Could one of the most notorious ownership groups in New York City sports be nearing an exit?
It was November 2006 when Alexi Lalas stood in front of a t-shirt and announced to the world that the NY/NJ MetroStars had been acquired by energy drink maker Red Bull. The subsequent eight years saw ups (a world-class stadium in Harrison, big name player signings like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, the club's first ever title in 2013) and downs (a general dismissal of club history, the abysmal 2009 season, the club name turning people off). And now, depending on who you believe, either that ownership tenure may be nearing an end, or is completely committed to the market and Major League Soccer.
Yesterday afternoon, Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl published a scathing article claiming the ownership was looking for an out. Wahl's sources indicate that if an ownership group approached the club with a $300 million offer for both the franchise and the stadium, "the deal would get done within 48 hours."
Doubling down, Wahl adds that team and stadium sale talks had happened in the recent past with two ownership groups: one from New Jersey, and the other, ironically, from Manchester City in the time before they plunked down an expansion fee for NYCFC.
Wahl's parting shot:
Long story short: Don't look for Red Bull to be involved in MLS in the long-term future.
Hours later, the club issued a statement denying the report:
There are no plans to sell the New York Red Bulls. While interest in soccer continues to grow in the U.S. and the MLS continues to expand, Red Bull is confident now more than ever in its investment and committed to the franchise and its supporters.
And this morning, MLS Commissioner Don Garber issued his own statement denying the report:
“In response to the SI.com article about the potential sale of the New York Red Bulls, I can absolutely assure you that the club is not for sale,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “Both the owner and the management team in Austria and in New York are as committed as ever to Major League Soccer, the club and their fans.”
One would think that two separate denials would put the matter to bed. But given recent events in MLS history, we can't be so sure.
The first, and most obvious, is the beleaguered story of Chivas USA. The second team in Los Angeles, Chivas struggled for most of the years of its existence, dragging down league attendance (they averaged 8,366 per home game in 2013). As the team got bogged down in discrimination lawsuits and poor on-field performance, questions started getting asked by fans and media about what would be done about "the Chivas problem".
First came the denials the team was for sale in February 2013, and denials that the league would buy the club out. Then came claims the league was trying to force a sale. Then, in February 2014, the league bought the team out, and is now trying to find a new ownership group on their own.
In fairness, that was a beleaguered, troubled club, which desperately needed a change. The Red Bulls have their issues, but are generally running fine. Is there another MLS team we can compare them to?
In fact, we can: the Columbus Crew. The Columbus Crew was sold to Precourt Sports Ventures LLC in the middle of 2013, a move that took many by surprise. Did the Hunt Sports Group publicly state they were "for sale" before the move executed? Not exactly—they were only looking for a minority investor:
The original ownership group of the Columbus Crew wasn't looking to sell. Instead, Hunt Sports Group was seeking a local investor to purchase a minority share in the MLS franchise.
Once businessman Anthony Precourt began to learn more about the club, though, it was only a matter of time before he could convince Hunt Sports Group to sell the entire franchise.
We also wondered what the MLS governance structure had to say about this. We inquired with the league how they would react if the "right offer" came in for any team. We asked if the league has to approve before a team can even begin ownership discussions.
The response we received, from a league spokesperson: "All club ownership transactions must be approved by the MLS Board of Governors."
So the Red Bulls being officially "for sale" or not ultimately doesn't matter. Both Chivas USA and the Crew show us that, if the right opportunity approaches—or if conditions deteriorate—tunes can change very quickly. Red Bull ownership may not actively be courting new owners at the moment, but what happens if a strong opportunity comes along?
The other gnawing sensation for long suffering Red Bulls supporters is that there's other writing on the wall. Fans have been desperately awaiting a third designated player to join the roster—but there's been none, even as NYCFC adds names like David Villa and Frank Lampard. Wahl's article also proclaimed that there is 0% chance that Thierry Henry will return to the squad next year. Should that bear out, the team will have even more work ahead to build a lineup to rival that of their rivals in the Bronx.
Despite an academy full of talent, Red Bull passed on an opportunity to create their own USL PRO squad. (They will instead have to partner with an existing USL PRO squad per league requirements.) And with Red Bull's two European soccer clubs in the ascendancy in Europe, there's a growing belief that the company in Austria may be losing focus on making it in America.
So while there's no "FOR SALE" sign outside of Red Bull Arena, fans can't be blamed for bracing for another potential ownership transition. The only upshot? For those that have been with the club for the long-haul, they've been through this once before.