Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Something stinks in Harrison... and it's not the air

I had the opportunity to day-trip up from Florida this past Sunday to attend both the Tottenham vs Sporting Lisbon and Manchester City vs Red Bull matches at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. Honestly, this was a surprise birthday trip put together by my friends and family and for that I am very grateful. I was excited at the chance to see the latest “crown jewel” of soccer-specific stadiums in America first hand and for a full afternoon of matches. However, after attending the matches I have some serious concerns about soccer thriving at this new venue. Below are some of my takes from this weekend’s event:

1. Infrastructure – Roadways and public transportation for sporting venues never seem to be an issue when arriving, only when it comes time to leave do they rear their ugly heads. We took the PATH train from Hoboken to Red Bull Arena, which is the primary public transportation option from both NYC and Newark. The ride was not a problem, about 30 minutes from Hoboken to the front gate, which is reasonable considering transportation times in NYC. The catch came when we tried to get back on the PATH to head home and no less than 10,000 of my closest friends decided to try to catch the eastbound train back towards Hoboken and NYC. I had failed to notice leaving the Harrison station on the way to the game that the exit consisted of only two standard three-foot wide doorways. Think about that for a second and compare that to the number of exit doors, gates, ramps etc. they have leaving Red Bull Arena (or any stadium for that matter) and you can see the issue. We waited for over an hour, not for a train, but rather just to get through one of the doorways into the station. The trains out were crowded, but nothing unexpected and we got back in 30 minutes. It amazed me that part of the stadium deal didn’t require improvements to the PATH stations prior to the arena opening. This item alone could explain why the arena is having attendance issues; no one wants to spend an hour trying to catch a train home.

2. Neighborhood – If I told you that Harrison was a suburb of Newark that would probably paint enough of a picture for you to understand what the neighborhood around the stadium was like. The arena, a breath-taking stadium that any city in the world would be proud to host, stands out like an 80 year old man at a Justin Bieber concert. The adjacent properties are scattered with massive abandoned factories with brick facades. The Red Bulls have taken the necessary step of draping giant murals of their star players on the sides of these buildings, but that’s like buying an expensive curtain for a moldy old shower. There are plenty of signs and advertisements up for the so-called “redevelopment” of this area, but with the economy in the toilet I find it hard to believe these plans will evolve beyond what is currently in place. Not much of a fan experience when you compare it to the backdrops around Philly or Toronto’s new stadiums.

3. Attendance – Here’s a little known fact, the Red Bulls are using tarps to cover some of the seats at the arena! I was shocked to find this out when I arrived, but the upper halves of sections 205, 206, 213, and 214 were all covered. These sections are on the broadcast side of the stadium, so you won’t see them on television either, but we know all about that, right Gillett Stadium? With two of the top 5 EPL teams playing and Thierry Henry in his second match as a Red Bull you would think it would have been a sold out crowd; not so much. The stadium was 60% full for the first match and 75% full for the Man City vs. Red Bull match by my estimates. If you cannot fill this place on a Sunday afternoon with a double-header, is there some concern about sagging attendance? According to MLS Talk after Week 17 the Red Bulls are averaging only 65% capacity for their 8 MLS home games played this season. To be fair, the team is drawing 43% better than when they played at the Meadowlands last season and with the addition of Henry attendance should improve over the next few weeks. An example of this is the August 14th match against Los Angeles already selling out; tarps over the seats or not, we don’t know.

Sometimes it is more than just a state-of-the-art arena that makes the overall soccer experience in MLS. Kansas City looks like they may have it right with the next soccer-specific stadium that will be entering the league in 2012, but only time will tell. The Red Bulls and the City of Harrison need to address some of these issues immediately if they plan to see attendance grow at their new arena.

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