Ric Jensen of Texas A&M gave us an advance look at some research he's doing on sports branding and marketing, and we're happy to share. If you would like to send some research work for inclusion in the blog please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Has Red Bull Crossed the Line in Branding Professional Soccer Teams?
Almost everyone you look in the USA, the influence of corporate marketing seems to be spreading as rapidly and out-of-control as that patch of crabgrass in my back yard. Only a few years ago, we began to see collegiate uniforms adorned by the logo of sports apparel companies. It’s a rare occasion when you don’t see a college or professional sports facility named after a corporation or donor. Many sports events are now sponsored by corporate interests (i.e., the Rose Bowl Presented by AT&T or virtually every event on the Professional Golfers of America tour). This year, Major League Soccer teams began the European tradition of featuring a corporate sponsor in very large letters on their jerseys (i.e., Real Salt Lake and Xanga Juice) while the team’s insignia is barely visible. Even at Texas A&M University’s hallowed Kyle Field, where spectators are instructed to show reverence for the venue by not walking on the turf before or after football games, fans are exposed to a blitzkrieg of ads on message boards that circle the stadium.
However, I contend that corporate marketing of sports crossed a very important line in 2005 when the Red Bull corporation purchased a controlling interest in soccer teams in Austria and New York and then named the teams after their caffeine-laced energy drink. Hence, sports fans in Austria now watch Red Bull Salzburg, while Major League Soccer fans on the East coast can follow Red Bull New York. The difference in what Red Bull has done, compared to historical traditions in sports, is that they have named the sports team after a commercial product when heretofore this has thought by many fans to be taboo.
The key questions then become:
1) how are sports reporters and sports fans in the USA and Europe reacting to this development?
2) If professional soccer teams allow this to occur, might this concept become more widespread?
3] What public relations lessons can be learned from this case study?
To investigate these issues, I developed a content analysis of academic sports marketing and soccer literature as well as reports in the mass media in the USA and Austria. This study does not include primary research data. The goal was to identify and compare the reaction to Red Bull’s takeovers in both nations. Although traditional sports fans in the USA probably don’t want to admit it, there is a history of naming teams after corporations. Examples include the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Pistons, and the Coors Light Silver Bullets. However, today’s sports fans and major league sports organizations seem to at least a little hesitant to embrace this notion as an acceptable fad. After all, the National Basketball Association refused to allow the relocated Memphis team to be called The Express (after Federal Express).
In 2005, Red Bull purchased the financially struggling SV Salzburg soccer team. SV Salzburg was formed in 1933 and has a rich history which includes a runner-up finish in the 1994 UEFA Cup. Its fans cherished the team’s violet and white color scheme. When Red Bull took over, one of their first actions was to rename the team and outfit them in the colors of the energy drink (red, yellow, and blue). In addition, Red Bull refused to acknowledge when the club was founded (1933); instead asserting that team began 72 years later. Traditional SV Salzburg fans protested loudly and often. Their opposition resulted in the formation of a group opposed to Red Bull’s takeover (translated in English as “The Campaign for Violet and White”). SV Salzburg supporters who came wearing purple and white to watch Red Bull Salzburg home matches were harassed and, in one case, assaulted with beer bottles. In the end, a new football club been created in Salzburg that wears the violet and white colors.
Red Bull founder Dieter Mateschitz compared that protests about the new team name and logo were “kindergarten stuff” and said, “The Red Bull cannot be violet or else we couldn’t call it Red Bull. Whether you play in purple, blue or green is irrelevant; The only thing that matters is the team being successful” (Joyce, 2003).
In March 2006, Red Bull purchased New York’s MLS franchise from The Anschutz Entertainment Group. The team had originally been known as the New York/ New Jersey MetroStars (ironically, it was named after another corporation, The MetroMedia Entertainment Group). That name was changed to simply “the MetroStars” in 1997.
Unlike the Austria scenario, there simply has not been much of a continuing passion for professional soccer in New York (even though the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League were popular during the 1970s). This time, Red Bull became embroiled in controversy for another reason—removing New Jersey from the team name. The City of Harrison, New Jersey, is now building a new publicly-funded stadium for MLS in the Garden State, but the choice of the new team name is New York Red Bull. This perceived slight incensed New Jersey politicians and local leaders who referred to the move as “A lack of respect for the State of New Jersey” (Bell, 2006). Team spokesman Patrice Redden defended the action, saying that “In the tradition of the New York Jets and the New York Giants and even the New York Cosmos, we believe that the metropolitan New York area is truly one of the most influential markets in the entire world and the New York affiliation is an excellent representation of this international culture” (Ziegler, 2006).
In sum, the key point is that Red Bull offended stakeholders (fans, politicians, and decision-makers) in both Europe and the USA by not being aware of and/or sensitive to specific issues that people care deeply about.
In Austria, Red Bull was seen as perhaps destroying the traditions of a long-standing soccer club and trying to erase its institutional history. Perhaps, in contrast, the corporation could have kept the original team and colors while incorporating the Red Bull in the logo. Certainly, they could have promoted SV Salzburg by purchasing advertising sponsored by the energy drink.
In New York, the problem was distinctly different. Here you had a variety of New Jersey residents who have suffered through several attempts to not include the name of the state in the name of professional teams who play their games there (i.e., think of the long history of the official name and logos of the National Football League Giants, who play at Meadowlands Stadium, New Jersey). To further increase the insult, imagine the rage that politicians and taxpayers in New Jersey must feel when a new stadium they are paying for will feature home games for a team that refuses to include the name of the state in its name. I get the sense that naming the team the New Jersey Red Bulls may have been more acceptable to fans in the region. From a public relations standpoint, it would behoove Red Bull to try to build positive relations with fans and stakeholders in New Jersey, maybe even going so far as to consider comprise solutions that somehow incorporate the heritage and history of New Jersey into the team’s marketing efforts and day-to-day programs.
So we return to the question posed at the beginning of this piece—Is the practice of Red Bull naming a team after its own product going to set a precedent that other sports teams in the USA might follow?
I contend that MLS is accepting this naming arrangement in large part because pro soccer in the USA still has a minor league stigma. In a similar vein, adorning MLS jerseys with a huge banner for HerbaLife is OK because the sport is not taken so seriously. Therefore, one might suggest that other minor league sports (i.e., Arena Football, the NBA Developmental League, minor league baseball) might follow the Red Bull’s lead.
However, those team sports in the USA that are really considered as big league (i.e., the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League) may come around to adopting this practice much more slowly. They simply have built up reputations and history that are too rich and valuable to consider changing by this type of action.
I think that Tony Miguel, a former public relations specialist for the MetroStars, summed it up best when he said (quoted in Spangler, 2006): “Imagine the outcry that would occur if the New York Yankees became the New York GEICOs.”
Ric Jensen, Ph.D.
Sports Management Program, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas