There have been whispers for months, maybe even years, that Austrian soft-drink giant Red Bull's interest in Major League Soccer was waning. Ever since they bought the MetroStars and completely rebranded them in 2006, in fact, there were doubts about their willingness to stick it out for the long term. Even after they built Red Bull Arena, invested millions in the likes of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill and won the Supporters' Shield last year, some would have had you believe that the other shoe was about to drop.
Well, the shoe dropped last week. Kinda. Although the team and league eventually issued statements denying Red Bull was trying to sell, Grant Wahl's report hit like a ton of bricks. According to his sources, Red Bull has already met with two potential buyers and would be willing to sell "within 48 hours" if someone offered $300 million for the team and the stadium. Combine that with Red Bull's seeming indifference toward Henry's imminent departure, their unwillingness to pay for a third Designated Player this season and the decision not to field a USL-Pro team next year, it should hardly be shocking that an already skeptical fan base is falling over themselves to say "I told you so."
But there are really two big things going on here. First, Red Bull has always been a bit of a black sheep, not only because of the foreign ownership, but because of how much the team is an elaborate branding exercise. That seems a bit unfair, but it also brings us to the other point. Second, even if the rumors aren't true and Red Bull isn't actively trying to sell their team, it would be a shame if they are just sticking it out without any real desire to meet the New York City FC challenge head on.
The first issue borders on the ridiculous, especially if we're hanging it on the supposed willingness to sell for $300 million. Red Bull Arena is an absolutely fantastic facility by all accounts (location not withstanding) and was built for about $200 million. Factor in some depreciation for the four-year-old facility and you're left with the team by itself being valued at more than $100 million, or the same amount Manchester City paid for the right to run a franchise in New York City. Red Bull paid about $30 million for the MetroStars and would stand to pocket at least $70 million at that price. There are only a few owners in the league who wouldn't gladly accept a $70 million payday.
But even if we accept that Red Bull is actively trying to get out of the MLS game, it's still worth pointing out that they are leaving it much better off than when they came in.
Let's remember that MLS was a league still trying to find its footing back in 2006. Only a year earlier, MLS had expanded back to 12 teams and had taken ona couple of pretty big risks in doing so: allowing a Mexican team to effectively use the league as a testing ground and putting another team in one of the country's smallest "major league" markets. Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake only had to pay $10 million apiece, a third of what Red Bull was willing to pay for the MetroStars. That Red Bull almost immediately started talking about building a glitzy new stadium seemed almost crazy.
That stadium didn't get built overnight, of course, and was shrouded in controversy as Red Bull tried to get out of paying property taxes, but the doors did open in time for the 2010 season. Delayed though it may have been, the Red Bulls spent about twice as much on it as any other soccer-specific stadium at that point. The stadium alone is a huge point in Red Bull's favor.
It's also worth noting that the fan base appears to be more committed than ever. During the parts of five seasons the Red Bulls have played at their current home, they've averaged no fewer than 18,241 fans per game. Other than their inaugural year, the MetroStars only eclipsed that average one other year in their nine other seasons. Those fans might not all love the owners, but they've shown a level of passion that was mostly missing during the MetroStars era.
Red Bull have been a far from perfect owner. They sometimes seemed completely oblivious to the finer arts of team building. They once hired a manager who openly disregarded competitions like the U.S. Open Cup. They've driven their most passionate fans crazy by ignoring whatever history the franchise has. They didn't always do a very good job of marketing themselves. It was often a little too easy to make fun of them. But they were always willing to spend money and were pretty competitive, especially when compared to their predecessors.
And if this is where they decide to get off, that's fine. They helped raise the profile of the league, gave us the first American Soccer Palace™ and would leave the franchise better off than when they came here. There's no shame in any of that.
What would be a shame, however, if Red Bull is choosing now to put it in neutral and just see how far they can coast. This week has given plenty of fuel to those who fear that is exactly what will happen. There was the report of the sale, which was accompanied by an anonymous declaration that Henry had a "zero percent chance of returning" that has been effectively confirmed. Now it appears Cahill is unhappy with the way his international and club duty is being weighted.
This is not a good time for Red Bull to be on the fence.
As Alexi Lalas pointed out during his halftime speech on ESPN's Thursday night broadcast, the competitive landscape is just ramping up. New York City FC's arrival can be an opportunity to raise the Red Bulls' profile. There's going to be more money , more ambition and more attention on that market in 2015 than there ever has been before. If the Red Bulls choose to take that as a challenge, we're all in for a treat. That's what their long-suffering fans want. It's what the league wants. It's what we should all want. If Red Bull isn't willing to meet that challenge, let's hope the rumors of a sale prove true.