Monday, July 11, 2011

RBNY Hires New Manager of Operations. Good Luck!

by Dick Mac

Red Bull New York (RBNY) opened a state-of-the-art soccer stadium in Harrison, New Jersey, last year. I understand that Red Bull Arena (RBA) is an amazing venue for the players. I am not a player, so I can only tell you that it is a less-than-amazing venue for paying customers.

Chris Heck, former Senior Vice President of Marketing Partnerships for the National Basketball Association, has been named the new President of Business Operations, for RBNY. It is hoped that he can increase attendance. Running RBA will be his job.

"My focus is to give the fans an experience," said Heck, who reports to general manager and sporting director Erik Solér. "We want them to come back — provide the fans with an experience like none other."

Erik Solér is the best GM this team ever had. He has done more for the franchise than all of his predecessors combined. One might say that a deaf, blind, paraplegic mute could do the same; but Solér has done a remarkable job nonetheless! I appreciate his efforts and I don't think I am alone. He is a good GM.

The problem for many fans visiting RBA is parking, or the lack thereof.

At current attendance levels, the privately-owned parking facilities closest to the stadium provide sufficient parking. Add seven thousand more fans and there is insufficient parking within a reasonable distance of the stadium.

These nearby facilities are the former foundry next to the stadium and the commuter garage across the street, next to the PATH station.

RBNY provides parking to employees, VIPs, and some paying customers. So, the argument that RBNY has no parking is a shoddy position from which to argue. RBNY has as much parking at RBA and near RBA as they choose to provide. The current availability of event parking is their choice, not some edict from a higher power defining their service level agreement with fans.

Like the players, those who have access to the luxury suites mention that it is a nice place - but they don't rave about the suites the way I expect them to. Friends who also have access to suites at CitiField and Yankee Stadium rave about that experience; I'm not hearing that from folks at RBA. The experience is a good experience, but nothing to write home to mom about.

Some friends with Club Seats are less-than-impressed by the amenities, but they believe things are getting better and none of them have downgraded their seats this year. More than one has pointed out that players never visit the Club as was advertised in the sales brochures, and one of the reasons to spend the extra money if you have kids.

Pub patrons were also told that, as in Giants Stadium, players would make occasional visits to the Pub to say hello to the kids. I have seen Carlos Mendes, John Wolyniec, and Danleigh Borman each visit once, and it made the kids very happy. Pub acces is not as exclusive as Club access, nor should it be; but neither is it open to the general public.

Those with access to the Pub have expressed surprise at how bad the food is while the prices continue to rise. The staff is very friendly and I am always happy to tip high; but it appears there are fewer people spending money each time I visit. The downturn in food quality has meant fewer hundred-dollar checks for me, and more twenty-dollar checks. The last time I visited the pub, my dessert was served in a filthy bowl, and the restroom was so sloshy and dirty and smelly, it reminded me of a rock club. They say you can judge an establishment and its kitchen by the cleanliness of its bathroom. YIKES!

Player access was a huge success at Giants Stadium and garnered the team millions worth of goodwill, while costing almost nothing. Seeing the look in a little boy's eyes when he shakes the hand of a Red Bulls player is priceless and would soften even the most hardened team official. I will never understand why the team has let this slip away.

I still visit the pub and will again, I hope to bring out-of-towners to the Club, and I hope to host my child's birthday party in a suite next year. That is an indication not of the value or the success of these products, it is reflective of my undying, if vocally critical, love of the team.

I think adults without families enjoy the stadium's amenities more than I do. When I attend with adults (without my family), dining, drinking, and peeing are less stressful than trying to feed a child and get in and out of restrooms. In my defense, however, I will say that dining, drinking, and peeing were much easier at Giants Stadium. RBA has some failings.

Back to the matter at hand: Heck replaces Erik Stover, who was the best operations person this franchise ever had. Stover was very good at his job and Heck has big shoes to fill. I have always been confident that Stover wanted to make the match experience better for every fan. The flaws around the stadium complex, the lack of municipal infrastructure improvements, and the team's position that they were absolved of any responsibility for this mess will sadly be part of his legacy, not beause of anything he did, but because it has been a public relations failure over which he may not have had any control.

Perhaps the team cannot politically take any public position about the surrounding infrastructure. Again, the public relations folks have to take the bull by the horns, in a manner of speaking, and just tell us what the plan is. If the plan is nothing, then say that. Admit the failure and let's move on; but vagueness continues to be the order of the day and it is frustrating for those of us who do not use matchday as an opportunity for a drunken blackout.

The most infuriating conversation I have ever had with the front office, was being told that RBA is an urban stadium and should be accessed by public transportation.

RBA is not in an urban setting, it is in an industrial wasteland. It is commendable to reclaim industrial wasteland and use it for civilization; but that acreage of Harrison is not urban. The Grand Concourse, in The Bronx, is urban and is surrounded by urban infrastructure. Yankee Stadium is an urban stadium. RBA is in the middle of nowhere.

If my business is in an urban setting, my employees should be taking public transportation to work. RBNY has plenty of parking for employees in their allegedly urban setting, which flies in the face of the notion that it is an urban setting. RBA is not an urban stadium. Citifield, Madison Square Garden, Prudential Center, Yankee Stadium -- these are urban stadia; RBA is in a remote location.

Now, for those of us who actually live in New Jersey, public transportation isn't really an option. Let's say I live in Ho-Ho-Kus or Ridgewood. It's Saturday, I've decided to see a soccer match, and I am going to pay attention to the team's suggestion that RBA is an urban stadium and even though I am a suburbanite (like almost everyone in New Jersey), I will take public transportation.

I get the wife and two kids into the car to start the 25 mile trip to Harrison. I drive to Ho-Ho-Kus train station for the 1724 Train toward Hoboken at 5:29 P.M. Then I switch at Secaucus for the 7265 Train toward Long Branch at 6:25 P.M. Then I switch at Newark Penn Station for the 6:30 P.M. PATH train to Harrison, arriving at 6:32 P.M. Our total cost for the sixty-two minute, three-train, one-way trip is $34.50. Add three bucks for parking back home, and the round-trip, six train, two car ride, 2.5 hour round-trip commute that ends after midnight costs $72.00! I haven't purchased tickets yet.

The existing PATH station cannot handle current attendance levels. If we add seven thousand more fans, and ask them to take the PATH because we have no parking, they are in the same jam: insufficient resources to handle the increase in traffic.

Of course, nobody is going to use public transportation to get their family from Ho-Ho-Kus to Harrison, they are going to drive and the parking costs ten bucks; but, the stadium doesn't have any parking.

This brings us to another story. A recurring story. I have had this conversation at least five times in these two seasons, which means it must have happened to at least fifty families, if not five hundred. I have not had the conversation recently, but this particular parking nightmare doesn't happen at current attendance levels. Once Mr. Heck adds 7,000 fans to the stadium, this story becomes real again.

You arrive in Harrison about thirty minutes before kick-off - enough time to walk the length or breadth of Harrison. The officials charged with directing traffic through a maze of Nintendo-like pathways to parking lots seem to be either (1) clueless as to their objective, or (2) directing drivers to the parking lot that has paid them the biggest gratuity for the business (and is furthest from the stadium). This fiasco eats-up all of the half-hour, and you have not yet parked the car.

You get the kids out of the car and start the long, half-mile trek; but as you approach RBA, you are not allowed to cross Rodgers Boulevard at a logical place, you are forced to walk an extra eighth-mile, then and down the long vacant street that bisects the 24 acres of desolation fronting RBA, and you are now at the "front door."

The front door is for patrons with Club or Suite tickets, and those tickets come with valet and/or nearby parking so those ticket holders haven't just walked half-a-mile to get there. You now walk back in the direction of the lot you left, because you weren't allowed to cross the street at a logical place, and you enter the stadium there. So, although you arrived with your family in your car, in front of the stadium a half-hour before kick-off, it is now up to 20 minutes into play, the kids are no longer having any fun and are tired, you aren't in your seats, nobody has yet peed, you have no refreshments, and everyone is miserable. Can you say angry daddy: angry daddy who controls the family's purse strings?

Five fathers -- total strangers -- have said to me on that walk: "Never again, I will never come here again." My calculation is that if five fathers have said that to me without being asked, then anywhere from 50 to five hundred fathers feel that way. At Giants Stadium you could arrive a half-hour before kick-off, park in the furthest spot away from the gates, and still be in your seat for kick-off. Why? They have parking that they control and they manage it properly.

Erik Stover's staff always maintained a cavalier attitude about parking access. Chris Heck can maintain that attitude, and the silly position about public transportation, and the marketing department can continue to pretend it is neither the team's fault, nor the team's responsibility; but, this is a problem for families trying to attend matches when attendance levels are high.

I have learned how to get my family in and out of the area for matches. It took quite a few matches for town officials to develop a plan last year (and they were not very nice about it), and then it took me a few more matches to figure out how to navigate their bad decisions. But, now we are in the second season and I arrive early to get good parking.

But, not too early.


Well, if I arrive at the privately-owned parking lot next to RBA too early, I have to take the uncovered parking spots furthest from the gates. Those who ignore team advice and arrive later are rewarded with the best indoor spots and the shortest walk.

A new twist was added a few matches ago when somebody decided to change the traffic pattern for entering the adjacent privately-owned parking lot, and now traffic is directed the length of the wastelands to enter the parking lot from the rear, creating a tangle of traffic interspersed with pedestrians (some of whom have taken public transportation), the length of the street, then into a driveway across which families who have just parked must now cross, creating a second tangle of cars and people that is downright dangerous. The staff does not seem to notice this problem and they just stand there yelling at people.

Anyone else seeing a disconnect here between the club's guidance and the provision of paid services?

The other option is the parking garage on the other side of Rodgers Boulevard. That option requires the round-about walk to the gates described above - but, at least the people in the garage seem to know what they are doing. My criticism of that garage is that it exits to an indirect route to the highway, through a residential neighborhood. This has to stink for the residents. More infrastructure and logistics failures.

If every car leaving this garage was directed South along Rodgers Boulevard, and every car leaving the foundry was directed North along Rodgers Boulevard, then the traffic flow would be contained and controlled. It might be slower going, but it would remove the stress on the local residents and minimalist infrastructure, and create a pattern that fans could learn and understand.

I am certain that everybody at RBNY can explain exactly why this is not something the team can control. This position means that the team has failed. If a team has no control over the flow of fans to and from its facility, then that team has failed. RBNY chooses to abdicate responsibility and has yet to announce any viable plan for remediation. If Heck wants to even consider a family attending a second match, he has to address this.

I don't know if there is a real solution, but I know there is acre upon acre upon acre of vacant land fronting RBA, and if RBNY fails to take control of that land, turn it into parking and whatever else they want, along with logistics to move 25,000 people in and out of the area, then RBA will be an albatross forever. If the pre-failed, mixed-use development that is planned for that acreage ever gets built, things will be worse. RBNY has to stop that development. If that development must get built, perhaps RBNY should negotiate a two- or three-level underground garage to supplement the nearby private parking lots. If RBNY does nothing, then fewer new fans will arrive in the coming years.

My fellow fans who are not parents think I am overly dramatic about this. I am dramatic only because the team is so cavalier about it. If the team cared about this, then I would tone down my criticism, but the term "lip-service" doesn't describe the team's approach to the situation, and utter denial appears to be the official position.

Early arrival, at the direction of the team, can also mean standing around in the blazing sun (or rain). The entertainment is a great idea, but the only pre-game shaded area is inside the stadium proper -- away from the entertainment? And since this urban paradise is actually an industrial wasteland, it's more than a half-mile to the closest restaurant.

Once I get inside RBA, the problems don't stop. Last year I assumed it was was freshman jitters and the problems would be overcome. Water bubblers were installed to bring the stadium up to minimum health code standards, which was good; but the flow of foot traffic in the concourse is actually worse this year.

Older sports stadia were designed with insufficient concession stands, so most have added portable concession stands opposite the built-in concessions, taking-up most (and sometimes all) of the walking space for which a concourse exists. It's easy to forgive Fenway Park and Wrigely Field for this limitation. They were built a long time ago and the world got bigger on them.

RBA was designed in this century, and should have wide concourses and plenty of built-in concessions. It doesn't. So scores of portable carts have been inserted in the walkways, making the walk to and from the refreshments and toilets a ridiculous feat. Some of the portable beer lines cross the entire concourse blocking, literally, everybody.


I wish it stopped there; but it's actually worse than this.

Here are some crazy notions that might improve things:
  • Convince the Harrison police and the municipal government to cooperate with moving people in and out in a friendly manner (instead of bitterly treating us as a grave inconvenience).

  • Remove the portable concessions from the concourse so people can walk to and from the actual concessions. If you didn't build enough concession then too bad - less money for you.

  • Teach "security" the difference between an interloper trying to sneak into someone else's seats and a man standing out-of-the-way, waiting for his young daughter to finish in the ladies' room. Then teach that "security" person that one is OK and the other isn't. How can I be told to move along - in a threatening manner - because I am blocking the concourse (which I am not) while a portable concession line twenty feet away is blocking everyone?

  • Close the pub, or open it, or something. You blew it with the pub - it's a failure.

  • Put some pre-match events besides the in-stadium beer garden in the shade.

  • Say thank you once in a while. Really. At my office I say thank you to people and they appreciate it.

  • Get rid of the money-charged members cards! Most of your concessionaires have no idea how to use the technology - it's been 2 years and there is a lot of failure. I was in a members-only line on July 9th and left the line to pay cash in the regular line.

  • Open a souvenir shop that has two public entrances and enough cash registers to earn you some money. The idea is that you display team items and we can purchase them in less than 45 minutes. If RBA starts selling-out, you'll sell no additional merchandise because we can't buy it. I would love to purchase more stuff. Have you tried to buy stuff in the Bull Shop?

  • There are no concessions on the West side of the stadium. Plenty of empty seats in the pub and club, though!

  • Shutter the Bull Shop/Club/Pub complex, rip them out and design something that works not just for eleven billionaires from Yankee Stadium, but thousands of paying customers at Red Bull Arena. There is NO WAY that real estate is making a profit, or even paying for itself in the current paradigm.

  • Move the Club upstairs with the suites, and create a huge pub for all season ticket holders and don't pretend it's a Manhattan brasserie! When I want a Manhattan brasserie, I go to Manhattan and I eat in a brasserie! This is an arena, I want a burger and a coke, maybe a piece of cake and perhaps a cocktail or two for my guests. It can be nice, but it doesn't have to be the absurd failure you have created. Remember the pub at Giants Stadium with it's expensive, shitty food. Make one of those instead of a tarted-up pub with a tarted-up menu of expensive, shitty food!

  • Bring back the full NAWT program that includes expired tix. Better to give me freebies with which I bring extra fans than have all those empty seats. Are we even selling as many tickets as we did at Giants Stadium? I am beginning to think we sell less seats here. If I bring two more fans they come in my car; if you distribute free tickets to a new person, they bring another car that you cannot accommodate.

  • Get the players back to the kids. That has been a big loss and you gained nothing by stopping it; you will gain plenty of goodwill by reintroducing it. I'll bet that some families will forget how much they hate the trip to the stadium if the kid goes home with Austin Da Luz's autograph or a picture with Corey Hertzog!

  • Have your entire staff (from the most important toilet cleaner all the way down to the general manager) take lessons from your season-ticket reps. They treat us like gold, they treat us as if we pay the salaries, they treat us as if they want us to come back again next year, or even the next match. You say that you want more fans? Prove it. As Oscar Wilde said upon his release from prison: "If that's the way the Queen treats her prisoners, then she doesn't deserve to have any." This fits like a glove.

  • Build a parking lot. The current parking situation accommodates the half-filled stadium. More fans need more parking.
When you do none of these things, I will still come to matches. I love the team and it's going to take more than a failed business plan and bad infrastructure to push me away. Some of these changes might bring new fans. As RBA stands today, in a vast industrial wasteland, in a town that hates you, without a parking lot, you have no hope of improving attendance.

Take action.

RBNY's new business honcho promises to boost attendance

Erik Stover steps down as Red Bulls' managing director; Chris Heck is hired


DFjersey said...

I find your statement about the pub bathroom to be very hard to believe - I've been in the pub many times with my kids and have never had a problem with it being a mess. There's generally cleaning stafff in and out of there all the time.

You paint the public transportation issue with way too broad of a brush. I live in central Jersey and take the train to all of the games and while it's not as easy as driving right up to the gate - I'll take it in exchange for not playing in the Meadowlands. When I have driven I park in Newark and either walk or take the free shuttle, it's no problem. It's not the organization's fault that NJ Transit doesn't reach everywhere and parking in Newark is cheap and I avoid the traffic in Harrison.

Your comments on the land in front of the stadium further taint my view of your understanding of the reality. Obviously the stadium was supposed to be part of a much larger development with mixed use construction (retail, housing, etc.) - you on one hand complain that the nearest restaurant is a half mile away, then you complain about the impact of having other available facilties nearby if the development happens (would it then be considered "urban" by you?)

I continue to be amazed at the suburban attitude - I want to drive right up to the door, I don't want to have to wait and I want it free that I hear constantly. Maybe the stadium should be a drive in. Anyone who didn't think that arriving at the games via car was going to be a problem is a fool. They have made some changes and continue to try to improve the experience for those getting to and from the game and in the stadium. There are some that want a billion dollar stadium for a tenth of the course.
There are those that complain aout the lack of concessions or long lines, while others complain about too many concessions being in the way. People don't want to miss any of the action during the game, then complain when they and the rest of the stadium go to the stands at halftime and then encounter lines.

The arena has it's flaws, no doubt, and there are things that can improve - but this fan of 15 years will take the hiccups we are having now over the overpriced Giants Stadium with its abusive security, equally long lines, etc That's not to say that you shouldn't speak your mind - I just think that you seem to somehow have a 180 degree different experience than me, whether with getting to and from the arena or with the staff there, and I wonder whether all of the fault lies with the arena and staff, or if you have a chip on your shoulder.

Anonymous said...

Just because there's enough parking for employees does not mean that there is therefore enough for all ticketholders. Their parking lot is probably 1/2 acre. That's just silly.

And your assumption that the team has control over all other lands around the arena is wrong. The lot next to the arena (which you too can pay $10 for if you show up earlier and get a spot, like my family does) is privately owned. The vacant land in front of the arena is not owned by the team, but by a developer who is under an agreement with the town to develop the property at some point. I think the plan was that the developer would include parking but hasn't done it. Anyway, the team doesn't control the land and we have no reason to think that the team can somehow usurp the developer's rights to keep it unused, as annoying as that is.

Whether you call it urban or suburban, the fact is that unless you have a disabled sticker for your car, are an employee or pay lots for one of the few VIP spots, there is no parking next door to the stadium, just like there's no easy parking next to Madison Square Garden. This is not Dunkin Donuts, its a sporting event for 20,000+ people without sufficient parking very very close. My recommendation -- buck up, come a bit earlier and plan to walk 1/4 or 1/2mile, or take a train.