The Ballad Of The Bull

When it comes to extreme sports, Red Bull hopes you’ll think of them. The energy-drink business demands as much: pound this energy drink and look at all the hardcore stuff you’re just gonna be jacked to the gills to get out there and do. Red Bull is near-ubiquitous at the ragged fringes of the sports world, often devising their own events just so the Red Bull label can be slapped on them. There’s the freestyle motocross competition Red Bull X-Fighters. There’s the skatecross event Red Bull Crashed Ice. There’s the stunt-pilot racing series Red Bull Air Race. There’s the adventure race Red Bull X-Alps. In 2012, they took a downhill run in British Columbia, built ramps and obstacles all over the mountainside in the summer, waited for an entire winter’s worth of snow to dump on it, and then sent people down it as-is, calling it Red Bull Supernatural. When Felix Baumgartner went skydiving from 24 miles up in 2012, the official title of the jump was, sure enough, Red Bull Stratos. And that is only a fraction of Red Bull’s sporting presence, in addition to the two Formula One teams they run.

Excursions into the soccer world, though, have proven far more problematic.

The story of Red Bull’s soccer saga begins in Salzburg, Austria. SV Austria Salzburg came along in 1933 as the result of a merger of two other clubs. A folding and immediate refounding in 1950 aside, Salzburg’s basic story is not all that dissimilar from that of some other high-level clubs: a maiden voyage in Austria’s top flight in 1953, an inaugural European showing in the 1971-72 UEFA Cup (a first round loss to Romania’s UT Arad), an inaugural Champions League showing in 1994-95 (under the ultimately temporary renaming Casino Salzburg), where they came in third in their group behind Ajax and AC Milan and were sent out of the running. Going into the 2005-06 campaign, Salzburg had three league titles to their name, all from the mid-90’s. They were still settling into their new stadium, opened in 2003. The one fly in the ointment was that they’d been slipping down the table. In a ten-team top flight, they’d ended the previous season in ninth place. There was only one relegation spot, which had gone to Schwarz-Weiß Bregenz, 15 points below Salzburg, after Bregenz had incurred so many financial problems that they were forcibly relegated to the fifth tier. Salzburg couldn’t count on that kind of personal good fortune again.

This is where Red Bull entered the picture. Wishing to enter the soccer market- the world’s biggest sport! It’s only natural!- Red Bull, which is based in Fuschl am See, Austria, 12 miles east of Salzburg, decided it would be a good idea to buy the local team, which just so happened to be Austria Salzburg, and rename it Red Bull Salzburg. This was not Red Bull’s mistake. Austrian clubs have seen their share of corporate rebrandings. Austria Salzburg itself had seen a corporate rebranding under which they’d won all three of their titles. That wasn’t anything new. Had that been the end of it, the fans would have been fine with it. They were in relegation territory. Yes, sure, bring in that sweet sweet Red Bull money and come bail us out.

Red Bull’s mistake was to announce that Red Bull Salzburg was “a new club with no history”. Austria Salzburg was dead. The club color, purple, was to become Red Bull’s red and white. The past seasons would not be recognized. The foundation date was to be altered from 1933 to 2005, a move only stopped when Austria’s national federation told Red Bull in no uncertain terms that the 1933 date was to remain as a condition of being granted a license to compete.

In the regions of sport in which Red Bull usually deals, sponsors are a critical part of the process. Without the sponsors, many of the competitions simply do not have the money to go forward and are relegated to ad-hoc backyard hobbying. Athletes in those competitions- auto racing, the X-Games set, one-off stunts like Baumgartner’s- have no problem being emblazoned with sponsor logos if it will get them out on the field, and typically actively seek them out.

In sports with city-based teams, such as soccer, things are different. When teams are geographically dispersed, when they each have a designated home, the community in which they are based will think of the team as part of that community. The team will usually have a name that is at least partially geographically-based, and the club culture is in some way bound to reflect the local culture. Violet was a color brought over by one of the pre-merge clubs in 1933, Hertha Salzburg. The team history includes players that died fighting in World War 2. Added to the on-pitch achievements- a UEFA Cup final that was theirs and theirs alone; three league titles that were theirs and theirs alone- these were not things that fans could just wipe away.

But Red Bull was adamant about it. All attempts to reassert at least some of Austria Salzburg’s old culture were forcefully suppressed. Signs torn down. Fans denied entry to the stadium. Being told that their grievances were “kindergarten stuff”. Eventually, the supporter groups threw up their hands.

Then they took a new team, dubbed that Austria Salzburg, bestowed the entire club history upon it, recruited the best possible players they could rally to the cause, and started storming from the seventh tier up. Four straight promotions later, they found Red Bull Salzburg’s youth team waiting on the third tier. They have yet to proceed any further, but came close last season before faltering in a promotion/relegation playoff.

Meanwhile, Red Bull Salzburg’s youth team was relegated to the fourth tier. And when they soon took the senior team into European competition, as was almost inevitable, they promptly found out that because Red Bull is not an approved sponsor of the UEFA Champions League or Europa League, they cannot name themselves Red Bull Salzburg. During their stay, they must name themselves SV Salzburg. And every other team in the competition, they find, would love nothing more than to run them over for symbolic purposes. After all, they don’t want that to happen to their club.

But this was not the end of Red Bull’s soccer aspirations. They could get this right; they were sure of it. What about MLS? The United States is pretty used to sponsors everywhere, right? It’s a growing league. And if they’re going to buy an American team, it would make sense to buy in New York, the largest market of all. In 2006, Red Bull thus purchased the NY/NJ MetroStars, rebranding them the New York Red Bulls. However, learning from the Salzburg affair, they didn’t attempt to wipe away the MetroStars history. And they’d actually be increasing the geographic footprint of the name, as in 1998, the ‘NY/NJ’ part was dropped, leaving only ‘MetroStars’. It seemed pretty low-risk.

Unfortunately for Red Bull, wiping the history away would probably have been doing the MetroStars a favor. Intended to be one of MLS’ marquee clubs, the MetroStars were instead their most disappointing. By the time Red Bull came along, they were the only remaining inaugural club not to have won a league title or the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the regular-season champion. They also had a curse, the Curse of Caricola, named for Nicola Caricola, who scored an own goal to lose the MetroStars’ inaugural home game 1-0 against the New England Revolution.

And while the United States can bear some amount of sponsorship, it’s in different places than most other countries. American sports fans are more accepting of corporate stadium naming, but less accepting of sponsors on a team jersey. And corporately naming a team is unheard of. Austria Salzburg had precedent from which to accept the name Red Bull Salzburg, even if they ultimately rejected it. American fans had no precedent readily apparent, so some degree of mockery was always going to happen.

Plus, unlike in Austria, where Red Bull could spend whatever it needed to spend to secure victory, MLS has a salary cap. Their corporate might meant nothing, beyond the ability to pay for cap-exempt Designated Players. The Curse of Caricola continued into 2013, when the Red Bulls finally secured a Supporters’ Shield, The attendance has been stagnant, and with New York City FC on the horizon, the Red Bulls, who play in New Jersey, face the very real possibility of becoming the second team in their own metro area.

Attempt #3 brought Red Bull to Brazil. Okay. We’ve learned that rebranding a club just leads to misery. How about if we just found a new club? In Brazil! Soccer’s a religion down there! We can make a new club, rise through the ranks, we won’t be stepping on any fans’ toes and any we do get are bound to be cool with us. This can’t go wrong, right? And thus in 2007, Red Bull Brasil descended upon Campinas, probably hoping for a fast ascension. The way the Brazilian pyramid works is that there are four national levels, Series A through D, and under that are state-level tiers. A through C work pretty much like you’d expect, but Serie D, functioning like a cup competition, completely resets every season, stocked with the bottom teams from Serie C along with the top teams from each of the state-level tiers. If you fail to promote out of Serie D, you have to win in your state again to get another chance. That established, Red Bull Brasil was entered into Sao Paulo state’s fourth tier, meaning eighth tier overall. For a stadium, they groundshare with more-established Ponte Preta.

Let’s leave the eighth tier aside for the moment. There are explicitly corporate teams in the world, called ‘works teams’, where the club was founded by a local company or the employees of same, so they have something to do when they’re not working. Sometimes those clubs even work out and end up getting players who aren’t actually employees but are good at playing soccer. Some of those clubs are even Brazilian. A club founded by a fabric factory became Bangu. Corinthians was founded by railway workers. It can work.

If the company is locally based. And Red Bull, as we’ve established, is based in Austria. So they don’t have the built-in employee base that works teams would normally have. They just have people who’ve seen cool videos on YouTube who aren’t already pledged for life to someone far larger. In essence, Red Bull Brasil is left with a developmental team until such time as they figure everything out. In addition to the U-15 and U-17 teams they decided to also form. Paying abnormally high salaries doesn’t help much in the eighth tier. Down that low, salaries aren’t even much of a concept. If you’re good enough to be paid to play soccer, you’re generally too good for the Brazilian eighth tier. They’ve made it up to the sixth, but it’ll be a long time before you see them make much of themselves.

In 2008, another low-tier club was founded, but this time in Africa. Red Bull Ghana was created in the city of Sogakope, and currently plies their trade in one of Ghana’s lower tiers. Ghana’s national federation website doesn’t list below the second and Red Bull isn’t there; likely, they’re in the third. Ghana IS a place where a corporation can just drop in and start a club. The problem, though, is that the logistics of doing so are not generally cost-effective. Given the challenges of soccer in Africa, this would never become a club that grabs the world’s attention. Even if it became the best club in Africa, getting due recognition as an African club would present its own set of challenges. But as an academy product- an academy product with Red Bull’s money behind it- it’s certainly something that a kid looking to be the family breadwinner could sign up for without much fear of getting scammed. Plus it’ll help sell a lot of Red Bull in Ghana.

In the meantime, Red Bull, refusing to give in, entered the German market. The tactic this time was to take their act into the city of Leipzig. In 2009, Leipzig stood as the 12th-largest city in Germany, but they sit in the former East Germany, which faltered as a whole after the reunification and typically can only enter one or two clubs into the Bundesliga, at most. (This season, they don’t have any.) Despite being the only East German city called to host games in the 2006 World Cup, their clubs were very weak and very far down the board compared to Germany’s other major markets. The idea here was, find a club in Leipzig, buy them, and drive them up the pyramid, on the theory that the locals would be happy just to have anyone come in that would get them a halfway-decent team.

The question, though, was what team. Back in 2006, right on the heels of buying Austria Salzburg, Red Bull had made an attempt to purchase Sachsen Leipzig, but after months of protests and even violence, Red Bull abandoned the attempt. Three years later, they set their sights on SSV Markranstadt. Or at least, they set their sights on Markranstadt’s license, which they duly received. Markranstadt could keep going in the amateur ranks (and go get a new license if they wanted), while Red Bull dealt with the mounds of red tape and local rival vitriol now before them, red tape that was only navigable because they’d bought in the fifth tier and not any higher up, where the requirements are more stringent.

For example, German clubs are required by law to be set up as member-run organizations. Members must own 50+1% of the club; a company cannot own any more than the remainder. Red Bull responded to that by buying 50-1% and making sure that of the 11 club members (Bayern Munich, for comparison, has some 224,000 members), all have a connection to Red Bull. As a condition of getting the license, the club also could not be called Red Bull Leipzig. Solution: call it “RasenBallsport Leipzig”, for ‘Leipzig lawn ball sports”, and then just ask people to colloquially call it “RB Leipzig”, because acronyms are fun. In general, if there was a rule designed to enforce that clubs be governed by the fans, Red Bull skirted it in the biggest legally-possible way. And then they went to work climbing up the ranks.

Sachsen Leipzig and fellow local rival Lok Leipzig naturally went to work protesting corporate influence in German soccer. At one point, Sachsen supporters wrote a protest message into Red Bull’s pitch with herbicide. When RB Leipzig soon blew past them and got into higher tiers, though, the Leipzig rival anger died down, in recognition that, after all, there was a decent Leipzig team now. But it was replaced with anger from larger fanbases, fearful of what Red Bull represented and might herald for their own clubs. This season, Red Bull is nearing their goal: they’re in the second tier and in the mix to potentially enter the Bundesliga, and they’re seeing no shortage of venom from the nation at large. FC St. Pauli called for Red Bull to be denied promotion to the second tier based on their only obeying the letter of the law and not the spirit, a call that was ultimately denied. The second-tier license was, however, made dependent on loosening up on the membership standards (they now have a whopping 300). In a game against Union Berlin, Union supporters work black ponchos and engaged in 15 minutes of stone silence. (Then Union won 2-1.) Fans nationwide, if nothing else, are angry that their clubs have fought and scrapped and bled all these years to get where they are, and then Red Bull just rolls in with all their money and buys whatever they want.

If Leipzig, Salzburg, New York, Campinas or Sogakope finds that someone from one of the other four clubs would help them out, for instance, the barriers to getting that player aren’t going to be very high. As long as Red Bull is paying, it really doesn’t matter what club’s balance sheet it goes on.

And this is the crux of the entire saga. No new teams have been purchased since Leipzig. But maybe they don’t need to be. New York is one matter. In MLS, in addition to the salary cap, the rules for acquiring a player from outside the league are quite complicated and serve specifically to prevent any one club from being able to sign so much overseas talent that they overwhelm the others. There’s no real desire to have another New York Cosmos situation, where people only consider one club to be worth watching. So aside from a smattering of superstars, the odd Thierry Henry or Tim Cahill, the Red Bulls aren’t able to load up the roster and, thus, run away with the league. Outside the United States, though, including in Europe, it is a Wild West financial model for the most part. If you can sign a guy and pay for him, you go right ahead. The very first thing Red Bull did in soccer was run away with the Austrian league, and they hope to run away with the German league as well. If there’s budding talent in Brazil or Africa, maybe Red Bull can get to them before anyone else does and feed them to Salzburg and Leipzig. And this doesn’t even count the youth programs run by all of the clubs.

Red Bull has hit a point where they are never going to make themselves a popular presence in the soccer world. The bad blood has run too deep, too fast. So instead of popularity, they have simply opted for power. Do what it takes to win, by whatever means, and at least get Red Bull’s name forced onto the biggest possible stage and associated with winning, and thus, increase sales of Red Bull. And thus, to the consternation and fear of opposing fans, Red Bull has brought their extreme-sports sensibilities to bear upon them.

For when you face a Red Bull club, you really face five.

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