In most cases around New York “the battle” for supremacy amongst pro sports rivals is often more fizzle than sizzle. The Nets have never been at peak performance as the same time as the Knicks; few years have the Jets and Giants in the playoffs at the same time; save for 2000, the Mets and Yankees rarely top the standings at the same point. It is only in hockey, where the devils and Rangers have recently produced some memorable matchups where a “subway series” seems to pit two rivals at top time against each other. So early next spring we will have a new battle, this one on the soccer pitch; as the incumbent Red Bulls will meet expansion New York City Soccer Club for the first time. Could this be the rivalry that fuels some fire in and around Gotham?
Right now NYCFC is adding veteran pieces while the Red Bulls make a playoff run, so where the two will stack up in their first meetings at Red Bull Arena or Yankee Stadium remains to be seen. However in the hype and strategy area, NYCFC has certainly taken their pre-play time to find ways to eat into the psyche of the New York casual sports fan, with strategic blitzes, brand building and announcements that have given them more headlines than any team in the market before they take the field for the first time.
NYCFC has used the deep pockets of Manchester City and the New York Yankees, as well as their two iconic brand names, to bolster support. They have built a strong social campaign and a smart supporter club project to keep fans engaged, have used their time expanding grassroots support with every soccer club that will hear them speak and be part of their launch. They sent clear messages about culture by sending their soccer heads, Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis, to learn the system they will use by embedding themselves in Man City football. They have secured local TV and even radio deals well in advance of their start, and they take every second they can to engage fans on all things football in the digital space. They sell tickets without games, sponsorship without a goal being scored. They are all about inclusion in something special. While most teams would use the power of Manhattan to introduce stars, NYCFC has taken to the streets, creating kids clinics in Brooklyn around the announcement of English star Frank Lampard, and Thursday will bring another solid name, David Villa, to a clinic with kids in the Bronx. Can Staten Island and Queens be far behind with the next announcements? The message is very clear; NYCFC aims to look across the city and east to build its following, areas that the Red Bulls have had limited success in engaging in throughout their history. New Jersey? Who knows.
The real star for NYCFC now is the idea of bring in on the ground floor of something special. Without results, the possibilities for now are endless. Now is the strategy glossing over issues for the long term? Somewhat. There is still no long term announced stadium plan and no entrenched practice facility. Brands for the most part are in the announce stage but there is no doubt that NYCFC has put down roots that are growing and ones that have engaged the casual fan for now. Whether that changes once the product hits the field is also another matter; it is a startup, and while the stories of the team, led by a star in Lampard who has said all the right things about investing in American soccer and wanting to be in New York (while other stars in soccer have come to new York in recent years and shunned the media attention and spotlight).
For their part, the Red Bulls right now are the mature brand taking on the challenger. They have looked to capitalize on the World Cup hype by putting quality on the field, involving some of their World Cu veterans in key promotions. They have invested in more grassroots programs in and around New Jersey and have held supporters meetings into the Manhattan and Brooklyn, albeit without some of the splash and dash that NYCFC’s hype has been lately. Right now they have a team and a brand that is supported in the market; while NYCFC has lots of potential.
Will the two clubs blossom into the rivalry that MLS has seen in places like Seattle and Portland? Tough to say at this point. New York is a fickle market where the brightest shine through, and the jury is still out on the fact that the City, albeit a soccer city, is really an MLS city. Kids in the area are still more apt to don a Manchester United or Real Madrid jersey as they will an MLS shirt, and with elite established clubs like Bayern Munich, AS Roma, Liverpool and Chelsea making marketing inroads on Madison Avenue, the attackers of MLS may be challenged for discretionary dollars. However both NYCFC and the Red Bulls will have something that all the TV dollars and marketing of the world’s elite clubs will not have; consistent match and athlete presence in the market. While we think that TV and digital can fill a void, the fact remains that the live experience is still king, and if the local clubs put on quality performances, they will help fill the seats as well as the hype meters.
Will the mega-busk of their owners and the strategic planning of the management team propel NYCFC to prominence overall in New York sport and ahead of the Red Bulls in the eyes of soccer cognoscenti? We shall see. For now, on the hype and buzz meter, it’s a very good race, without a goal being scored.