Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The New York Red Bulls play the last 2012 home game – which they must win in order to make the playoffs – on Oct. 20. As at every home game this season, a guy in Section 101 of Red Bull Arena will hold up a cardboard sign that says “You Suck, Garber!”It’s a reference to Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, who has taken a series of actions this season that could potentially end the franchise. (He also has a particular hatred for the original “You suck …” chant from which the Garber sign derives.)
To Garber’s credit, he has grown MLS to 19 teams and average attendance at games is now 18,650, up four per cent from last year. For the second year in a row, more people watched soccer live than watched NHL or NBA games live. The Seattle Sounders get more fans per game, on average, than attend English Premier League games. And key MLS games are now broadcast live on NBC, or at least the peacock network’s cable channel.
But MLS franchises are still fragile things.
Chivas USA, Los Angeles’ “other” team, gets only 13,153 fans per game. There is no law that states any of these teams must stay in business. And without fans, they won’t.
Yet Garber has pursued a course this season that has made it harder for the Metros (as die-hard Red Bull fans call them) to succeed as a club. Specifically:
- Garber approved a “lopsided” season which reduced the number of big-name matchups in New York.
- And he’s close to signing a $300 million deal to build a second New York football stadium in Queens.
The first action merely frustrated Red Bull fans and depressed attendance at Red Bull Arena. The second — which will likely lead to the rebirth of the New York Cosmos in Corona Park — could kill the Red Bulls as a going concern. (Disclosure: I’m a Red Bulls season-ticket holder — stay classy, Section 133!)
Previously, I expressed concern that a second New York franchise placed too close to Red Bull Arena could halve the Red Bulls’ fanbase, but that a stadium in Queens might be a good idea.
After this season, I’m against a second New York franchise, period.In 2012, the Red Bulls — despite a fabulous new stadium and former Arsenal and Barcelona star Thierry Henry at the helm — saw attendance drop nine per cent this year, to just 17,848 per game (in an arena that holds more than 25,000).
The dropoff came despite the Red Bulls’ season. Even if they don’t make the playoffs, the boys in white have delivered some epic games. New York has scored 54 goals this season, more than any other Eastern team. They’ve also conceded 46 goals — again, more than any other Eastern team. In 14 of the team’s games this year, four goals or more have been scored; this in a sport where 1-0 is a standard result. The team has mostly won at home, on the back of goals like Henry’s “impossible” straight-in corner kick against Columbus.
Part of that attendance decline has to do with the lopsided season. In a new rule, Garber favours in-conference play, in which teams in the Eastern and Western conferences play each other more than twice as much as they play teams in the other conference. The result has been that the Red Bulls have had to grind through three games each against Houston and Chicago — teams New York just doesn’t care about — but only one against the LA Galaxy, our most-hated enemies.
That LA game was played away from home.
Los Angeles was not required to visit New York this season. Attendance-wise, that’s a disaster for the Red Bulls because it’s one of the few games that actually sells out RBA. There are some celebrated rivalries in American football — Portland v. Seattle being the most spectacular — but nothing beats the visceral hatred on display when the Galaxy’s palm tree-dwelling dilettantes are forced to take on Hans Backe’s Viking Army on a sub-freezing night in Harrison, N.J.
In other words, it’s not just about the gate money, it’s about the matchups. People want to see Henry v. Landon Donovan and David Beckham. (Henry v. Houston’s Macoumba Kandji? Whatever!)
Couple that with a Cosmos’ stadium in Queens, and it’s easy to see how a few thousand of the Red Bulls’ more casual fans might decide they’d rather ride the subway to Corona than the PATH train to Harrison. At that point, it’s tough to see how the Red Bull beverage company will ever break even on its $200 million stadium, plus running and team costs, when fewer than 17,000 people show up on Saturdays.
Bottom line: The arrival of the Cosmos in Queens could weaken soccer in New York, not strengthen it, no matter how much Garber salivates at the idea of a big New York derby rivalry.
Unfortunately, because Garber was born in Queens, he will probably not be able to resist the temptation to build a home team he can actually root for.
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