Thursday, September 20, 2012

Loving The Move, Hating The Change

by Dick Mac

Continued from How Could I Not Fall In Love With This Team?

I once read a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but recently discovered it is actually from a 20th Century Christian philosopher.  It is a quote about patriotism, but I think it applies to any form of allegiance:  governmental, national, religious, corporate, etc. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin said:
There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover's quarrel with their country, a reflection of God's lover's quarrel with all the world.
I think that is a very healthy and accurate analysis of the relationships among citizens, businesses, governments, and philosophies.  I am a fan who carries on a lover's quarrel with his team.

How long did the conversation go on?

How many years?

It certainly started before I became a season-ticket holder:

MetroStars are building a soccer-specific stadium in Harrison, New Jersey. A ground-breaking.

Red Bulls are building a stadium in Harrison, New Jersey.  It will be part of an urban revitalization program that will transform the Harrison riverfront district, which had been an industrial site for some decades, and an abandoned industrial site in more recent decades.  Another ground-breaking.

It was an impressive undertaking, a good thing to be part of:  a revitalization project to improve a blighted area.  There would be housing, and shopping, and restaurants, and pubs, and a cinema, and a mall and Red Bull Arena as the centerpiece.  Improved infrastructure would include better roads and expanded public transportation.

Fans actually began conversations about buying or renting one of the newly constructed apartments, in an effort to be closer to the team.  The drawings were beautiful.  I couldn't wait!

And finally, construction began.

The team website included a link to web cams that monitored the progress of the construction.  It was very exciting.  Fans would travel to the construction site with their cameras to shoot whatever they could see, and then post the pictures on the message boards for all to see.

We all ooooooh'd and aaaaaaah'd.

After years of suffering in the cavernous hell-hole that was Giants Stadium, a facility run by people who hated soccer and wanted nothing to do with us, and settling for whatever bones they would throw our way, our team was to have a home!  Our own home!

Then in the Spring of 2010, Red Bull Arena opened.

Driving to Harrison for opening day was exciting!  We barely noticed the hellish Manhattan traffic to get through the Holland Tunnel.  Traffic so bad we abandoned hope and went to the Lincoln Tunnel.  I drove off I-280 at the brand-new exit sign proclaiming "Soccer Stadium"!  Parking was confusing, directions from law enforcement unclear and seemingly contradictory.  We dutifully followed the guidance.  We were directed to parking spots a full mile from the stadium.  The stadium has no parking.  We took it in stride and joined the throng getting to their seats.  The local police were less than hospitable.

When we finally arrived at the front of the stadium, it looked like this (though not aerial).

The beautiful stadium that some of us had seen during construction and when choosing our season ticket seats, was fronted by 20-odd acres of barren wasteland.  Nothing was built there after all, and nothing stands there today.  Not very pretty on the outside.  Three years later, it still looks like that.

In the ensuing weeks, I figured out the lay of the land, the design of the city, and the methods for getting to desirable parking.

I question the decision to build a 25,000 seat stadium with no parking; but it appears nothing will be done about it.

The new stadium also had no facilities for season-ticket holders before or after the match.  The new pub was restricted to the first hundred or so fans on the season-ticket holder list.  If they got to your number on the list, you had the right to purchase pub membership for a hundred or so dollars per seat.  Our number was too far down the list to get pub access.  This changed our game day experience.  We could no longer arrive early, ahead of the crowds, because the stadium is in an industrial wasteland, and there is no place to go.  So, we arrived shortly before kick-off and moved with the throngs to our seats, hoping to catch the kickoff.  Same thing after the match, we left with the throngs and sat in traffic.  The commute was rushed and hectic and unpleasant.

Eventually, a friend with pub membership decided there was no value in it for him, and he sold us his two passes.  We now arrived early and stayed late.  Sure, I spent another hundred dollars more than I had been, but it was a really pleasant way to visit the stadium.

In the second season, the pub was opened to all season-ticket holders.  This was a huge improvement and really worked for us.

Our clinical, psychological, and emotional detachment from the stadium as anything besides a sports venue began during that second year.  It is a different game day experience than it had been at Giants Stadium; and isn't any better.  Certainly different, but not better.

During the second season, with stagnant and/or sagging attendance numbers, a new operations team was hired, and things changed.  Things changed a lot.  The new approach was to make the team a premium experience, and market to those who wanted luxury seats at premium pries.  Seat prices (and consequently season ticket prices) were raised because, it was explained, higher ticket prices would make the team more attractive to people with money to spend.

In and of itself, this is a perfectly sensible part of any business plan.  It cannot, however, become the business plan, because it fails to take into account approximately 90% of your inventory, your seats.  Yes, enhance the premium experience, but not at the expense of the non-premium experience.  You still need butts in all the other seats and you need schmucks to purchase those tickets!

The new pricing scheme forced some long-time fans out of the seats they'd earned over years of faithful patronage.  We were told that those nice seats we paid for year after year had been a gift from the club, and that things were changing:  the real value of the good seats would be reflected in the new prices.

A gift?  I gave my credit card number and I received tickets, the seats were not a gift.  The hats, the sweatshirts, the wallets, the notebooks, the jackets were gifts.  I really like them.  Even the notebook!  But, my acquisition of the tickets was a business transaction - not a gift.

That the team has decided to increase the cost of the seats does not mean my previous purchases were anything but a business transaction - they were never a gift.

With the price increases, many old-timers moved to corner sections, or the top half of the lower bowl, where seat prices were still within their budgets.

The goodwill the team had built the previous fifteen-plus years was erased by this new operations team in a matter of weeks.  It was a different organization now, offering a different relationship to its consumers.  The product remained the same:  An under-achieving and overpaid, but totally lovable team that has never won a championship.  Perhaps not the best time for a price hike!

Now in our third season at Red Bull Arena, it appears that attendance has decreased again.  As many ticket-holders moved their seats to the cheaper sections, many also reduced the number of seats they hold.  Rumor is that the new pricing scheme and overall philosophy reduced season ticket holders by as much as 30%.  This may or may not be true, but attendance numbers appear to be lower.

We have a beautiful stadium that is difficult to get to and get out of, with no parking, few amenities available  in the area, and a management team that seems coolly detached from the logistical problems the fan faces.  The failure of the Harrison redevelopment project, and the loss of promised improvements to infrastructure, has hurt the team.  The area has not been redeveloped, except that a gazillion dollar stadium has been plopped down in an industrial wasteland.  In reality, what can be done about it?  Perhaps nothing.

Row, Viking, Row!

During the first season we became aware of Viking Army, a new supporters club whose web presence and marketing was much more impressive, more sophisticated than supporters clubs I have known in the past.  They made their home at Catas, a Portuguese restaurant about a quarter-mile from the stadium.  Supporters gather for food and drink before the match, and march together to the stadium before kickoff.  The Army includes some older fans, and the more erudite young fans.  I feel comfortable with this crowd.

We became Vikings and started visiting Catas for lunch/dinner before the match.

Viking Army is more than just a fan club for drunken louts watching soccer (well, we are that, too).  The Viking Army organizes away trips, social events, charitable fundraisers, general fun, and sponsors a youth soccer team.

The Viking Army is a proud club, and its success reflects that pride.  We wear viking helmets and viking scarves.  We are proud to be Vikings.

And we are proud to be supporters of Red Bull New York.

We may drive four hours round-trip to watch a 90-minute match, and spend thirty dollars on tolls and parking; but we are there, and we will continue to be there.

Time Wounds All Heels

Earlier this (the third) season, as management's new changes festered, I began noticing changes.  Security changed.  The people at the gate seemed to know little about running gate security.  Some are nice, some are not.  They do not work for the team, they are a private security company.

Guys acting as security inside the stadium seem to know little about how the place is run.  I saw a season ticket-holder being questioned about his seat (yesterday).  He was asked to show his ticket.  He handed over his membership card, and the security guy said:  No, I need to see your actual ticket.

Season ticket holders don't have tickets, we have membership cards with imprinted seat numbers.

This guy is supposed to be securing the inside of the facility and he doesn't even know how ticketing works!  This is indicative of management's cool detachment from their product.  I believe that most in the front office sincerely do not know it is like this, they really care about the fan experience.  The team has a new approach to the product, and it means that things like this are going to slip under the radar more and more often.

A month or so ago, a friend ordered two tickets for the match, printed them, and drove with his wife to Red Bull Arena.  They were shocked, as all first-timers are, at the poorly managed traffic pattern and the lack of clarity around parking options.  They also didn't know they should arrive an hour earlier than anticipated, just to sort out the confusion.  The wife is handicapped.  Their car has a handicap tag.  The handicap lot was full, which is to be expected at that time, and they were directed to a parking lot they were told was "around the corner" (but were not told it was around the corner and three-quarters of a mile away).

The walk was arduous for them.  Upon arrival at Gate B, they were told that their tickets were no good.  They would not be admitted.

If we had a proactive security staff and a pro-customer philosophy, along with our half-filled stadium, someone would look at this well-dressed couple in their fifties and say:  right this way, please, let's get this sorted out, I'm sure we can fix this.

But, we do not have proactive security, we have reactive security - you are assumed to be wrong before any conversation takes place.  We also do not have a pro-customer philosophy, we have a big-city, big-team, big-sports-franchise philosophy.  But, are really a small-team in a small-city with a small franchise in a small league.  And we have a half-empty stadium.

The couple turned around and made the arduous trek back to their car.

With two-hundred dollar tickets and access to the VIP entrance, there is enough staff to greet you, thank you, stumble over you, wipe your ass, and blow you, all before you even get to the elevator.  And this is as it should be!  Those who pay a premium price should have a premium experience.

Those who do not pay a premium price still need to be treated with a certain amount of decency - especially if you have a half-empty stadium and are trying to get more customers.

These types of incidents have led me to become very angry at times, perhaps angrier than I have any right to be.

I crossed a line with my anger earlier this season, and my relationship changed from being in a lover's quarrel with my team to being in an emotional knock-down, drag-out battle - the type of fight that will end a marriage or any relationship.  I was pissed-off and I let my words show it.

I crossed a line.

I want to have a lover's quarrel with my team, disagreements about which we laugh at the end of the discussion.  But now I was playing dirty.

I had a follow-up interaction with one of the front office folks whom I like and respect.  He shared his disappointment in my tone and my anger, and that's when I knew I had stopped being "in love" and was on the verge of being "in hate."

I had to gather my wits and decide what was important to me:  being part of my team, or being right.

I know that being right is grossly over-rated, and I know that acceptance is the key to happiness.

I want to be part of my team.  How can I not?  I love this team.

The challenge is keeping my expectations in check, remembering that the team is a business not a clubhouse, and remembering that I have as much an obligation to them as they to me.

So, while I have my lover's quarrel with my team, I need to make sure I avoid the name-calling, cheap shots, and emotionalism that change any lover's quarrel into an actual fight for which there may be no reconciliation.

When the lights go out, I still want my team to love me as much as I love them.

Things Are Really Better Than I Make Them Out To Be

You should meet the Viking Army.

If you have never seen it, you should also watch the march into the stadium, or even join the march, if you like.

If you haven't seen Red Bull New York play a match at Red Bull Arena, you really must.

I have an amazing team.

I have an amazing stadium.

Just be certain you leave plenty of time for the commute there and back.

I never once owned a team jersey for any sport, in the forty-odd years before I fell in love with soccer.  I now have a stack of them:  John Wolyniec, Rafa Marquez, Thierry Henry, shirts for Hull City (England), Montagua (Hondorus), and the US National team.  I'm sure there are others I am forgetting.  My daughter also has a stack of autographed jerseys:  Corey Hertzog, Andrew Boyens, John Rooney, Tim Ream, and two different shirts signed by the entire team.  These are special things, they represent special moments and special relationships in our life with the team.

And Red Bull New York is a special team.  The players are special people.  Look at that line-up:  Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Tim Cahill, Wilmen Conde, all international stars.  Dax McCarty and Kenny Cooper, two of the hardest-working men in rock and roll.  Connor Lade, the latest American addition to the squad who has the guys screaming and the girls swooning.  Our collection of journeymen who are the backbone of our team:  Jan Gunner Solli, Steven Keel, Joel Lindpere, Markus Holgersson, Heath Pearce.  And our newest addition, the Frenchman, Sebastian LeToux.  We have an exciting team.

The supporters are amazing, too.  Yesterday I chatted with fans ranging in age from 2-years-old to 70-plus-years-old.  There are young Americans and older immigrants.  Smart guys and wise guys.  Pretty girls and pretty boys.  Athletes and poets.  Dads and uncles and aunts and moms.  There is the Garden State Supporters club, our group most like European ultras.  There is Empire Supporters Club, the original group to gather together and start an official club when the league was conceived.  I've already mentioned Viking Army - the best supporters group in the world.

If you've never been to a soccer match, you might not know that the supporters groups start chanting and singing at kick-off and do not stop until the final whistle.  There are songs that will make anybody smile, chants that make any parent cringe, and rocking and rolling that is not seen anywhere else other than a soccer team's supporters groups.  They do not sit in their seats.  They stand in their section and they are an impressive force.

And there is friendliness, a camaraderie among the fans, that has always surprised me, and makes every match a great experience.

I will embrace my lover's quarrel with Red Bull New York, and will save my wrath and fury for Philthadelphia, DC Scum, and the rest of our opponents!

See you at the next match!

Videos: Supporting Your Club

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