The 2022 Major League Soccer season opened on Feb. 26 with the New Jersey-based entrant, the New York Red Bulls playing the San Jose Earthquakes on the West Coast. So it’s the perfect time to check in on the team and find out how the franchise and the league as a whole weathered the last two pandemic years and what the new season could bring.
Toward that end, NJBIZ recently spoke with Red Bulls General Manager Marc de Grandpré about the state of the league, what the World Cup will mean for the business of soccer in the U.S. and how the local team is likely to fare this year – both on the field and off – after a seventh-place finish last season.
“We’re excited,” de Grandpre said. “We have a good young roster. We just announced a few key acquisitions … last year was our 12th consecutive season in the playoffs. We’ve consistently competed and we know we’re going to keep competing here in 2022 and we can’t wait for the season to start.”
What follows is an abridged version of the conversation. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. A video of the full interview is available at njbiz.com/njbizconversations.
NJBIZ: What is it going to be like this year inside Red Bull arena? What are you expecting in terms of attendance and what should fans expect when they when they come to the arena this year?
Marc de Grandpré: So, first and foremost the fans should know that we’re going to keep their health and safety top of mind. Obviously, we know we’re still, let’s say we’re in the endemic phase of this thing hopefully. But it’s going to be back to some normalcy. We want fans to feel comfortable, safe. We’re excited about opening up all the doors.
Last year we started with some restrictions, with some limited capacity. This year, none of that. We’re coming right in.
And we’ve seen a great trend. Obviously, the last two seasons have been difficult and now we’re looking at our renewal rate for our season tickets – or Red Memberships – up in the mid 80s, which are pre-pandemic numbers. So we’re really excited. And we’ve sold more new memberships or season tickets than we ever did pre-pandemic, so these are exciting trends, we can feel that sports are coming back to life, and we all know how that plays an important role in the community. We feel that we offer a great opportunity for fans to come and engage and we think they’re all waiting for it.
As usual, we’ll provide them with a great experience right before the game. We provide what we call The Boulevard where kids and families can interact with certain games. Pregame, there’s a beer garden for adults and then in-game, we all know that the atmosphere is unique at Red Bull Arena, the energy is great. We’re excited about where we’re going and the trends in terms of our ticket sales right now. Really positive.
Q: When I’ve spoken to other people who run venues like yours, or who are involved in live entertainment, the feeling is that there is a real hunger to get back inside to experience live events. Are you picking up the same thing from your fanbase?
A: Absolutely. If you look at just the numbers I just laid out for you in terms of renewal rates, it’s exciting. Even the average price of our tickets for Red Memberships has gone up $200, so there’s clearly a good perceived value and fans want to be here.
We look at our partnership sales, they’re continuing to go in the right direction. So not only fans, partners, but the community as a whole is really excited to be back to some normalcy and participate in these moments. We’ve missed them for two years and now hopefully it comes back to what we had previously.
Q: Well you anticipated the next thing I want to talk about, and that is partnerships. I’m curious how you were able to maintain those given the limitations that you’ve had over the over the past two years. What did you need to do to keep those partners close, to keep them coming back?
A: I’m really proud of how our partnership teams really managed to retain our partners. We’ve retained over 85% of our partners through the pandemic, which is tremendous. We did that by offering them more virtual experiences; we had closed-door events. We offered them a lot of virtual space in the building. We created new assets for them. We created new content outside of the matches so we could be partners on some content with our players. …
Now we look this year to come back to some normalcy. We’ve redone all our suites here. We’re renovating the building. And that’s an exciting new asset that our team is selling — we have great partners already there.
Our sleeve patches is an asset that’s very important to us. We’re in deep conversations with a few partners there so that’s another good sign.
And look, our New Jersey base of partners is really strong. We have 18 very strong partners that are based in New Jersey and we’re really proud to have them be part of our club. We know that as the club comes back, as the sport comes back to normal, that’s only going to gain some momentum.
Q: Again talking to other folks who are in your line of business, there are two levels of engagement, one is the fans in the seats, the other is the engagement of the partners. With nobody in the stands or with few people in the stands what was it that kept them coming back? Is it just loyalty to the brand? Is it loyalty to the organization? What were they getting out of it when there were few games or no games or no fans?
A: That’s a great question. I think it’s part and parcel — you talked about loyalty and service and the way we’ve managed them and really it’s a relationship business at the end of the day. And our team has done a great job.
But it was really us listening to what they needed during this pandemic and how we could bring their brand to life through other channels, other than a match. So we listened to our partners, they gave us feedback. And we found ways to activate around their needs, and that was really critical in our approach, and I think it paid off. If you look at our renewal rate right now heading into 2022 season.
Q: Now the arena itself is a wonderful place. It’s relatively new. You said you’re renovating the suites – they were nice already. It’s in a good spot, you’re in the middle of Harrison, it’s right off Route 280. It’s accessible by mass transit. I’m curious as to whether you see opportunities for non-soccer events at the arena? Is there anything planned along those lines?
A: It’s a timely question. this year we really put a concerted effort behind expanding our portfolio of events at the arena. We’re really pushing forward to get a concert. We’ll start with one, maybe two, this year. The last concert we had was in 2011 and it was a great success. We need to make sure we replicate that more often.
We’ve expanded our portfolio of sports. We’ve had lacrosse. We’ve had rugby. We’re looking at other American sports down the line.
And we’ve expanded our events that are non-ticketed. So corporate events in the building, car shows. We’re really looking to expand that business. Last year we had the most events ever at the arena, running soccer and non-soccer events. We had over 60 events. Now we need to really engage larger scale events like concerts and we’ve put a full concerted effort behind it. We have someone internally now managing that and hopefully we’ll see some fruits of their labors come to life shortly.
Q: Wow you’re really looking at this as an asset. Because when you look at it from the outside, and when you’re in there, you look around and think “this is really valuable.”
A: It’s absolutely one of our most underutilized assets and we’ve got to make sure that it becomes a lot more efficient and use it to help us drive more revenue for the business, ultimately that we can reinvest in the team and the building.
Q: Now, you also mentioned the community and I’m curious as to how you see your role in the community, and what you do to make yourself a part of that community. Tell us a little bit about where that starts and where it’s going at this point.
A: That’s another great question. We’ve got multiple channels and touch points with the community. Obviously, we feel the community is really important to our organization. We want them to feel as if they’re part of ours.
We have our youth programs, which is a a tremendous asset. We run the largest youth soccer program in the country. We [reach] almost 50,000 kids in 125 communities between New Jersey and New York.
And we really bring it to life, where we started this business 16 years ago with a few employees. We have 30 employees now managing that. We have 150 coaches out in the community teaching the game of soccer. Think about the impact that can have on our fan base in the community
We also serve underserved communities. We make sure that we are providing outreach programs for underserved communities, disabled kids, to make sure everyone has access to the game. That’s a big part of our community outreach.
We’ve rolled out over the last five years over 21 mini-pitches around the New York New Jersey area. These are pitches that we collaborate with local communities, we’ll put one at a high school or an elementary school where the kids can safely play soccer. And we also program it after school. We don’t just put the pitches in and move away. The kids can go and learn the game, it’s programmed by our coaches. So it’s really important for us to be really actively involved.
We do a lot of work with autism. Every year, we have a big match in April and this year it’s going to be our Autism Aceptance match and it’s going to be brought to you by Hackensack Meridian Health. So we’re really excited about that. We want to make sure that the game is accessible for all families, not only folks with typical kids, but we want to make sure that any family can be here on game day and enjoy it.
Q: Those youth programs, are they a charity for you or part of your business? How does that work?
A: No, no. It’s a very important piece of our business. It’s a unique piece of our business for us. Obviously, we run clinics, camps and we partner with certain communities to provide all their coaching. So it’s a big revenue driver for us.
It’s also an engagement driver for those young kids. Anytime a kid is engaged with us, they get a ticket to get to come to the match and it helps us sort of build that future fan base. We started at the age of 3, all the way up through 18.
Q: Are there are other organizations that you work with in Harrison or in Newark? I’m wondering whether there’s any kind of cooperation or relationship between you and some of the other anchor institutions in that region?
A: Yes. We work closely with the Newark public school system. We are very active there. We run a a mentoring program with their kids where some of their students come over here and get mentored by our staff on a monthly basis. We do that, every year. …
In Harrison we’ve done the same thing. It’s all about, as I said earlier, we have to be part of the community. Part of the role of any sporting organization is really to give back and provide opportunities to inspire that local community to fall in love with the game.
Q: Now I know you also are planning a new training facility, actually just a couple of miles from where I’m sitting right now in Morris County. What’s the status of that and what was the thinking behind it. You already have what I’m guessing is a pretty nice one in East Hanover, again just a few miles from here. What’s that going to do for you and where are you in terms of getting it going?
A: We’re excited about this new project. As you know, we announced that late last year. It’s about an 80-acre complex where we’re going to build a state of the art training facility. Where we are in East Hanover it’s been a great partnership. We’ve outgrown it. We just don’t have enough space for all our team, we need more space so we’re going to build out nine pitches there and we’ll also basically consolidate our operations. Right now we have the sporting side in East Hanover and our front office at the stadium here. [At] this new facility, everyone will be under one roof and it will provide us a better opportunity to improve communication, collaboration across the organization. We think we’ll be able to get into the ground, hopefully later this year and complete it by early 2024.