes to the NFL, for example, I am a New York Giants fan first and foremost, and the overall state of the league or the game of football isn’t important to me.  I just want the Giants to win.  With soccer, I don’t really care about who wins, I just want to observe the whole spectacle.  I don’t know why it worked out that way but I assume it’s partially due to the fact that I played soccer first, and only became a fan of the professional until I was older.  Selecting any one club seemed unnecessary.

I just want to be clear that I do not identify as a fan, and thus the ensuing post, generally about the unique experience of being a Red Bulls fan, is just based on my own observations and understanding.  And also from what I’ve gathered by observing the New York soccer scene.  Reading blogs and forums, seeing the interaction between Red Bulls fans and other New York soccer fans – particularly fans of the Cosmos, or whoever the next New York, MLS, not-the-Red Bulls franchise is.

Red Bulls fans, the serious fans, are a unique bunch.  Passionate, well informed, a bit defensive but generally just very good, solid fans.  The team has a smaller support base than other New York area teams but in terms of die-hard supporters I don’t think any New York franchise can claim to have fans that are MORE committed.  I think the RBNY supporters, in terms of “passion” or whatever un-measurable quality you want to use, are absolutely on par with any other group of fans in the area.

It wasn’t until Sunday that I really considered just how damn weird the whole experience of being a Red Bulls fan must be.

There’s a lot on my mind and I’ll try to convey it as clearly as possible, though it’s cumbersome and there’s a distinct possibility I’m not going to get my thoughts across as well as I’d like.  Like I said, I’ll try.

The impetus for the “RBNY Optimist” post was a picture tweeted by Gothamist writer Dan Dickinson.  The tweet contained a photo of RBNY tracksuit designed by Adidas, which had “New York Red Bulls since 2006” written on it.  I’m not a clothing expert, but the line was written vertically near the zipper, prominently placed near the top, obviously stylized.  Aesthetically it looks fine, the issue is the “since 2006”.  The line is factually correct; the New York Red Bulls have existed since 2006.  That’s when the original Metrostars franchise was acquired by Red Bull GmbH and rebranded.  The potential issue, of course, is that the franchise actually launched with Major League Soccer back in 1995.  The line on the jacket effectively omits the Metrostars era from franchise history.

Was Adidas intending to create some controversy?  Almost certainly not.  As I wrote in my response to the post over at Empire of Soccer, the decisions was probably just a practical one.  Adidas wanted to include some historical reference on the jacket.  I’m guessing they produced similar jackets for every other MLS franchise with the exact same historical note.  In this case, using 2006 as the year was the only real option.  “New York Red Bulls since 1995” is inaccurate.  Including an explanation of the rebranding that occurred in 2006, complete with a clarifying reference to the Metrostars years would require a very large jacket – or very small font.  So I don’t think there’s any real controversy, it’s just a byproduct of rebranding.

But “RBNY Optimist” asks an interesting questions at the end of the post, “where else can you start with an inscription on a track jacket and end up in an existential crisis?”

And that’s when everything sort of coalesced in my brain, and I started to realize how truly bizarre the idea of “identity” is at it relates to RBNY, and how unique the experience of being a Red Bulls fan must be.

Most professional franchises have some quick, pretty well defined identity.  Let’s use the New York Yankees as an example – how would you generally describe the Yankees?  Wealthy, powerful, successful, high profile, rich tradition.  Depending on your personal feelings towards the team you might toss in a couple more slanted adjectives.  Fans might call the Yankees classy, professional.  Opposing fans might criticize the franchise as corporate, greedy or the “Evil Empire”.

Point is, the franchise has a generally accepted identity.  Fans likely draw upon a few of those qualities in their connection with the team.  By contrast, Mets fans might be New Yorkers who consider themselves more blue collar, underdogs.  These characteristics help define a franchise and fan base.  They allow us to construct narratives within the framework of the league, compare teams and regions to one another.  For some fans it may stretch to the extent that it partially identifies who they are – maybe a Yankees fan has a self-image of being successful or powerful.  Maybe that fan simply likes of being associated with a winner.

The New York Red Bulls identity is harder to nail down.  As a franchise, the Red Bulls have a lot of conflicting characteristics.  It’s an original MLS franchise but it feels nouveau due to the 2006 rebranding.  Red Bull has the status of a “big” club within MLS, but doesn’t feel like a big team locally.  The club is wealthy and has a financial advantage over most of the competition.  Due to location and relative wealth, it can acquire international superstars like Thierry Henry that most MLS clubs simply could not attract.  Yet RBNY has been generally unsuccessful, never winning a single meaningful trophy.

Supporters still struggle with the simple concept of the team name.  It’s common to see fans wearing Metrostars apparel to games.  Blogs and twitter handles still reference the original name.  The rebranding itself was a mixed bag for the franchise.  From a positive standpoint, it was a financial boon – Red Bull GmbH financed a beautiful new stadium, provided stability, and acquired major international stars.  The Red Bull brand is ubiquitous, and to my surprise I’ve found that when I see the logo – on a can, bar mat, wherever – I think of the club.  In that sense no MLS club has better exposure.

Yet the branding has drawbacks.  For many potential fans or even existing fans the idea of rooting for a club named after an energy drink is awkward, if not completely off-putting.  Fans have rolled with it, for the most part, but I’m sure many would acknowledge it was a difficult concept to embrace.  Long time fans who experienced the transition really had no alternative – either accept the new name, or drop local MLS soccer altogether.

The simple decision to continue supporting the team put older fans in an undesirable position.  They’ve had to deal with the lazy, name-related insults from opposing fans and members of the soccer community.   I know that’s the case because I’ve seen it firsthand.  Hell, I’ve been the source of it.  I’ve ridiculed the name on this site and I’ve joked about it countless times when needling friends who are Red Bulls fans.  They didn’t do anything to deserve it (I’ve never heard a Red Bulls fan argue it’s an excellent name) but still, they have to hear it.  Making fun of RBNY fans that accepted the new name is literally just making fun of long time supporters for being loyal.  Look at it that way and it’s ridiculous and misguided, but it’s still a state of affairs the supporters are stuck with.

Location is another issue.  It’s generally accepted that being in the New York Metro area is a significant advantage in professional sports.  It’s the first thing opposing fans point to when trying to identify why the Yankees have been so successful.  For the Red Bulls, it’s not quite as simple.  If anything the clubs feels “smaller” than it actually is because of the market, or its place within the market.  MLS fans living outside the area understandably have the standard reaction – New York team, biggest market, competitive advantage.

Living in the market I have a different perspective:  It’s not just, “New York Team” – it’s, “professional team that’s the ninth most popular franchise of nine locally.”  A team playing the least popular sport in a market that’s completely saturated with professional sports.  New York isn’t Seattle or Portland.  The Red Bulls aren’t one of two or three major professional sports franchises in the city.  They’re one of nine.  At any given time during the MLS season, they are competing with at least two other local pro teams for attention.  From April through June, they’re up against seven other teams.  Not to mention European soccer leagues and whatever summer International tournament happens to be going on.

The fans certainly understand this dynamic.  You can’t follow the team and miss the fact that it’s an ongoing struggle for attention.  The distinction that it’s a New Jersey location, not New York City, doesn’t help matters.  It’s not wildly inconvenient for city residents to get to Red Bull Arena – I make the trip routinely, it’s fairly quick via public transportation.  But it’s not ideal.  It’s not in the city.  You can’t get there directly from the subway system.  For the two NFL franchises playing in Jersey this isn’t an issue, but for a soccer team it is.  The Red Bulls feel like a New York outsider in a way the Giants and Jets simply don’t.  I know this weighs on their supporters.  Any obstacle for the casual fan – real or perceived – is a bigger problem simply because interest is lower to begin with.

The aggressive pursuit of a second New York area franchise, located in the city, by MLS and specifically Don Garber does feel like acknowledgment that they got things a little bit wrong the first time around.  It feels like a do over – like the league understands the New York franchise should be a major, flagship MLS team.  For a variety of reasons the Red Bulls aren’t quite there yet, and something has to be done.  Rather than working very hard to create that connection between the existing team and the city, the league has decided to simply create a new team in the city.

I am a proponent of the ”New York Two”, I want to see a top-level team in the city.  But I am not convinced it’s an excellent situation for the Red Bulls.  The franchise is saying all the right things, publicly buying into the league’s insistence that NYC expansion is definitely a good thing for everyone, which Don Garber reiterated prior to the start of the season.  Maybe it will be.  But someone down at the league office should at least consider the possibility that the creation of a second franchise – cannibalizing the local market – won’t be good for RBNY at all.

Which brings us back to the Red Bulls fans.

Forget about rivalries, or how the Red Bulls are perceived by fans of, say, DC United.  Red Bull New York supporters don’t even need to consider that viewpoint.  They can almost certainly get spun up to the point of insanity by trying to work out who exactly they are, or what they’re supporting only by weighing “internal” conflicts or questions.  It’s a fragmented, screwed up picture.  It’s not ideal, but it’s definitely unique.  Maybe if I really took the time to dig down and reframe the basic identity of the Yankees, our previous example, I’d find that the picture wasn’t quite as straightforward.  But I think their general identity is widely accepted.  Just basic word association, you think of the Yankees – or most teams in American sports – and a picture forms in the mind’s eye pretty rapidly.

When I was trying to hash this out in my head, it helped to think of literal portraits.  The Yankees are like a straightforward, simple portrait – the Mona Lisa, for example.  Traditional, reserved, clearly defined and easy to process.  The Red Bulls, by comparison, are like some sort of Picasso cubism portrait (above).  Jumbled, confused, jarring and totally unconventional.

When you start picking away at this question of the Red Bulls franchise identity, the picture just gets more bizarre.  Let’s go back to the jacket and the “2006” label.  There is controversy about how to properly define the year in which the franchise actually formed.  That isn’t normal.  Yet it’s decidedly normal for Red Bulls fans, and that realization forced me to consider how maddening their fan experience must be, how unique it is – and because of that, how genuine it is.

Think about it.  Do fans of any other franchise in American sports struggle to same extent with something as fundamental as what to call the team?  Few possibilities come to mind.  The Washington Wizards might be an appropriate comparison in that the franchise changed names without relocating.  I’m not really plugged into the Wizards scene so I’m not sure if it’s a major pain point for fans.  ESPN’s Bill Simmons has a friend who’s a regular guest on his podcast, Joe House, a Wizards fan.  From listening over the years I know he takes special care to refer to them as the “Washington professional basketball team” rather than the Wizards, although I’ve always thought he was doing so jokingly as some kind of one-man protest.  I don’t get the sense that it’s a common thread that runs through the fan base.  I suppose fans of the New Orleans Hornets, soon to be the Pelicans, will be dealing with this next season.  Yet that change is intended create a stronger link with the New Orleans community.  Rather than a sudden change, it just feels like a “conventional” name changed sparked by franchise relocation, albeit with a serious lag effect.  For the Red Bulls it’s an ongoing sense of duality, and only one of many.

The narrative on the field, game-by-game, season-by-season, normally forges identity for a fan base.  It’s only part of the story for Red Bulls fans.  They support a team that’s an outsider in its home city – a wealthy team with an odd name that never wins. While the various elements had always been lying there out in the open, it wasn’t until I read that post by “Optimist” that it all suddenly snapped into place. Membership in the club comes with baggage.   It’d be easier to support a team with a more conventional name that won a trophy every now and then.  Circumstances are what they are, however, and from my outsider’s perspective, I think the fans are better for it.  The club’s idiosyncrasies make it more endearing, and contribute to a fan experience that’s wholly unique in MLS.


*Photo from woodleywonderworks’ Flickr

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  1. Onionsack says:

    Good article, one small quible though. MLS made sveral attempts to assist Red Bull with shared best practices and plans to improve attendance and relevance in market but each time has been rebuffed by Red Bull who prefer to do things their own way. Their prior executive Chris Heck all but mocked the league for suggesting things to help.

    • Gershom Cox says:

      Yes good point – way I phrased it makes it sound like MLS failure, but as you point out the team has resisted league attempts to help.

      Maybe better to say, “things have gone a little bit wrong the first time around”, rather than “they got things wrong”.

      Still, point remains that emphasis on NY2 feels like a second attempt by the league to really nail it in NY metro area, which RBNY hasn’t for various reasons.

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