Consolidation is the name of the business game. Increasingly if you take your pet to the vet you’re going to a Banfield clinic. If you have cable TV, it’s probably provided by one of a few carriers. And in soccer, we are seeing a series of clubs owned by Red Bull popping up.
The issue of Red Bull owning and managing soccer teams has been in the forefront over the past few months. The biggest reason is the rise of RB Leipzig. In 2009, the energy drink company purchased a fifth tier German club in East Germany named Markranstadt and renamed it RB Leipzig. Because of German football league rules, the club name is officially Rasenballsport Leipzig shortened to RB. Regardless of the name, the monetary investment shot the club up the standings to the point where in 2017 it is challenging Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga crown. The rise is causing a lot of angst in Germany, which prides itself on a fan-friendly culture. On one hand, the success of a former East Germany-based club is praiseworthy, as the old West Germany has almost exclusively supplied the top flight’s teams. On the other, it is a team that excelled not through smart investment, but brute financial investment.
While that debate raged, another controversy is currently swirling across the pond. Red Bull New York, which does use the sponsor name in its official name, has seen success in MLS since the purchase and rebrand from the NY/NJ MetroStars. The investment allowed the club to bring in a number of overseas talent, including Thierry Henry. However, its recent record has been sterling under the leadership of Jesse Marsch. The former American international has formed a cohension on a roster built around fit, not name recognition. He has been lauded for the work he’s done with the club in light of his predecessor’s abrupt firing. It seems like his good work is being noticed in corporate.
A debate has been raging over the past few days about whether or nor Marsch is negotiating to take over as manager of RB Salzburg. The coach has publicly denied any negotiation and has posted pictures of himself at the U.S. soccer coaches’ meeting in LA, but journalist with excellent soccer sources continue to report the negotiations. In addition, Marsch does not deny that he attended a meeting in Portugal with the RB Leipzig staff. See a common thread here?
RB Salzburg, by the way, has a familiar story. Founded in 1933 as SV Austra Salzburg, Red Bull purchased the club in 2005. Corporate immediately declared the club “a new club with no history”, wiping away the records of the previous club from mention in the stadium and rebranding everything. Now, the team plays as Red Bull Salzburg (except in UEFA competitions, where it modifies everything to RB Salzburg), plays in Red Bull Arena, and has the same red/white/dark blue color scheme as its sister clubs.
Why does all this matter? Red Bull is not the only conglomerate to own multiple teams in different soccer leagues. The City Football Group famously owns Manchester City, New York City FC, and a few other clubs around the world. Players have been loaned and trained around the various City Football Group teams, most notably Steven Gerard. What Red Bull is doing, however, is more scary for fans of smaller clubs.
Currently, Red Bull owns and operated the teams mentioned above and two others, one in Ghana and one in Brazil. What they all have in common is that their teams are absolute billboards for the company. The company comes in, erases the club’s history, and rebrands it like one of their products. To this point, they have been clever, taking smaller teams where the outcry would be muted for the transformation. The “largest” club they’ve acquired, the then-MetroStars, still retain some of the traditions of the founding but to newer soccer fans, the Red Bull connection is obvious.
Commercialism is nothing new in sports, especially soccer. What is rather new is this cloning of a brand in different countries and leagues through eliminating the prior traditions. Fans of RB Salzburg outraged by the company erasing their past formed a new club, but it has not approached the success of the original club. Red Bull invests heavily in the new clubs in order to give them a track record of recent success. By bringing in big names and achieving success immediately, this helps cover some of the criticism they receive from locals upsets about the demolition of their local club traditions. Leipzig’s attendance records, for example, are swelling thanks to the team’s quick rise.
Fans of smaller clubs should be concerned about these takeovers. Just like a big-box store moving into your small town and pushing out the long-time mom and pop shop, Red Bull’s new clubs erase the local culture and insert their own, multinational standards. Yes, the mom and pop stores aren’t important in the grand scheme of things, and the big box store offers more for less, but a specific part of your town’s culture and charm dies when they locals can’t run their own store. No one will miss the clubs Red Bull replaces, but it forces a new, generic, non-local culture in these cities.
And now we come to the third piece of recent new – Red Bull’s expansion. A story broke in the Daily Mail that Red Bull’s football staff were in England this fall and seen at the grounds of Chelsea, Brentford, and Charlton. The company claims it was scouting players, but the idea raised is a legitimate one. Red Bull’s expansion could continue and there are a number of places and leagues where it could grow. A club like Chelsea seems a stretch simply because its current owners selling would be crazy, but why not a smaller club in England? Or, if the rules around corporate branding and ownership are too strict, France, Italy, or any number of Europeans leagues could have smaller clubs purchased, boosted by a cash and talent influx, and that team would be on its way to a Champions League berth. Imagine Red Bull Charlton, Red Bull Verona, Red Bull Troyes, or Red Bull Stabaek. Just like in any other business, fans of small clubs may have to worry about the big corporate behemoth crushing the locals in the name of the almighty euro.