Saturday, June 01, 2013

I Loves Me Some Red Bulls

by Dick Mac

Well, not the drink Red Bull, but the soccer team owned by the drink company.  There are some (and have been other) amazing players in the organization.  I've been a fan for 12 years, and a season ticket holder for most of that time.  I am dedicated.  No matter how much the team wins or loses and no matter how badly the organization is mismanaged, I am always true to my team.

This does not mean I am incapable of critical analyses, it just means that my heart always wins out over actual scientific, empirical, legal, and historical analyses and conclusions.

Being a soccer fan in New York City is probably easier than being a soccer fan in Tulsa, or Missoula, or Birmingham, or Little Rock; but, being a soccer fan in the United States means truly being a second-class sports citizen.  OK, third-class.  Hockey fans get the #2 slot.

I am lucky, though.  I live in a large metropolitan area with one or the known-universe's most dynamic urban centers.  There are a lot of soccer fans.

My team built a state-of-the-art soccer-specific stadium in Harrison, New Jersey.  Harrison is right across the Passaic River from Newark.  It's a beautiful stadium.  European fans and players alike are happy to wax eloquently about its beauty and utility.  It really is the premier soccer venue in the Americas.  I have been fortunate to have four or five tours of the place over the course of time from the construction phase (seats were not even in, yet, never mind offices, locker rooms and the such) through to last year's annual behind-the-scenes tour with my daughter.

The organization works very hard to win over the hearts and minds (and future pocketbooks) of the area's children.  There have been events and special clubs and access to the players for kids, and every time they do something like that, the amount goodwill they enjoy is enormous. What parent isn't happy to see a child beaming with pleasure while meeting one of the players on the team, have a picture taken, and collecting an autograph.  Every parent is thrilled to see that, it's priceless, and MLS teams work hard to make those moments happen.

My daughter is in her sixth year as a season-ticket holder, and to my surprise, her interest has not waned as she has matured.  We are members of Viking Army, an official supporters club, and she is well-known in that group as well as in the team's organization and fan base, in general.  She knows the chants and sings along, and at 9-years-old is still embarrassed by the R-rated (and X-rated) chants that emanate from the South Ward (home of the most ardent supporters).  We now travel to away matches with other supporters.  We've been to New England, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.  On the road trips, she is totally comfortable socializing with the adults around her, because the men and women who make up the community of Red Bull supporters are a unique and amazing brand of people.  Soccer fans are different, they really are.

Because we are so familiar with the organization, the stadium, the other fans, and the surrounding area, our trips to Red Bull Arena are always fun.  This was not always the case.  The team has had some difficult hurdles to overcome since the facility opened for the 2010 season.

The stadium is located in a reclaimed industrial wasteland, and is part of a major development project that is seeing the riverfront of Harrison, New Jersey, transformed from an abandoned horror show, to a dynamic area of shopping and residences and entertainment, including Red Bull Arena.  The Riverfront project is impressive, and Red Bull inherited the project when they purchased the team a few years earlier.

In 2008, you may recall, the American economy took a turn for the worse, and the rest of the world followed.  Credit dried up, progress seemed to halt, and the entire planet seemed inert.

When you are redeveloping an industrial wasteland into an urban paradise, it is (generally speaking) a high-risk proposition.  High-risk proposals often face difficulty when seeking financing.  Needless to say, as the stadium was nearing completion and the bottom was falling out of the economy, almost all work on the rest of the project slowed to a standstill.  As an economist friend said to me a few years ago:  "Even China won't lend them money for that project, and when China won't lend you money you are probably in a bit of trouble."

Twenty-four acres of land that front the stadium were intended to be a mixed-use development with restaurants and bars and retail outlets and apartments and a cinema.  The local commuter rail station was to be transformed into a modern facility that provided multiple exits giving access to all of the new development, including the stadium.

Sadly, although work has re-started on some of the development, neither the fancy mixed-use development fronting the stadium, nor the promised transportation improvements have materialized.

Still we march on.  Literally.  Hundreds of us  march to the stadium as a group, before each match, and the players from both teams take the field in a procession that seems part-religious and part-militaristic.  We march on.

The team has trouble selling tickets.  The stadium seats 25,000 and I think only one Red Bulls match has sold-out:  and that was actually the MLS All-star game.  Our league matches do not sell-out. Sometimes, on a lovely day in the Spring, the stadium will be less than half-full.  The players, especially the famous players who have come from playing in European leagues, say it is discouraging to play in front of so few people.

But, we make a lot of noise!  And the players:  from the most famous, aloof, international to the most humble young man who has made good and landed a place on his hometown MLS team, acknowledge the support that the season ticket holders bring.  And they publicly applaud us.  Literally.  At the end of each match, they approach the South Ward, which is usually full, and clap their hands and wave to us.  They show their gratitude, and that is not something you see in any other American sports league.

I'm in love.  I love my Red Bulls.

I have written about the team many times, so a regular reader probably knows that my all-time favorite athlete, Thierry Henry, signed a four-year contract with us a few years back.  I get to watch my favorite player, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, play at my stadium.  He has approached the section in which I sit and he has applauded me and my fellow fans.  When participating in a public event that includes face time with his fans, he is humble and self-deprecating, enthusiastic, sincere, and seems truly grateful for his success and station in life.  I am really lucky to have him on my team, to have met him and chatted a few minutes, had my picture taken with him, and get to brag over and over and over again about him being on my team.

My daughter tells a funny story about the first time we met Henry.  I was speechless, tongue-tied.  I had reverted to being a shy 9-year-old boy too nervous to talk in front of the grown-ups.  He talked with my daughter and asked her questions.  He signed a shirt on which she was collecting all the players' autographs. He posed for pictures with us.  And I stood there grinning like a fool, unable and incapable of knowing what to do or say.  I was so baffled and overcome, that I forgot to have him sign my Thierry Henry jersey.

At some later date, we attended an event at the SoHo Adidas shop with all the players.  Henry was present. I was less flummoxed this time, and was able to actually make sentences and laugh a few times.  As we were walking to meet another player, my daughter said (loudly enough for everyone to hear):  "Daddy, you forgot to have him sign your shirt again."  We managed to backtrack to his spot and my daughter explained to him that this was the second time I forgot to have him sign it.  We all laughed and I was (once again) a little boy trapped in an old man's body.

He isn't the only player that makes the team amazing.  Over the years, the organization has employed some wonderful players who have been very generous of time and spirit.  Currently, Henry plays with Tim Cahill, an Australian international, and Juninho, a Brazilian international.  Ten years ago, it was unthinkable that players of their stature, still fit enough to actually play the game, would play for us.   But here they are.

At one point, we had Henry, Rafa Marquez, and Juan Pablo Angel all on our team at the same time.  Outside of Europe it is almost unfathomable that a team would have three players of their stature on the roster -- irrespective of their current skill level.

As I said earlier, the players (especially the famous players) find it difficult to accept the lack of interest in the sport and the low attendance.  No matter how full, or not full, the stadium is for any particular match, it is like being in heaven to watch my team play, and to shout encouragement and sing the songs and chant the chants.

It is heaven inside Red Bull Arena.

Yes, it is hell outside the stadium, but once inside there are no words to describe the experience.

If you haven't been to a match at Red Bull Arena, please do so.  You will not regret it.  If you went once and were frustrated by the conditions surrounding the stadium, please give it another chance.  Things have improved and continue to improve, and you won't regret it!  Tickets are very affordable:  Look here.

Perhaps the surrounding development will be completed one day, maybe not.  But I won't let that stop me from attending every home match (and some away matches, too).