After reading yesterday’s scathing editorial about the New York Red Bulls and their role in the Red Bull soccer pantheon, I think it is appropriate to add context to the argument.
The list of concerns Anthony Merced makes are valid concerns, and raise a lot of good questions. But I think the article has a great failing, it ignores some finer details in crafting a narrative thus drawing conclusions that are not wholly accurate. It makes the assertions that the New York side was the “diamond” in RBGs soccer holdings, that RBG changed courses to focus on RB Leipzig, Red Bulls are operated only to sell players they develop to RB Leipzig and thus lack ambition.
Leipzig becomes the priority?
Let’s start with the first part. New York is a global market. Red Bull bought into the team as a way to secure an important global market, and at first they stocked the team with stars. Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez were strategic decisions made by RBG to bring attention to the brand, and add fire power to their property with an eye towards winning trophies.
These initiatives were implemented by Dietmar Beiersdorfer, the head of Red Bull Global Soccer and Red Bull Salzburg sporting director and the behest of Dietrich Mateschitz, co-founder of Red Bull. Beiersdorfer, hired in 2010, became responsible for all Red Bull soccer operations, including 5th tier German side RB Leipzig. Leipzig’s stated goal at inception was to reach the Bundisliga within eight years.
The decision to buy a team in Germany was largely born out of the need for a higher profile to attract star players. Red Bull Salzburg had been a consistent winner, but had trouble retaining fans put off by the team’s transition to Red Bull and the relative anonymity of the Austrian League. In Germany, at the highest level, Red Bull could finally make a splash in the soccer world. New York while well funded and attracting big name players, was more a testing ground for this approach in a global market.
Even in the ‘superstar’ era at RBNY, there was a feeling amongst the fans and media that the team was largely ignored by Global operations. This lines up with the timeline of events surrounding Beiersdorfer’s tenure with Red Bull Global.
During that time, Leipzig experienced a number of issues, including a tremendous amount of “interference” from Dietrich Mateschitz that led to Beiersdorfer’s exit. The Football times covered some of these issues in their article ‘The Money Before The Fame: RB Leipzig’s Troubled Journey To The Top’
Beiersdorfer’s first decision of note was the firing of coach Vogel following the first season. “Beiersdorfer made the mistake that he left the position of the sporting director vacant, which is why [newly-hired] head coach Tomas Oral had to battle crises, issues with the squad and public criticism all on his own,” Kießling says. “When he corrected that mistake by hiring Thomas Linke [as the new sporting director], Mateschitz interfered and decided after a glass of wine with Peter Pacult that [Pacult] would become the next Leipzig coach. Beiersdorfer and Linke were exasperated and resigned.”
The sporting aspect of both RB Leipzig and RBNY suffered during this time. Despite having big time brand ambassadors like Henry, and Marquez, the only real sporting objective was to win now, and not grow a healthy or fiscally responsible organization. Fiscal responsibility is not really an attractive quality in a sports team for fans, but the stabilization of the balance sheet became a priority only after the superstar period ended. While Henry remained with the team through 2014, it was clear that a shift already began on the sporting side, thanks to MLS parity rules that made player acquisition a cumbersome problem for Red Bulls ultimate vision.
Further evidence of a lack of vision towards a sustainable product and taking the ‘win now’ approach is found in the number of sporting directors and general managers the club has gone through since Red Bull took over the Metrostars in 2006. Before the takeover, there were two in ten seasons. The next decade plus saw the team churn through six and hire a seventh.
Suffice to say, RB Leipzig was the focus of Red Bull Global as early as 2010, and RBNY, constrained by MLS roster rules and regulations first existed as a flagship for a market, but were never really the true focus of intent. However, like many of Red Bull satellite teams, player development was a focus.
Player identification, development, and sales
The Red Bulls current systemic integration is certainly a recent innovation. A defined system of play, and more specifically the types of players capable of playing the system, making its way to all levels of Red Bull soccer is less than a decade old. Many credit the approach with the hiring of Ralf Ragnick.
The previous interference from above ended when Rangnick took over, and the sporting philosophy of the current Red Bull teams owes its fair share of credit to Rngnick. More important than on field adjustments, hiring capable staff at all levels and more financial independence to sign players.
Before that, Leipzig took a very frugal approach to signing talent, similar to MLS teams. Free agents that could be signed to the club for free were the preferred method. This attracted older players from the upper echelons of the Budisliga, but their salaries rarely matched their performance. Sound familiar doesn’t it.
Rangnick recognized that achieving RB Leipzig’s lofty goals required investment in younger players that could develop at the club, and selling them to continue to fund football operations. Rinse and repeat. That philosophy filtered down to RBNY.
But the groundwork for RBNY adaptation had already been in place. Youth clubs in the Tri-State area were developing strong youth players, but struggled to push them into the professional ranks. The Red Bulls founded their first academy in 2003, three years before they purchased the MetroStars. In 2005, the Red Bulls New York Academy was ranked #1 in the nation by the Super Y league.
Their youth teams would win or reach the finals of many youth tournaments from 2005 onward. The investment in a youth academy, and developing players exists as a means to generate player sales while strengthening the first team. Up until Rangnick’s appointment, RBNY saw very little return on these investments.
By adopting their current model, the Red Bulls are able to take advantage of these resources. At a micro-level, the Red Bulls benefit from a so-called ‘minor league’ team in USL, and at a macro-level, Red Bull Global benefits from all of their ‘minor league’ investments.
While it is unusual for MLS teams to have a parent club take advantage of MLS assets, it falls in line with the league wide philosophical shift. MLS, as it moves into its next phase of maturity, has to be content to balance their own lofty goals of league development with entertainment value and sustainability. As such, the league is shifting from a league that attracts aging talent to boost visibility to a league that is known for developing exciting talent to boost revenue through player sales.
The Red Bulls approach falls in line with the league approach, while benefitting more directly thanks to corporate synergy.
The business side of Red Bull soccer becoming more responsible might make fan engagement difficult in a traditional sense. Fans, and especially New York sports fans, want championships and star players. The appeal of seeing world renowned talent is self evident. That falls in line with Red Bulls earlier approach, though it never yielded championships.
But undeniably, the entertainment value of the team has risen since adopting their new philosophy and business approach. Why this hasn’t translated to fans probably lies in the dispassionate way the team’s roster is regularly rotated. Fans don’t want to root for laundry, they want heroes.
Falling attendance numbers are a concern, but the data set is too small to draw significant conclusions that any one factor is wholly responsible for the drop. Historic narratives of playoff futility play a factor too.
But is the Red Bulls current approach really lacking ambition? Red Bull Salzburg, cited in Merced’s story, also lose players to their German affiliate, but regularly win the league and compete in international tournaments like UEFA Champions League and UEFA Euro League. All of the Red Bull teams are experiencing prolonged era’s of success.
Arguably, crafting low-cost, talent-rich squads full of academy players thumbs it’s nose at MLS parity intentions. While the ultimate prize remains out of reach, progress towards MLS Cup continues. If the Red Bulls did not reach their dizzying highs in MLS, they couldn’t disappoint their fans quiet as much as they have.
MLS as a whole has increasingly turned their marketing attention to hardcore fans, rather than appealing to casuals. They are attempting to shake off their inferiority complex by pushing talent on field to international levels of recognition through transfer success. They intend to show rather than tell that the on field product has improved.
As of now, that approach seems to be failing in attendance numbers and TV ratings outside of a handful of markets.
I agree with Anthony’s conclusions in principal. I think they reach some hyperbole by ignoring some context within the Red Bull organization and MLS as a whole. Most importantly, there hasn’t been a significant sporting shift at RBNY, just further evidence pointing to what most fans have understood for years.
What approach would I favor? The current player development approach provides entertainment far beyond the Red Bulls ever achieved during the superstar era more regularly. There is no denying the magic that Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry brought to the Red Bulls, but their failures to achieve MLS playoff success was accessible at a far lower cost with a larger ROI for Red Bull Global.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography