Forgive Erik Stover, but he’s feeling a little bullish about New York’s MLS team this year.
The Red Bulls have had a relatively quiet offseason compared to last year when the club brought in a new head coach, assistant coach and several new starters, capped by big-name midsummer signings such as Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez. This year has been more refining then anything for the Red Bulls, but that’s OK with Stover. In fact, he likes building on the stability of last year’s Eastern Conference championship and the first successful year of Red Bull Arena.
Season ticket equivalents, Stover said, have already nearly reached last year’s number of 8,200, a franchise high.
“We think we’re going to fly past last year’s number and hit our goal of ten thousand,” Stover said.
But the interesting developments for the Red Bulls are not on the field, but off of it. The Red Bulls have tripled their sponsorship deals over the course of the last year and are currently negotiating a new television deal. The team is also working on plans for a new training facility after having spent years practicing at Kean University, the Meadowlands and now Montclair State University.
Kearny, NJ has emerged as a location with a viable piece of land for the team’s headquarters and training fields.
“”We’re working on some zoning issues for Kearny,” Stover said. “We’re not saying we’re going there but the zoning issue needs to be resolved.”
When he was brought into team management nearly three years ago, Stover was given the primary job of turning Red Bull Arena into reality. Now with one year of the 25,000-seat facility completed, the premier venue for the sport in the country, was a success said Stover. There is some work to be done in what amounts to a winter of “tweaking” but the sense is that the arena is headed in the right direction.
“I was happy with the way the building operated. The issues we faced last year were minimal,” Stover said, who noted that attendance was up 47 percent over the club’s last year at Giants Stadium. “One thing we have to improve is the speed of service at concession stands. We realize that in soccer, there is just one break in action and that’s halftime – there’s only so much you can do when people have just fourteen minutes to get in and out of their seats and get their concession. But we’re confident we can improve the service there.”
The other major issue facing the arena is that of simply getting there. Red Bull Arena was built near the Path station in Harrison for an easy commute from New York City. But suburbanites from New Jersey, who still comprise the bulk of the Red Bulls fan base, struggled with the one-lane traffic patterns and sparse satellite parking. Stover said this year will be easier to get into the arena for a game.
“We’re working closely with the mayor’s office on this,” Stover said. “It’s something that will get better this year, I’m confident of that.”
Stopping the Bull-Sit
Last year, the Red Bulls unleashed a marketing campaign that readers of Metro will remember well, plastering Penn Station with billboards and blanketing nearly every facet of mass transportation and even commuter benches with their logo and season ticket information. This year, the Red Bulls are significantly more low key despite a high-profile and successful team filled with stars.
Instead of splashing large quantities of cash on Madison Avenue, it is those stars, namely marquee players such as designated players Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, who will be the club’s best marketing campaign this year, so says Stover.
“I think our biggest marketing investment is our two designated players. That’s a sign of what we want to do with the club,” Stover said. “We’re going to leverage their ‘Q Score’ to our advantage.”
In each of the two weeks after announcing Henry’s signing in mid-July and Marquez in early August, Stover said the Red Bulls registered one billion media impressions for each player.
“Our marketing campaign will be different than last year and the bus advertising and billboards and such,” Stover said. “It will be a different type of marketing, more grassroots, more viral.”