Not only did the New York Red Bulls have the highest goal-scoring season in Major League Soccer history last year, executives said the Harrison-based franchise also had its most profitable year ever. The combination of on-field prowess and financial acumen allows General Manager Marc de Grandpre and Vice President of Marketing and Communications Joe Stetson to position the Red Bulls as “the most attractive and progressive sports property for New Jersey businesses to partner with.”
That may sound like corporate puffery, but here’s the thing: Their partners agree with them.
Of the team’s 125 market partners, a whole swath are New Jersey-based: Covanta, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jesey, Hackensack Meridian Health and Provident Bank, to name a few. And last year, 100 percent of the Red Bulls’ marketing partners renewed their sponsorships. The same is expected for this year.
“The 100-percent renewal rate is almost unheard of,” said Deb Gabor, CEO of brand strategy consultancy Sol Marketing. “What that says to me on the B2B side of that relationship, they have forged this incredible bond of indispensability that in my business we call irrational loyalty.”
Irrational loyalty, Gabor said, is the ultimate goal of branding, where your partner feels as if it’s cheating on you to go with your competitor instead.
“A sponsorship is like a co-branding arrangement where your brand sits side-by-side with someone else’s brand,” said Gabor. “In the case of a sponsorship with the NYRB, the sponsors would be looking for a relationship where the values of the NYRB align very firmly with their own values as an organization.” That’s exactly what some of the sponsors cite as the foundation of the relationship: aligned values.
“Every company needs to represent their brand and finding a partner that represents the same values is important,” said Rob Capozzoli, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Provident Bank. “It makes it much easier. The Red Bulls have very strong ties to the community and so do we.”
Provident entered a five-year partnership with the Red Bulls in 2018. One of the assets of the partnership is the branded luxury suites at Red Bulls Arena, something Capozzoli sees as emblematic of the two organizations’ commitment to each other.
Building relationships is crucial, even for New Jersey’s oldest bank. The company gets full access to their branded luxury suite for seven home games a year, so its business development officers can entertain potential clients.
“The expectation that if you take them to one game, you’ll do a bunch of business isn’t necessarily true,” said Capozzoli.
“I’m not necessarily expecting a whole bunch of loans from one game. It’s a way to build relationships with a customer. You can’t bring them to the game and hammer them business the whole time.”
During games, partners in suites also have access to a common food and beverage area with partners in other suites, enhancing the possibility of business-to-business networking and smoothing introductions.
Telling a story
These partnerships aren’t cookie-cutter affairs, said Stetson. The marketing team caters and customizes partnerships with each partner individually.
“Some partners want to have branding, some are more interested in engagement, some are more interested in community, some are more interested in content,” Stetson explained.
For branding, Stetson said the team makes sure not to turn the arena into a sort of logo soup.
“Outside of [engine manufacturer] Yanmar and Audi, you’re not seeing our sponsors plastered all over the building, and that’s strategically done,” he said.
“We want to make sure that each of our partners has a very strong share of voice within the building so that there’s recall,” Stetson explained.
Fans, who number 20,000 on an average game day, have 90-percent recall of the brands they see affiliated with the NYRB, according to Stetson.
As the team’s official energy partner, in addition to the receptacles bearing Covanta’s brand, the entire arena is powered by the waste energy business. Not only is the partnership bringing Covanta visibility and enhancing its community involvement efforts, Covanta’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jill Stueck said it has actual environmental impacts.
Red Bulls Arena’s use of renewable energy reduces the team’s carbon footprint by 5,000 tons per year, equivalent to the carbon sequestered annually by a forest six times the size of Central Park, she said. And by reducing the amount of greenhouse gas-releasing trash headed for the landfill, it’s like taking 1,800 cars off the road.
Stueck praised the Red Bulls’ fan base as young and environmentally conscious, and therefore well-aligned to Covanta’s mission.
“It’s more than just advertising. It’s two bodies that have a similar purpose and found ways the purposes can intersect and create a greater statement for our overlapping audiences,” Stueck said. “It’s not about putting up signage, it’s about telling a story.”
If any of the NYRB’s corporate partners shows that there’s room for the little guys, it’s Brisas Bakery. The small family-owned Colombian restaurant in Elizabeth rented out a suite when Colombia’s national team was playing a game at the arena. Out of a conversation between Brisas’ owners and the Red Bulls’ suite salesperson came the idea to develop a small sponsorship that allowed Brisas to open up a concessions stand on game days.
Through clever tweets and social media engagement, Stetson said, the brand created a buzz about being the official empanada of the NYRB—and the first empanada partnership in sports history—before the stand even went live. “I kid you not, when they opened the first game, there was a line around the concourse,” Stetson said. “They ran out by halftime.”
Since the empanada stand opened this past summer, it remains the most sought-after concession in the arena, Stetson said. Its success with the Red Bulls has also contributed to the growth of their business outside of it.
“We have seen an increase in customer diversity with new clients coming from all across the metro area in addition to an increase in online [and] word-of-mouth support,” said David Orozco, Brisas’ chief development officer. “While it has always been a goal to expand our brand to cities outside of Elizabeth, the partnership has given us additional confidence in the success we hope to see in these new locations.”
An international audience
For sponsors, the appeal of Red Bulls Arena goes beyond the New York metro area.
“We have a lot of global appeal being here with a lot of the international games we have. Even the MLS games have a huge global audience. And the location—there’s 162 million out-of-home impressions from this building alone because of where it’s located,” said Stetson.
The 162 million impressions come from more than 50,000 people who fly over the building every day going to and from Newark Liberty International Airport, along with folks riding by NJ Transit, Amtrak, PATH and driving past on nearby streets and highways.
The visibility is by design. The numbers were taken into account when the construction began on the arena in 2006. It was finished in 2008, and according to de Grandpre, the arena has had a profound impact on revitalization in Harrison.
“Where [Harrison] is going over the next five years is pretty remarkable. You look at Hoboken 20 years ago, or Jersey City 15 years ago,” Stetson said. “This is that next stop on the PATH train that is going to develop in a pretty remarkable way.”
The team recently announced a new sponsorship opportunity, and it’s a big one: The naming rights to the arena are on the market. According to Stetson, the team is in talks with multiple potential partners interested in that opportunity.
Like their other partnerships, though, it needs to be the right fit. Stetson and de Grandpre welcome partners of all types and sizes but have no problem acknowledging that in some opportunities should be passed on.
“There have definitely been some instances where a brand wants things from our partnership and if we don’t think we can deliver it and deliver it the right way, we’re pretty obvious about that,” said Stetson. “That’s why we have those conversations, and sometimes they’re not easy conversations to say, ‘what do you really want out of this?’ to make sure we can deliver.”