Dehistoricization. Dilution of cultural influence. Football genocide. Not phrases that tend to roll from the tongue of your average pundit. But do they apply? Read this by Robin Cowan and have a think.
So far this season, the marketing division of taurine-based energy drink, Red Bull have made their first major blips on the radar of world football. The New York Red Bulls recruited actual household name Thierry Henry to the elephant’s graveyard of the MLS. Austrian champions FC Red Bull Salzburg will also gain some attention by competing in arguably their highest profile European matches since signing over to the brand, with Europa League ties against Juventus & Manchester City. This being the first notable publicity these teams will have enjoyed since their recent takeovers and may prove to be the first signs of the emergence of Team Red Bull as a football power.
Red Bull, already a recognised force in Formula 1, NASCAR and ice hockey, has in recent years added four professional football teams to its’ portfolio. As well as their brethren in Austria and USA, RB Leipzig are currently sitting 2nd in Germany’s fourth tier. Having been called into being in 2009, promotion this season would be their second in succession and its obvious from their newly built 44,000 capacity Red Bull Arena, that this is t a team is being groomed for a rapid ascension toward the Bundesliga.
Along with also newly formed Red Bull Brazil, the notable thing about the four Red Bull football clubs is that they all play at the Red Bull Arena. They also all play in the same coloured home & away strips, made by the same manufacturer, to the same design. The club crests are identical, all four are nicknamed “Die Bullen” and there could soon be a Red Bull in a league near you.
So what of the team formally known at SV Austria Salzburg?
The club founded in 1933 has now disposed of nearly all trace of it’s former self. The traditional emblem and violet strip were dropped. Taking the reigns, the new management initially declared on the club website it was established in 2005. Although subsequently ordered to acknowledge its’ previous incarnation by the Austrian FA, its obvious that any previous identity and albeit relatively unsuccessful history the club may have attained over the 82 years prior to the takeover is of little relevance to Red Bull Salzburg.
Despite since becoming a dominant force in the Austrian Bundesliga, the Salzburg takeover brought a mass desertion of supporters. The 2006 transition in New York went a lot more smoothly. The 15-year-old club, formally known as the Metro Stars were always going to find it easier to assimilate in a country still finding its soccer identity. The new owners have this year moved the club to the New Jersey based, purpose built 25,000 Red Bull Arena and signed Thierry Henry from Barcelona along with team mate and world cup star Rafa Márquez. The New York fans for their part have rewarded this investment with the kind of brand loyalty that’d have advertisers anywhere drooling into their Starbucks. Colloquially referring to themselves the “Raging Bull Nation”, the fans chanting the name, flying the flag, have become a living, breathing embodiment of the brand. “Go Red Bulls!”
In a country, where sporting attentions are so divided, bringing in top, established names to draw crowds and raise awareness of lower-profile leagues takes investment. The problem of drawing investment to a less than desirable division is felt especially keenly in Europe. Huge disparities in money from television contracts and the “trickle down” structure of the lucrative Champions League have deepened potential earnings between nations over the past two decades. With some leagues currently thriving at the expense of their neighbours, the only way to bridge the gap of playing in a less glamorous league is either to have a well-established and dedicated support and wait your turn for a seat at the table, or hope to be graced by the divine hand of a benevolent benefactor.
The unfortunate reality for a lot of teams is that oil rich Saudi’s don’t seem to see much potential for growing a football super-brand in say the Scottish lower divisions. Last season debt stricken Stirling Albion sought a solution to their predicament by accepting an offer from Comparethemarket.com to rename the team the Stirling Albion Meerkats, after the company’s mascot. The move was ultimately blocked by the SFA.
As in many leagues, Scottish football finds itself in a difficult situation. When the big blue-chip club, Rangers avoids ruin from one Champions League qualification to the next, any investment to keep a less established team going must seem like a godsend. However, there will be the consideration at the SFA that the derisive sneers from those down south and elsewhere of the current state of the nation’s game would certainly turn into bouts of laughter at the sight of the Stirling Albion Meerkats taking on Clyde is Confused.com. As Jeff Stelling joked following TNS’ last title triumph in the Welsh Premier, “They’ll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight!”
What Scottish football does have in abundance is heritage. The Scottish Cup, for example throws up amazing names the likes of Inverurie Loco and Gala Fairydean, and for these teams their whole reason for being is their total uniqueness. For most clubs, names, colours and crests are a representation of a geographical, cultural, religious or political affiliation of a tribe. And it’s this that football has, which inspires more passion and dedication than any other sport. It’s tribalism.
Its precisely this passion that makes football so attractive for businesses to buy in to and associate with. The inevitability is, that with any form of successful marketing, other brands aren’t going to sit back and allow Red Bull to have the whole share. And with so many famous clubs finding themselves increasingly unable to compete in a distorted market place, this is a trend that could well continue. Ironic then, that the very characteristics that make football so attractive to companies like Red Bull to stick their name on are exactly the qualities that are lost through their involvement.
Robin is a regular contributor to IBWM and you can follow him on Twitter @RobinCowan.
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