HARRISON, N.J. — The practice of downsizing NFL or major college football stadia for MLS purposes has now hit one stadium specifically built to avoid that problem.
The New York Red Bulls have covered a wide swath of seats within the southeast and northeast corners of their upper deck at Red Bull Arena, as seen during its last game against Minnesota United on April 6.
It was unclear how many seats have been taken out of commission in the 25,000-capacity stadium, but all or parts of six sections were covered on the southern end and all or parts of seven sections on the northern end. The coverings were red with what looked like photos screened onto them, and clearly out of TV camera range.
Club spokesman Gordon Stevenson said the number of seats covered would be divulged to reporters before the team’s next home game on April 27 against Cincinnati. When asked for a team executive to explain the reasons for the tarps covering whole sections, he said the club would not comment beyond interviews given to other outlets prior to the Minnesota match regarding attendance.
He specifically referred to a story by Franco Panizo for sbisoccer.com published April 3, three days before the Minnesota match, in which general manager Marc de Grandpre characterized the team’s average attendance as “really positive” given that MLS is only 25 years old. He said only the Yankees, Jets and Giants average larger crowds than the Red Bulls.
The story referred to the tarps, but did not say how many seats were affected, how permanent they were or when the club decided to drape the sections.
De Grandpre was quoted saying the Red Bulls were going to “rethink the environment” of the stadium, possibly consider “more open-space concept” areas. He said renovating areas of the stadium would take years.
The Red Bulls drew an average announced home crowd of 18,583 last year, down from 21,175 the previous year. For three MLS games this season, New York has announced crowds of 15,621 for its home opener against San Jose, 15,108 for a March 31 match against Orlando and 15,706 for the game against Minnesota.
“It’s not great optics for any team playing in a soccer-specific stadium,” said Fox Sports analyst and former Red Bulls and Earthquakes general manager Alexi Lalas. “I, more than most, recognize the challenges of selling in that market.”
Lalas was the general manager of the Red Bulls in 2005 and 2006 when the team was known as the MetroStars and played in Giants Stadium. Usually, the upper deck of Giants Stadium was closed and sections in the lower bowl were often draped with tarps.
“Two things,” Lalas added. “They specifically made a conscious effort to go away from big-name, big-money sexy signings, and focus time and energy on development. One thing that isn’t sexy is player development. As important as it may be, it doesn’t sell a lot of tickets.
“The other challenge is competition with other entertainment in the New York metropolitan market is considerable.”