The New York Red Bulls want to help companies get a win.
Since launching an expanded youth development system in 2007, the professional soccer club has transformed the offering to become one of the most robust grassroots-to-pro structures within the U.S. sports landscape.
Besides providing a true in-house pathway to help find and develop players, the multi-year program has boosted the Harrison-based franchise’s fan base via community connections.
And, as the program has grown, it’s presented more and more opportunities for marketing and sponsorships, offering businesses a way to reach one of the most coveted demographics—families.
“Two of our strategic priorities each year is to make sure that we’re developing the best team possible and this plays a key role in that. And then also growing our fan base, which this plays a key role in, as well,” said Joe Stetson, the team’s chief marketing & revenue officer. “All of that leads up to our overall mission – which is to develop, engage and inspire the community through the sport of soccer.”
Now the largest revenue-producing youth program in the Major League Soccer, it’s caught the attention of other soccer franchises, as well as teams from the National Football League, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, that are interested in creating similar offerings in their markets.
While the Red Bulls are happy to talk to other teams about it, they always stress the fact that building something sustainable takes “investment, infrastructure and support,” according to Dave Jervis, senior director of academy business operations & youth programs.
After popular energy drink company Red Bull took over ownership of the MetroStars in 2006, Jervis said it marked a “turning point for true growth and evolution of what was previously a loosely structured youth and academy program.”
“The reality is – soccer is growing so much here in the U.S. and it’s finally caught up with the rest of the world. Twenty-plus years ago, it wasn’t a sport that was necessarily played by a lot of kids growing up. That’s changed significantly now and the number of participants at youth level is now starting to outpace the other sports as well,” he said.
Academy programs are already commonplace in Europe and South America, where Red Bull owns other soccer clubs, so the Austrian beverage brand sought to tweak what was available locally to provide a more homegrown approach for talent.
“We used some of the foundation of the previous program and rebuilt it. From 2007 was when we blew everything up and really took a different approach,” said Jervis, who has been with the team since 2001 and is one of the original employees of the youth system.
The player development pyramid now has six levels, which include local soccer partnerships that provide technical coaching services and curriculum, seasonal camps catering to more than 8,000 youth players annually, afterschool training clinics, outreach programs for kids in underserved areas and offerings for young athletes with special needs.
There are also Regional Development Schools, which focus on scouting and nurturing young talent to program along the team pathway, followed by Pre-Academy and Academy, which are the first steps to playing for New York Red Bulls II and then onto the first team.
Producing in-house talent has many advantages, including saving on transfer fees to buy players and fill the first team roster, along with creating the opportunity to potentially sell players and make a profit. It’s also “one of the biggest vehicles” the Red Bulls have to “genuinely connect with families, young players and the community,” Jervis said.
So far, the program’s biggest success story is Tyler Adams, a Dutchess County, N.Y., native who started out at the Red Bulls youth summer camps, moved through the club’s RDS and academy, advanced to Red Bulls II in the United Soccer League and then the first team in MLS. He then went on to play with Red Bull Leipzig in Germany and is now in the first year of a five-year contract with Leeds United in England’s Premier League.
The rising star continues to be an inspiration and role model, said Jervis, noting, “When you develop players in house, there’s a different connection for both the players and the fans.”
Since 2007, the amount of revenue from the youth and academy programs has grown twentyfold, primarily from integration with ticket sales, marketing partnerships and other outreach, according to the club.
“The revenue is like a phenomenal ancillary benefit to this whole, bigger picture. Yes, we love that we’re able to derive some revenue from it, that’s fantastic and all. But even if we were still at a level where it was more of an investment because we are really focusing on this pyramid and being able to develop the next great Tyler Adams and so on—that’s the primary benefit of this,” said Stetson.
The New York Red Bulls found a lead architectural designer for the team’s new training complex in Morris Township: Gensler. Check out some renderings by clicking here.
“There’s also a lot of values there for the families and for the kids – just even playing sports in general and playing a new sport is a great value – learning about the importance of teamwork, leadership, selflessness, resilience, hard work and so on … And the, the value is in addition to that we now have them as part of the family in our system,” he said.
With over 42,000 participants annually and 125 partnering organizations across a 75-mile radius in the tri-state area, the Red Bulls’ program has a wide reach, making it ripe for sponsorship.
“The statistics support it, too. Even just from a fandom standpoint,” Stetson said. “I recently read that 50% of sports fans determine their team of choice by the age of 14 and then 70% by the age of 20. … From a brand standpoint and from a marketer’s standpoint, a lot of those statistics are very, very similar in terms of brand loyalty. Most people choose their brands between 14 and 20.”
“There are a lot of companies, especially local companies, that leverage our program to help their brand. They’re integrated into our programs, whether it’s from branding or activation. There are also other opportunities for branding, activation, sponsorships and investing,” Stetson said.
“And we just recently decided that we were going to make available a presenting sponsor of our youth programs. But it’s got to be the right partner – preferably a local brand because it speaks to our homegrown nature,” said Stetson, noting that the team is looking for a community-focused entity that shares the Red Bull’s “vision and philosophy.”
Since coming on board as a sponsor for the Red Bulls’ youth summer camp program two years ago, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield New Jersey has found it to be a great way to connect with communities when it comes to messaging around physical and mental health.
As the largest health provider in the state, Jonathan Pearson, director of corporate social responsibility at BCBSNJ and executive director of The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, said the program’s focus on youth is important to the Newark-headquartered company.
“There’s the physical fitness piece of it, as well as behavioral health and mental well-being of youth across New Jersey. A lot of kids did not have access in 2021 to some of these camps and definitely not in 2020 when most were shut down. So, it’s a great way to get kids back and families back into the community doing something very positive,” he said.
After first teaming up in 2014, Horizon BCBSNJ extended its multi-year partnership with the New York Red Bulls in 2021, continuing its exclusive designation as the club’s Official Health Solutions Partner. At the time of the renewal, Horizon BCBSNJ wanted to expand its relationship and signed on to become a presenting partner for the summer youth camps.
“We knew the Red Bulls are going to run these camps in a very efficient, effective way, so that was a big part of it,” he said. “The summer camp program is a really positive way for us to be more active beyond their normal matches at Red Bull Arena and another way for us to touch many communities in the state.”
“And, when you think about how we deliver important health information, having that significant reach is a benefit that we see in partnering with them,” said Pearson. “And they also reach a very diverse audience. They have a focus on the Hispanic community, which is of interest to Horizon from a business perspective, as well as a community perspective.”
Pearson continued, “We’ve been working with them [New York Red Bulls] for about 10 years in different capacities, but I think certainly now that we have our youth programming, with the activation and messaging, as well as what we’re doing on digital and social with them, it’s really a multi-pronged approach to serving the New Jersey community and it’s been really effective.”