For two weeks earlier this year, Provident Bank was the presenting sponsor for Train at Home, a virtual soccer training program that Major League Soccer team the New York Red Bulls created to keep fans engaged and in shape during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without the product that the Red Bulls normally offer – a soccer match for people to attend – sponsors like Provident tied themselves to digital assets the team created to provide value for them and to fans. At the season’s beginning, this wasn’t how Keith Buscio, Provident vice president of public relations, envisioned the partnership going. Since first activated in 2018, the Provident-Red Bulls partnership has been a mostly in person brand experience, as Provident has the naming rights to the Red Bull Arena suite lounge. The suite lounge is the area of the arena with food and beverage that luxury suites have access to during matches, and Provident’s name is all over it, as well as on match tickets.
“The challenge was, if they’re not playing soccer, how do they deliver value to us? The Red Bulls really did a nice job,” Buscio said. “Our goal was obviously to create brand awareness in our market. Provident is the oldest bank in New Jersey, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone knows who we are, so [the Red Bull partnership] helps us get our name out there in our market and support our brand strategy.”
Provident tied itself to other digital assets as well, like a poll on Twitter and Instagram in which fans voted on the best set-piece goal, and once games started up after the season took a lengthy COVID-induced break, digital graphics at the goal line akin to the ones professional football has been using to denote downs for the last 20 years.
“[The Red Bulls] said, ‘we understand your goal is to get your name out to your fans, we can still accomplish that,” Buscio said. “And it works for us.”
“When we first started, we established that we would look at four priorities, first one being communication, second being engagement, third one being preparation – how do we [prepare for when the players] return to play – and the fourth being relationship. How does that relationship change during this time when there’s so many questions, so many things up in the air,” Red Bulls Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer Joe Stetson said.
“We wanted to establish that the relationship with our partners and fans is not contingent upon the business. We spent time just calling and seeing how they’re doing … how’s the family? New York, New Jersey, this was the epicenter of the pandemic for the beginning stages,” he said. “Really, doing these welfare checks established for us that this is bigger than business.”
Stetson, Field Marketing and Community Relations Senior Director Christina Giunta-Quarino, and the rest of the marketing team got creative: What virtual content could they create that not only engaged the fans while the game wasn’t being played, but paid off for the marketing partners? In partnership with Adidas, the Red Bulls produced web shorts, akin to MTV Cribs, touring players’ homes and highlighting their shoe collections. In partnership with Hawthorne-based Premio Foods – for whom they’d previously hosted a sausage eating contest – the team produced a player-hosted cooking show.
Recently retired Red Bulls Defender and Morristown native Connor Lade had also come to work in the team’s front office and the sheer luck of his transition to the Red Bulls’ business side became a major asset, as he became the host of Red Bulls’ quarantine-era digital video series where players would appear on screen as they’d never been seen before—not playing soccer, but instead cooking (like on a Burger Showdown featuring players Aaron Long, Sean Nealis and Alex Muyl, presented by Blue Point Brewing Co.), mixing drinks (such as the Cinco De Mayo bartending class with players Alex Muyl and Tim Parker, presented by Avion Tequila), or giving a tour of their home (like on the RBNY Cribs episode with Captain Sean Davis, presented by Wells Fargo).
Additionally, the team boasts one of the largest youth soccer programs in North America, hosting 45,000-50,000 kids in camps and clinics, mostly in New Jersey. Without the ability to host the kids in person, the marketing team created the Train at Home program, and with kids out of school and sports, it took the place of gym class for many students, even once getting a shoutout from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla during his daily COVID-19 briefing.
“We started to reach out to educators and administrators, where yes, it was a service to those normally involved in our program, but we brought in a whole new community. It enabled us to expand our reach,” Stetson said. “This was a thing partners [like Provident, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, Bayer, and Hackensack Meridian Health] wanted to be a part of because it was a service to the community,” Stetson said.
With matches back in action as of the MLS is Back Tournament in July and August, the Red Bulls are using the NFL-style graphics systems to augment the world fans see on screen. Rather than just situating graphics on the field, they’re putting them in the stands where fans usually sit, on giant green screens; so rather than seeing row after row of government-mandated empty seats, viewers see sizeable Hackensack Meridian Health and Yanmar ads.
For the MLS Is Back Tournament, which took place in Orlando, some ad spots were made available for the MLS’s national marketing partners and some for the marketing partners of each team.
“By creating these virtual ads for the MLS is Back tournament, we were able to do something we we weren’t able to do in the past, which was to give local partners, especially those in New Jersey, the opportunity to advertise on a national platform,” Stetson said.
And for fans, armchair cheering goes a longer way with Hear Me Cheer, an app developed by 20-year-old Ontarian Elias Andersen earlier this year to bring fan noise – boos and cheers – into empty stadiums.
Fans run a recording of themselves watching a game live, and when they start hollering, audio is relayed into the stadium and televised live. Cheering, jeering, chanting, and interacting with each other makes for an engaging fan experience, even without the cold beer and hot dogs.
According to Quarino, the Red Bulls were the first MLS team – and possibly the first sports team – to use the app during a live game.
Even mid-March, Stetson and his team never went into panic mode. As part of the Red Bulls family, they’d paid close attention to how COVID-19 was taking its toll on other countries. Red Bull also sponsors teams in Europe, Africa and South America.
“Two weeks prior to March 11, we started a task force in preparation for anything – part of that was [General Manager Marc de Grandpré] being a great leader, part of it is we’re part of the global ecosystem, and Red Bull was seeing it impact other global markets,” Stetson said. “We had two guiding principles that would completely guide our decision making throughout this time, whether in preparation of when it would hit. Number one was that the primary health, safety and welfare of staff, our players, our community, and our partners would be the driver of every decision we made in that time; and number two would be we would take one extra step in terms of cleaning, sanitizing our work environment. If the CDC was prescribing one thing of the local authorities were prescribing one thing, we’d go a step further.
“That north star and the preparation didn’t put us in that panic mode because although, yes, there was definitely a lot of concern and anxiety, but we knew that as long as we had those guiding principles, we would make all the right decisions,” Stetson said.
Those guiding principles, the team’s north star, paid dividends: The Red Bulls are one of the few sports properties that hasn’t furloughed or laid anyone off. And they’re not in any rush to bring fans back to the stadium—they’ll bring fans back when they feel it’s safe, Stetson said.
The organization has grown during this time, not necessarily in numbers but in strength and connection.
“The level of communication and coordination we’ve had internally was only made possible because we did such a good job pivoting our entire goals, our strategy, our business plans on the fly. We tried out new things we hadn’t done before, moved stuff up we probably had planned two years from now … out of necessity that’ve turned into somethings we’ll probably continue to do,” Stetson said, noting the virtual Train at Home and the virtual player appearances hosted by Lade.
Weekly staff meetings include 160-plus people, and in the Q&A portion at the end, no question is out of bounds for de Grandpré to answer.
“We are more connected now than we were six months ago. I think that’s attributed to our leadership, to our staff that could have said ‘I guess we have no games, I’m just going to sit on my hands here,’” said Stetson. “They’ve reimagined the fan experience, the partnership experience, and transformed our business so that when we do return with fans, we’ll be ready and prepared, and I feel very confident we’re going to be able to thrive.”