March 14, 2006

Red Bulls: Great Taste, Less Filling

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Red Bull my ass. No offense to anyone who likes Red Bull, but I’ve got a reason to be annoyed at the Austrian drink maker, and it’s not because I don’t like the company’s world-renowned beverage. It’s because the corporation just bought my local soccer team, the Metrostars, and renamed it the Red Bulls.

Yes, you read it right – the Metrostars are now the Red Bulls. And the name’s not just “Metrostars” anymore. The team was immediately renamed Red Bull New York, although the team plays all its games … in New Jersey’s Giants stadium, and has a new stadium currently being built … in New Jersey (it opens in 2008).

The reactions to this sale have been less than stellar, to put it nicely. It seems Red Bull has managed to offend just about every possible Metrostars fan – people who want sports to be pure, who don’t like corporate greed, people who like soccer and the MLS, and people from New Jersey, especially its politicians and law makers. (I fit into the first three categories).

That’s quite a crowd. But, before you go running to the streets to set things on fire in the name of our beloved Metrostars, I would like to address each crowd so that I can explain to you all why you should put your torches and pitchforks away.

For those of you who think sports should be pure and separate from things like advertising and other outside influences, you have met the team’s name change with much skepticism. To quote one ticked off reader on ESPN, “I want to support a team, not a billboard.”

Well, I’ve got some disappointing news for you. You’ve been supporting these kinds of things for a while now. In fact, by defending the team’s old name, you’re actually encouraging them. You see, the team’s original name, the Metrostars, didn’t really come from the concatenation of the words metro and stars – it came from the team’s owner’s company, Metromedia Inc.

So what if the team’s named after a drink? Yeah, I’m not happy about the name-changing (although, in all fairness, who’s going to miss associating the Metros with all the losing seasons and playoff losses). But, it is a pretty sweet name. Red Bulls. Taken out of context, it is kind of scary actually – just the kind of team that fans can learn to love or hate. And isn’t emotion and passion what drives sport anyway?

Come to think of it, hasn’t this exact situation happened before? Yeah … it did … in 1902. Newton Heath, a struggling English football (soccer) club, had been suffering from financial trouble, a lot like the Red Bulls – and all MLS teams today. A local brewery bought Newton Heath, changed the team’s colors to red and white – just like now – and changed the team’s name to a red “beast” (eerily similar), becoming the Manchester United Red Devils. Man U is considered to be one of the world’s most popular teams, and is consistently one of the world’s top-3 money-making clubs.

Okay, so it’s not quite the same situation. It’s not a LOCAL buyout, it’s a FOREIGN buyer. And it’s a major company too, just trying to promote its drink, right? Well, corporate greed haters, normally you’d be right right. Except this isn’t the stereotype corporate greed case. Look at this situation once more, because I think this sale is the best thing that could have happened to this team and the MLS, for two reasons.

First of all, the MLS is struggling financially. The company, Red Bull, bought the Metrostars from Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns all of the MLS’s most-storied teams, including D.C. United, the Chicago Fire and the Los Angeles Galaxy. It’s one of the few things preventing this league from folding.

But with the sale of the Metros, AEG can focus on the other teams. Moreover, the league now has an interested foreign investor, a company willing to support the league. If you look at any league, this situation is what allows it to thrive – strong, financially well-off ownership to support it, the players and the fans.

The MLS has just received its greatest break of the millennium. If Red Bull can financially support the league and put a better product on the field – as in, draw better players, pay better salaries – to draw more fans and interest, the Metros and the MLS will be in the money, literally. If every team in the MLS had this kind of financial backing, the league would bring the best players in the world and it would thrive. The MLS would be the world’s best soccer league.

But that’s just one reason why this sale is a god-send for the MLS. The second reason is because Red Bull has experience at doing the “rename-a-team-and-make-it-a-winner thing.” Yes, Red Bull did this exact same thing to an Austrian team, now named Red Bull Salzburg. The team was robbed of its 80-year history and name – which, as you have probably gathered, is not something I’m happy about, proud of, or feel is ever necessary – but needless to say, the soccer aspect of things turned out very well.

The team won the Austrian Bundesliga in the fall, and currently sits in second-place in the spring edition of the league, on pace to making the UEFA Champions League – the greatest money-making tournament in club soccer, in which all the best teams in Europe do battle to determine who’s the best of the best (you can watch it on ESPN 2 every other Tuesday).

The American translation? I think Red Bull will do what it did to Red Bull Salzburg – it will make the New York Red Bulls a winning team by pouring money into it. Red Bull has shown its commitment to winning, and frankly, does anyone believe it would have purchased the team from an upstart league in financial trouble if it wasn’t committed to winning?

So now does everyone, even MLS fans, even soccer fans, see why this is such a good deal?

Oh, right. New Jersey fans politicians and lawmakers, you’re upset because the team is changing its name to have New York in it, eliminating New Jersey from the title. You’re saying, “This is how you thank us? After all the good things you have done for New Jersey through charity work and events? And after all the good things we’re doing for you, like getting you a new stadium and going to your games?”

It’s true, no one from New York goes to Metrostars games, unless they’re from Long Island or Westchester. And it’s true, the Metros should be thankful. It’s also true that this isn’t the Metrostars anymore, it’s the Red Bulls, and that the team has the right to do what it wants. The courts may rule otherwise, but at least for now that appears to be the attitude. The official word from ownership is that the new owners wanted to take advantage of the iconic status that New York has around the world.

I suspect that it won’t back down from that statement, as the team is trying to become a winner on and off the field, and not just locally. Even though I believe the name changes to New York and Red Bulls are – and this comes from a New Yorker – morally wrong and downright disappointing, I think this is the best thing for the league.

And inevitably, that’s what I think of this whole situation. What’s best for the team and the league is not necessarily what’s best for everyone involved, at least in these early years.

Josh Perlin is an Assistant Sports Editor. My Pitch will appear every other Tuesday this semester.

Archived article by Josh Perlin