Global Red Bull Soccer: The Fans’ Perspective

For a couple months, I have been reaching out to Red Bull fans  in Leipzig, Salzburg, Brasil, and New York. The fans of these four teams have something quite unique linking them, and I find it difficult to simply ignore.

Yet, since these fans each face their own struggles at home, I suppose it was simple to just overlook the network and family they have abroad. Therefore, I decided to connect this family through an article detailing the fans perspective of the game and also how their opinions link back to my team, the New York Red Bulls.

Before I begin, I would like to thank every one who has contributed to this article. I truly appreciate the time you have set aside to speak with me about this matter, and I wholeheartedly apologize to all the German and Portuguese speaking fans that I was unable to write this in their native tongue! Hopefully Google Translate will have mercy on us for once. (The order which I introduce these teams has no significance.)

RB Leipzig

Thank you to contributors: Benny KHL, Chris Mount, Lorenz Giesemann

This club is the youngest of the four in this discussion, only being bought up in 2009, while the former team SSV Markranstädt had been around since 1990, playing in the Landesliga Sachsen, which was the fifth division, receiving promotion in 2007 to the fourth division:NOFV-Oberliga Süd. The team, now that they have climbed up to Bundesliga 2 (second division), has made quite an impact on the East German city.

It remains one of the few top teams to reside in the area that was previously a Soviet satellite country (Hertha Berlin is well represented), and should they make it to the top flight, the impact on the area will be more beneficial and uplifting then one could imagine.

“It was a stunning performance, we made it from fourth (Regionalliga) to second league from 2012/13 till 2014, before we got stuck in the 4. League for 3 years,” says Lorenz Giesemann. “The team developed very well and we could see attractive offensive soccer in the Red Bull Arena/Zentralstadion in Leipzig. After marching through the three league we somehow got stuck now in the two league – called the strongest 2nd league in the world.” he adds.

Most of the fans now seem greatly appreciative of everything Red Bull has done for them. Each of the contributors have pointed out very promptly to me that prior to Red Bull, the team was looming in the fourth and fifth division. Now that they are in the second division, it is more respectful, and people are genuinely interested in attending the games.

Giesemann continued on this matter saying he has really taken a liking to the team, “I wasn’t a great fan of any club before I got to Red Bull in 2012, I played soccer myself but nothing else. Now I’d call myself an Ultra, going to many home games and few away games.”

Benny Khl adds that one good thing about this team is its representation of the East. Germans in this area are still less well off than their Western counterparts and some like a good soccer team can really do good for people. He recollects “I was not a follower of the team before Red Bull Leipzig. It is very positive for this “part” of Germany.” It surely does do some good for the people in the area.

It was also pointed out to me by Chris Mount that the team cannot legally call themselves Red Bull Leipzig because of the licensing and sponsoring laws in the Bundesliga 2. Instead, “RB stands for Rasenballsport because in Germany you can’t use a name of a company (Our capitalism is not so hard like yours) because of the rules. And that’s also the reason why we changed our club sign, too.” Yet, some fans do go on to call them Die Roten Bullen (The Red Bulls), anyway – with merchandise to go with it.

Mount goes on to lament the lack of a financial and economic system to support the team as Benny mentioned. However, he is proud since, “we have an average of 25,000 visitors per game now cause after such a long time to see a club from the east of Germany and from a beautiful city in the 2 Bundesliga is great.”

As far as long term plans go, all three seem pretty hopeful that the energy drink firm will stay with their team, and continue to develop Leipzig. Mount and Giesemann point to the production of a youth academy as well as a stadium, which they hope signify the commitment to stay in the city. However, Benny was a little more concerned. He was worried posing the rhetorical: “what if we fall back into the third or fourth division. Then I do not know what will happen.”

The most critical thing I wanted to uncover was the other teams’ fans’ treatment of these supporters and what Mount, Giesemann, and Khl as ultras thought about the abuse they have suffered ever since Red Bull’s acquisition in 2009.

Giesemann had mentioned to me that “since then [the purchase] almost every team with a greater fan base had a flag or a banner with them to the games vs. us or at other games with “Nein zu Red Bull” (No to RB), Gegen den Kommerz (against the commerce) or football is for you and me, not for [expletive] industry. I guess you know the last one, the German soccer clubs where all found around 1900 or earlier, that time without sponsors, only workers who played in their free time some soccer.”

Khl had also revealed to me that fans often get very aggressive with Leipzig’s fans and players: attacking the buses and waiting outside hotels throughout the night. “Dead Bull” cans were made and sold to some opposing fans as part of the anti-commerce movement that swept Germany. But Giesemann told me not to worry, as RB Leipzig fans playfully go along with the hate:

“but we are reacting in an ironic way with own chants, banners and stuff…”

All three have said they like the New York Red Bulls and root for them in MLS. They were a bit surprised when I mentioned to them that people are not as violent as they are in Germany regarding the commercial branding, but as they pointed out, our league is much too young for people to make a fuss over it. They also welcome further communications with New York Red Bulls fans and the RB Leipzig fan page on Facebook can be found here.

RB Salzburg

Thank you to contributors: Martin Yiddo Tippel, Hubertus Brawisch, Bernhard H.

Arguably one of the more interesting cases of Red Bull soccer, as it is the team that sits closest to the capital of the Red Bull empire. The club had originally been known as SV Austria Salzburg, and had a long but rather unsuccessful club history. Previous to the purchase, the team had only three league titles and Supercups. Since its inception in 1922, these pre-Red Bull stats did not seem all too appealing.

Then came the Red Bulls who purchased the team on April 6th, 2005, totally rebranded the team. Red Bull had changed absolutely everything, even declaring that FC Red Bull Salzburg was a “new club without any history.” As one can imagine this comment really angered a lot of fans.

So much so, that some fans broke off from this team and had decided to resurrect the name of SV Austria Salzburg. This divide did not happen all at once. The team did try to compromise with opposition fans known as the “violet-whites,” as well as address global protests regarding the commercialization of football. Eventually the violet-whites gave up on negotiations, and the global protests waned.

The fans that stuck around, the red-whites, have a pretty unique outlook on the team. These are the supporters who despite the total rebranding and elimination of history, stayed around and continued to follow FC Salzburg (the term “Red Bull” cannot be used in many situations as per European sponsorship rules).

I first asked the fans what there thought processes were when deciding to continue their support for Salzburg. Bernhard was pretty upfront with me, replying he enjoyed “The passion Red Bull show, and the new fan culture.” Asking him to elaborate he believed that the club finally became more than a team for him, and rather a way of life. He continues, “No matter where you come from, what you are, what you do, you are always welcome whether you are a newbie or traditional fan.”

His answers I believe were quite normal for a fan to say about his team, but I wanted to understand exactly what factors were at play for the Red Bull Salzburg decision. The answers I got were quite underwhelming. Tippel elaborated on his feelings about the Red Bull purchase stating: “It is a part of the deal.  The name ‘Red Bull’ is good fitting to Salzburg because in ancient times the Bull was a synonym for Salzburg.” So clearly, the fans that stuck around are looking really more at the positives than the negatives they feel bring them down in the first place.

Fan sentiment in general seemed quite strong. The fans that were there to stay knew they have a job to keep the support going for the team. Hubertus affirmed such beliefs as he feels the”very positive about the feelings of the fans.” He sees that since the team has done so well that they will continue to see happy ticket purchasers continue to fill the Arena in Salzburg.

Tippel and Brawisch also agree that the long term future of their club is with Red Bull. Martin commented that Red Bull will stay committed to the team as “they made a lot of investment to infrastructure and youth, especially the academy.” With such a huge deal of money spent to develop the team, it seems hard that divesting is in the plan for Mateschitz. Speaking of whom, Hubertus notes that because of Mr. Mateschitz geographical proximity to the team, the energy drink company will be there to stay, to the delight of the red-white fans.

Should people like to get in touch with Salzburg fans this link will redirect you to their Facebook home page.

Red Bull Brasil

Thank you to Contributors: Clayton Mion and Marcos Matias

Red Bull Brasil was founded in 2007 and is based in the Sao Paulo region of Brazil. The team has a rather sizable stadium capacity of about 20,000 considering its lower position within the Brazilian football hierarchy.

When the team was first founded they start in the state’s professional fourth division and have now moved up to the first division. However, these promotions do not mean they are in the top flight. The country top flight is the most important one. Since I was confused I had a fan elaborate for me:

“So, first of all, I have to explain that the Brazilian championship is something really weird, with some weird rules. We are in the first division of the State championship, but talking about the country championship, we are going to be there for the first time since the birth of our team – the fourth Brazilian division.”

Okay great, thank you Clayton Mion, that (sort of) clears things up for where Red Bull Brasil stands so far. Marcos also added that the team classified last year to the major regional league (Sao Paulo state, the most competitive in Brazil), and this year the club had a good performance along the championship, classifying to the National league (fourth division, where the best clubs of each state classify). Next semester Red Bull will be playing the fourth division, and our expectation is it will be classified for the third division (four best clubs classify).”

Looks like we have this part covered!

Yet, since the team started from scratch in 2007 I found it hard to believe that they really amassed some fans. Yet, the Red Bull Brasil fan discussion group seems pretty sizable. Moreover, thanks to Victor Forganes, I was invited to a 100+ person Whatsapp group (yeah, I know, the notifications are crazy) where after excessively using Google Translate, I discovered the group is pretty vibrant and like to talk up Brasil, general football, and occasionally talk about their cousins in the Red Bull community.

I did want to ask about what Mion and Matias thought about Red Bull, and they returned to me with pretty positive answers.

Mion takes note of having a cool sponsor that connects them to other sports, while Matias comments on the national coverage and the perceived goal of “link[ing] the club with the country.” Yet, despite these pretty high goals and expectations, their stadiums go largely unfilled (believe it or not New York Red Bull fans, we are not the only ones with attendance problems)!

The average attendance for these games are about 300-400, which for a team that has been around for about four seasons, seems very underwhelming – perhaps things will change if they continue moving up divisions.

red bull brasil
Matias: “Football (or soccer for Americans) in Brazil is our first sport, and there are a lot of opportunities to Red Bull here as the clubs are not well administrated usually. Additionally, Brazil is recognized one of the best markets for this sport. Red Bull is investing in youth teams. Most of the Brazilian’s teams don’t have capacity, structure or even competence to maintain a long term project with youth teams, and this is a key to get competitive professional teams.”

Nonetheless, both these fans are optimistic about Red Bull in the long run. They feel that after such sizable investments, and building a team from scratch, it would seem to have been in vain if they abandon this project now. As they have done with the other teams in their portfolio, the heavy investment into facilities and youth development leads people to believe that the foundations are placed, and it will be hard to unroot the energy drink company now.

However, they say they do receive quite a bit of complaints from fans of other teams. In Brazil, it is standard practice to dislike teams that have a corporate upbringing, regardless of what company establishes the team. Mion boasts: “We have a lot of haters. Most of people here dislike this kind of business, they think that this is ‘killing the soccer.'”

Matias also confirms the general distaste for the commercialization of soccer, but remarks that there is a portion of “people that admire Red Bull, and the results and titles will bring more fans to support the team. This is a question of time to get these positive results.” So as long as the team progresses forward, it seems that people will become accepting of this outfit. Perhaps this may not be applicable to Leipzig, but it looks as though so long as results are coming in, most people don’t make a fuss of the teams.

Red Bull New York

Thank you to contributors: Mark Fishkin, Rick Hansen, Tommy Wong, Ethan Oster, Mark Mattera, Peter Knox, and Geff Gardner.

Last but not least, the New York side. I would like to thank everyone who had contributed, the participation in this article was more than I had imagined, and presented a great spectrum of perspectives, many of which I had never even considered.

Overall since Red Bull bought out AEG to purchase the MetroStars in 2006, the team had a pretty uneven history. Some glamorous names such as the likes of Thierry Henry have come and gone, as was true throughout the franchise’s history, which only culminated in no MLS Cups and a single Supporters’ Shield, of which many discount when juxtaposed to the Cup. Albeit, the team nearly realized their goals in 2008, but they sadly fell to Columbus Crew during the MLS Cup Finals.

The Crew take down the Red Bulls 3-1 in the 2008 showdown.
The Crew take down the Red Bulls 3-1 in the 2008 showdown.

Red Bull has its support and dissent among the stands of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Many reject the new ownership – claiming an overall disinterest in the club. To some degree they have a point: the owner has never seen a game at the stadium, priorities seem to lie with Salzburg and Leipzig, the promise of glory has not come to fruition, and headache after headache is bestowed upon the fans.On the other hand, Red Bull has made noticeable investments in the facilities (Red Bull Arena, training facilities, youth academies), made the youth squads the top teams in each age category, and have brought in large names, which they had to compensate themselves. Both sides argue a point, both are quite valid.

Although the rebranding pushed away a number of fans, many stayed behind chanting the same songs of Metro, rather than forming a new team in the lower leagues like their counterparts in Austria.

For long time followers such as Fishkin, there was no walking away, though: “The branding for me was tough, but the team was a part of my personal identity, and while I was not in love with the brand, I decided to continue my support.” Such was the general mood of many followers after 2006. People don’t like change, but it seems like the bigger change would be to stop following the soccer team they have for the last 10 years. That seemed to trump the alternative of just walking away.

Though the support for the team was there, the love feelings weren’t there for Red Bull GmbH. Fans like Wong were quite opposed: [I] vehemently disliked the rebranding. Although Metrostars was a wonky/funny name to say the least, to be rebranded to an energy drink company was just awful to me.”

Not to say there aren’t those among us who don’t like it. For instance I myself have no heavy reservations about supporting this team, though it carries the logo of Red Bull. I became invested in the team much to late to have a innate desire to return to the original name. That being said I will still chant Metro, and bring a 2001 MetroStars jersey into the stadium.

Ethan Oster: I understand why Red Bull renamed the team. That is where my understanding ends. We have no real owner. Red Bull spent 200 million to build an amazing stadium and our owner has never been here to see a game and show his face to the fans and show that he cares. This is a major failure by Red Bull but also by MLS for being so money hungry they were willing to allow teams to be owned by owners who do not care (Man City, Robert Kraft, Red Bulls) I would prefer to have less resources and have an owner from the NY/Metro Area who comes to games who interacts with fans and who cares about the team.
Oster: I understand why Red Bull renamed the team. That is where my understanding ends. We have no real owner. Red Bull spent 200 million to build an amazing stadium and our owner has never been here to see a game and show his face to the fans and show that he cares. This is a major failure by Red Bull but also by MLS for being so money hungry they were willing to allow teams to be owned by owners who do not care (Man City, Robert Kraft, Red Bulls) I would prefer to have less resources and have an owner from the NY/Metro Area who comes to games who interacts with fans and who cares about the team.

Others like Gardner, Knox, and Mattera seem to be a little more desensitized to the name change as well.

Mattera comments: “Personally I was not a fan of the change initially. However after thinking about it (when it happened), I realized that there isn’t all that much of a difference. Many people argue that the Red Bull name is nothing but a corporate shill, but when you boil it down, the Metrostars were a corporate sell out to Metro Media Group the then owners of the club.”

It is a pick your poison scenario for Mattera, as he further commented saying he would like to see a new owner without linkages to corporations.

Knox seems to be in my boat as he says, “That said, I enjoy Red Bull personally. Their global brand is exciting and powerful. It’s not a bad fit, and even though I moved to New York City nine years ago, I don’t remember much of the Metrostars.”

Gardner’s opinion seems to expand the matter as well, stating: “I have no problem with [the rebranding], the reality is money drives the sport, and most teams have corporate sponsors’ logos on their jerseys anyway. We are lucky that it’s common to name teams after animals in the U.S. so it’s not a big deal.”

Both sides have sufficient points and arguments to make about it. They seem to be even more legitimate since many people harbor feelings on both sides of the argument, making the fans capable of producing some sort of dialectic feelings of Red Bull New York, which may culminate into something beyond “out” vs. “in”. What that is to become will be left for time to decide.

Speaking of time, the Red Bull dedication to the team has also been a critical point in discussions among fans. “Is Red Bull cost cutting in New York?” “Does the team have plans for the long run?” “The turnover in staff and players are so high, will Red Bull be next?” “Will they still be here in the next 5-10 years?”

Group chats are often plagued by these questions once Red Bull’s intent is brought up, and not blessed with any reassurances one way or another. Fishkin remains skeptical on the matter: “They’ve owned the club since 2006. Pro teams change owners all the time. Will be they be here in five years? Yes? 10? Who knows?”

Hansen is a little more pointed with his discussions on Red Bull New York, believing the team should stop attempting to cater to the metro area, and “rebrand again and Red Bull New Jersey.” Oster offers a little more optimistic stance:

“The Red Bulls will last long term because they own an amazing stadium next to the Path train in a growing city and next to two cities that are turning around in Jersey City and Newark. I fear that we will become the Jets/Mets/Devils of the two local teams as MLS will favor NYCFC and people from New York City will not come out to games since the new flashy team is in the city (for now).”

Gardner and Mattera make a good point that the market is simply too valuable to drop the New York title, or pull away from MLS. Gardner comments that “the market here is big and despite what fan’s think, NYCFC is good for us because it gives us a natural rival. The stadium is too big and that makes it look empty when in fact we get more average fans per game than a lot of other teams.”

Mattera adds that he “thinks that as long as Red Bull head offices in Austria chose to stay in soccer they will stay in New York. The market is too valuable. If they were smart, they would pour money into the club and find success on the pitch. If they do that, then any thoughts of the “Red Bull Out” movement will be gone.”

But perhaps Austria does not even pay attention to the protesting that has been going around. As Gardner said, the market is huge and it will be silly to leave it over a couple squabbles with a portion of the fans. Red Bull seems to be keeping their money in New York – which other than 1929 and 2007-2009, has not been a bad idea in the slightest.

Mark Fishkin: The last couple of years has been as successful as any in the club's 20-year history
Mark Fishkin: The last couple of years has been as successful as any in the club’s 20-year history

The final point, money and internal politics aside, was to gauge what the Red Bull fans thought about the external perspective of the club, i.e. a supporter from Kansas City looking at the name Red Bull on an MLS standing chart (note: I did not pose that question exactly as written here).

In a country like Germany – despite being cheekily being renamed RasenBallsport Leipzig for commercial restrictions, general fan sentiment towards the corporate owners is quite tense. Reports came out that people used to get jumped if they were caught walking in the streets of Leipzig with a Red Bull jersey. Even on away games, extra precautions had to be taken to secure traveling Leipzig fans and players of their safety from football hooligans.

In the U.S., it does not seem to be quite prevalent that people would gang up on the team because of their corporate ownership. NYCFC are doing well for an expansion side despite having owners that obtain a good portion of their wealth from oil and slave labor. The link strikes home since NYU’s campus appears to be entertaining such harsh labor.

Overall, people seem to not mind what the perspective is of other fans – as no real violence or hostile approaches have been made by other fans simply because we support the Red Bulls.

Garner believes “they are using it purely as a marketing effort to keep the Red Bull name out there since they are an energy drink company first, but I don’t see a problem with it. Like I said, the sport is full of corporate sponsors so what’s wrong with ownership being one?”

This raises a fair point, and not many people seem to have been particularly (violently) upset about PSG, Chelsea’s, Manchester City’s, Malaga’s, or Valencia’s financial troubles being solved by sponsors. Knox simply brushes it aside: “We had Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill in a Red Bull jersey. Sure I would want [others’] respect but I don’t care.”

Mattera seems to sum it up best for the Red Bulls:

“To the average person it looks like a corporate take over, shameless advertising. To the clubs rivals it becomes a point of criticisms. To the leagues it means money coming into the league. To the lifelong, diehard supporter it feels like a slap in the face of tradition. But to the fan who looks at what they truely do to help their clubs around the world, they are often life savers. They have build amazing stadiums for most (if not all) of the clubs they purchase. In New York they have built state of the arts training facilities, They have raised Red Bull Salzburg into a powerhouse in Austria. RB Leipzig is quickly climbing through the ranks and divisions in Germany, faster than almost any club ever has. The impact or Red Bull for those clubs is vast.”

In short, some believe we are another asset in Red Bull’s global portfolio, others see meaningful impact via the ownership. Neither side can be debased as evidence clearly exists to support both ends. As it stands now, as the team enters its 9th year under the ownership of Red Bull, fans seem to all agree that supporting the players on the field overshadows all other debates. The fans remain united, particularly in the South Ward, to give one of the best vibes a soccer fanatico can find in this country.

Perhaps for those who are still ardently opposed to Red Bull should begin to lower their defenses, and loan the ownership some trust to develop a winning team. Maybe those who embrace Red Bull need to step back for a moment and really consider what it means to be a small portion of an empire – one that will be given a present now and again for Christmas, but largely neglected as they are busy with their shiny cars. The link to the New York Red Bull Discussion group can be found here.

I would like to once again thank all the contributors to this article. Some have been waiting for this for quite some time, and I appreciate the patience, as this article naturally took some time to develop. My goal here was to bring about the perspective from fans across the three continents Red Bull remains present in with regards to soccer.

Ideally, this will serve as a platform for the fans to begin overseas dialogue and perhaps have more Germans post in Brasil’s forums or more Americans post in Salzburg’s forums – just to engage with others in a somewhat similar situation. It was truly a pleasure discussing this with everyone and I once again thank everyone involved. Should anyone have any further questions, please feel free to direct them at me via Facebook, Twitter (@glodski) or via email: ppglod@gmail.com.

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