Categorized | Commentary

Juventus at RBA and the folly of catering to Eurosnobs

Posted on 20 April 2010 by Nathaniel E. Baker

As you may have heard by now, Juventus Turin will visit Red Bull Arena May 23 to play an exhibition match against the New York Red Bulls.

Judging by the reactions of the blog- and Twittersphere, local soccer fans are immensely excited about this. Red Bull has jacked up ticket prices for the event and is even making season ticket holders pay full charge. The team fully expects to sell all 25,000 tickets regardless. That noise you heard was the ka-CHING of cash registers in Salzburg (and probably Torino, too).

Personally, I don’t get all the hooplah. And that’s not because Juventus had a terrible season and are nowhere near as good as the elite teams in Europe. I’ve just never understood the allure of these exhibitions. The games don’t count for anything and the visiting team doesn’t play at full strength even when they do show up with their full ensemble of stars (which rarely happens anyway. See Robinho and Santos).

Speaking of Santos, the real allure of that event (for me at least) was Red Bull Arena. For a “grand opening” gala such as that one, exhibition matches are perfectly suitable. At midseason? Not so much.

Okay, so chalk that up to personal preference. If people are excited about a local soccer game, no matter the cause, that’s their prerogative. Besides, it really speaks to the sport’s growth in this country, which is undoubtedly a good thing, right?

Not quite. In fact, one can argue it’s not at all an indication of soccer’s growth, but the exact opposite.

Novelty acts like Juventus are exactly that: one-off events whose main intent is to generate cash. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if it’s effective. The team can then use the money to market locally, invest in new players, etc. But an indication of true local interest it’s not–or at least no more than a 1951 Harlem Globetrotters game at the Vatican reflected clergical interest in professional basketball at the time. Nor is it likely to generate any kind of sustained interest in the team itself.

At least, that has been the pattern with previous exhibitions of this type. Red Bull Arena might change this equation a bit. Or not: Attendance at the team’s last home game against FC Dallas (13,667) was little more than half what it was for the Santos match (25,000).

These exhibitions are at best short-term solutions to generate a bundle of cash that can then be reinvested in the all-important “grass roots.” But like many short-term solutions, you can’t help but wonder about negative fall-out. In this instance, the Red Bulls and MLS may want to ask themselves whether they really want to cultivate an audience for a one-off event.

Most people who attend the Juventus match will have probably never seen the New York Red Bulls play in person (or on TV for that matter). The may never again, either. They could be from the “old country,” or perhaps just think they are (i.e. Eurosnobs). They may be genuinely curious in the sport but for whatever reason didn’t feel compelled to see games before (or perhaps didn’t know the option was even available). Or they may be young people who play the game on an organized level.

Sure, some of them might come back another time and maybe, just maybe, a few will become regulars. But this is unlikely, because MLS has few recognizable names or stars for them to latch on to. And American consumers generally can’t be bothered with a learning curve of this type, especially for a league that makes no secrets of being second-rate.

Even though the best U.S. players (with one exception) ply their trade overseas, MLS in many ways remains the ultimate yardstick of soccer’s progress in this country. That is true both of the level of play and the amounts of support the league receives. Regarding the latter, MLS today is very fragmented, with season ticket sales well into five figures in Toronto and Seattle, while franchises in Dallas, Colorado and Los Angeles (Chivas) are fortunate to break five figures at individual games.

Locally, the Red Bulls have averaged a gate of about 12,000 in their 14-year history. This year, it’s 19,333 after two games. This is obviously an improvement owing in no small part to Red Bull Arena. But the sample size is small. More importantly, attendance at MLS games trails international exhibitions in the area by a wide margin. This “spread” (financial jargon) will obviously be much smaller now in a stadium where attendance is capped at 25,000 versus at Giants Stadium, which fit 80,000.

Nevertheless, if the “spread” remains wide, or if one exists at all, it indicates soccer is still looked on mainly as an exotic diversion, not something that has truly been embraced by the public. And that’s where MLS needs to tread carefully. Ideally, they wouldn’t play these exhibitions at all. Eurosnobs and others would either continue the folly of supporting teams thousands of miles away, or would embrace MLS for MLS’ sake–not just because “their” team happens to be playing a local exhibition. This would allow a true grassroots to take root and flourish.

Obviously, that’s not realistic. These exhibitions are cash cows and teams on both sides of the Atlantic (or the Rio Grande) need to milk them. Unfortunately, this detracts from MLS’ long-term mission. It allows the league to pad its coffers from something that is literally foreign. That’s not a way to grow the sport in this country–at least not with the people that matter.

11 Comments For This Post

  1. Kevin Says:

    While I agree that an exhibition match is a revenue generator, I think your example is poor. Showing the Santos sellout, on a beautiful balmy spring evening, next to the FC Dallas match, on a cold and rain-predicted night is not a fair comparison.

  2. ASN Editorial Says:

    no it's not, but you also have countless examples from the Giants Stadium days. The larger point was that on the whole, these exhibitions do nothing to generate sustainable (or indeed much of any) interest in the team itself.

  3. MrTuktoyaktuk Says:

    It's in the eye of the beholder. Last year's exhibition match between TFC and Real Madrid was absurd on a lot of levels. An exhibition between Real and another world class club in a larger venue than BMO would have made much more sense financially. But it did generate a lot of excitement, and attention to TFC and MLS. IMHO there's a need for all kinds of games, things like the World Football Challenge which was so spectacularly successful last summer, MLS v top club exhibitions and good league play – it all builds the sport. The thing to watch out for is that one isn't done at the expense of the other. TFC chose not to play an exhibition vs Manchester Utd this year because the date offered conflicted with a league game. Maybe we're on the right track after all. Sorry for all the TFC talk here in the RBNY page but I think it was relevant to the point.

  4. sccrhound Says:

    I just want everyone to be clear with the fact that RB announced attendence of 13k, but being there, it looked more like 8k at best. Most of the upper deck was empty and a good portion of the seats opposite the players.

    I think they counted all season tickets and other sales, regardless of whether anyone actually showed up.

  5. RB_Fred Says:

    You get it wrong from some many directions I'm not sure where to start. After two big sell-outs, you would EXPECT a big drop off; people just went to two games! Only the hardest of hard core fans go to every game. Especially when you factor in a non-rival team, early in the season, following a horrific season, on a cold/rainy night.

    Juventus is not Man United or Real Madrid or AC Milan or some other star-studded celebrity show team; people don't come to see Juventus unless they are real soccer fans. And its real soccer fans you are trying to draw. When real soccer fans come and see a real stadium, with great atmosphere, and, hopefully, quality soccer, they will come back. Real soccer fans in this area have been starved for real soccer. Thats why they come out in huge numbers when real (i.e., non-MLS) teams show up, even if its just a relatively-real exhibition. Show them quality soccer, and they will recognize it, and they will come back.

  6. ASN Editorial Says:

    well that's the difference between paid vs. actual attendance. MLS announced paid as do virtually all sports leagues now. I have no problem with that.

  7. robstyles21 Says:

    I hope you are right in your theory. RB Arena is an amazing facility. I brought a friend to the FCD game who had never attended an MLS game before and he was blown away. Hopefully some of the viewers at the Juve game feel the same way and come back for more.

  8. Wes C. Says:

    Totally agree with you, Nat. At the end of the day, what does this do for Red Bull New York, besides put a few extra coins in their pocket? I remember when we played the exhibition against Barcalona, and a good amount of my co-workers went only for that reason. Many of them, in fact, had explicitly noted they didn't care about the Red Bulls. Couple that with the fact that many of these international clubs will more likely than not trounce our side, people leave the stadium thinking “man, Red Bulls stink” to only justify their reasons not to back the team (with of course the exception of our brilliant win against Santos this season).

    In the bigger picture, this is not supportive of building soccer, specifically our home grown domestic MLS brand, as a nationally honored sport. Like Nat says, this a one-off spectacle event that people attend to cross of a list of things to do. Most in attendence would ever purposefully plan a trip to the Stadio Olimpico. I partially agree with RB Fred, in the idea that the true passionate fans that support MLS will pack in the stadiums. They are the ones that will carry this league, and continue to help it grow. But they are also the ones, like me, that cannot get behind the idea that an exhibition like this is a stepping stone to bring the vacationing soccer fan back to Red Bull Arena. Did RBNY v Barcalona produce the same result? Of course it didn't.

  9. kushi purac Says:

    -could either continue the folly of supporting teams thousands of miles away,

    i agree with most of the article but this part above.

    i LOVE basketball yet I live about 9hrs away from the closest NBA team.
    I love volleyball (i like the beach stuff for the t and a but not the two man game) and there are no leagues in north america.
    i love judo but all the grand prix and world events happen elsewhere.

    I have the nba package and i also have a euro-world satellite dish to watch volleyball and handball and watch judo tournaments online. there is no option here for these popular sports but with technology it makes no difference it im 100 miles from the event of 4,000 miles.

    why is it folly to follow sports I love that arent offered here.
    soccer is offered here but i dont live within 9hrs of a MLS team so whether I watch MLS on TV (where) or La Liga, there is no difference to me.

    you have to understand also that people who go to these games dont go to see great football, they go to an event to be able to say that they went. even with a b team, they wont care because they can still say they saw team X and its not about the game or the players, its about the shirts. thats what people go to see. if the starting 11 is composed of paraplegic gorillas, they wouldnt care,… as long as the gorillas wear the team shirts.

    speaking of tv, mls and dumbasses… MLS isnt worried about getting everyone to watch, they worry more about doing business deals which explains why their website demands that you download Microsoft Silverlight to watch videos. sure, they only have low single digit usage as opposed to every live video system like ustream, justin.tv and the WHOLE internet but at least they have their microsoft deal in place. and THATs whats important.
    its not about serving mls fans.

  10. ASN Editorial Says:

    good points, especially about Micro$oft and Major League Soccer soccer.com. I can't believe I missed that connection.

    But I think your case is a little different because you live so far away from where your favorite professional sports are played. And you already pay attention to MLS (otherwise you wouldn't be on this website I don't think).

    I fully agree with you on people going to these games because they're an event. That was kind of my point of the article in fact.

  11. ASN Editorial Says:

    good points, especially about Micro$oft and Major League Soccer soccer.com. I can't believe I missed that connection.

    But I think your case is a little different because you live so far away from where your favorite professional sports are played. And you already pay attention to MLS (otherwise you wouldn't be on this website I don't think).

    I fully agree with you on people going to these games because they're an event. That was kind of my point of the article in fact.

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