Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Over this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend two different sporting events with my boyfriend and my son. In both cases, these events were ‘firsts” for me: my first major league soccer game, and my first time attending Citi Field. And in spite of the pervasive corporate influence in both places….one franchise “did it right,” and one was horribly wrong.
On Saturday, July 21, I watched a match between the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union at Red Bull Stadium in Harrison New Jersey. It was the first time I had ever seen a live professional soccer match. I was a little nervous, simply because I assumed this would all be ‘new’ to me (Disclosure: I was a soccer coach for “mini-kickers,” the five-year old soccer kids, in the early 1990s in Cheshire County, New Hampshire. I also had the wild experience of watching the European Cup in a bar in Holyhead, Wales at about the same time. But I still entered the stadium feeling ‘unprepared’ as an American at a soccer game).
The journey to Red Bull Stadium (to see the Red Bulls, owned by the Red Bull Company) on the New Jersey PATH trains was efficient, but certainly not, shall we say, “aesthetically pleasing.” The signage at the NJ PATH stations is sparse and incomplete, and certainly not up to the standard that this New Yorker is used to. Fortunately, the Red Bull crowds knew their way about, and I followed them to the stadium in Harrison, NJ. The stadium is located in an urban – nay, industrial – part of town, with nothing to see for miles around but iron and steel and rust and grit.
Nonetheless, the stadium rocks.
Seating 25,000 fans, the stadium is larger than Fenway Park in Boston. It is not a “football” stadium, rented by a soccer team, but a SOCCER stadium. It is touted as the *premier* Major League Soccer stadium in the United States….and it is, from a fan’s perspective – a great (and fun!) stadium.
We entered the stadium and my son was handed a red bull cap. We found our way to our seats - fairly inexpensive seats (about $24) in section 223. I was a bit nervous, as these seats were located in a “corner” of the field, and fairly “up” in the stadium. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the seats were. In fact, I can honestly say that there is not a bad seat in the stadium. All of the action was clearly viewable from any point in the stadium.
And the match began.
We had an unbelievably, enjoyable, wonderful time.
The fans (both the Red Bull fans *and* the visiting Philly fans) were *excited* about the game. The stadium is built with metal floors, so stamping your feet made NOISE. The opposing Philadelphia team brought in drums and fans, and they made incessant noise the entire time. At the other end of the stadium, Red Bull fans unleashed a multi-level banner supporting New York, and matched the Philly fans in excitement and noise. (We’ve discovered there are several Red bull support groups that have special seating privileges as an official ‘fanbase,” such as the Viking Army and the Raging Bull Nation.) This was a REAL rivalry, and it was exciting! I found myself being drawn into the rivalry…and standing and cheering when “our guys” made a goal. In fact, both goals were made by headers by Kenny Cooper (pictured above) – a name I didn't know then, but I sure know now. Just as I now know the name Thierry Henry now. And just as I now know the name of Bill Gaudette, the goaltender who was *clearly* in command of communication with the rest of the team throughout the game. I was drawn into the game, and found myself booing and cheering and clapping and standing and being completely involved (My boyfriend stood up so fast at one point to cheer that he fell back into his chair with a low blood-pressure head rush! Though he continued to scream…)
Were there drawbacks? Sure. No fan likes to be charged $7 for a medium beer or $9 for a large beer (the $7 purchase was actually a better buy). And the corporate domination of the team was clear: the Red Bull Company owns both the team and the Stadium; the team is named after the company (after previously being called the Empire Soccer Club and he MetroStars), and the corporate logo is the same as the Red Bull energy drink logo. But the Red Bulls have managed, in spite of that clear corporate connection, to keep further corporate money “out of your face.” And one must admit that, given the predominance of “the Big 4” (Baseball, Football, Basketball, and Hockey), how in the world could soccer make a splash on the American sports scene without significant corporate support?
The Red Bulls won the game 2-0. I was elated. I was psyched. I went home a fan.
Then, on Sunday, it was on to a Mets game.
Understand that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Mets fan. I went to Shea Stadium as a kid; I grew up (in spite of generally being sports-ignorant) knowing the names Tom Seaver, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote, Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones, and Tommie Agee. I sat in box seats in 1969 as the Mets moved towards World Series victory. I have imagined how a Mets Logo would look as a tattoo on my calf. This is MY team.
But I had never been to Citi Field. And I went with an open mind, and an excitement at having been able to attend a Mets game, once again, this time with my son. And it wasn’t just any old game - it was a game against the Traitorous Los Angeles Dodgers, whose exit from New York led to the birth of the NY Mets.
So, off on the 7 Train we went to Citi Field.
We arrived, and I was excited as I anticipated seeing the Jackie Robinson rotunda for the first time. I have to say, it was pretty disappointing. It was smaller than I thought, and was merely a staging point for herding crowds . Oh well. On to the stadium.
On the positive side….I must admit...I LOVED the pavillions. In a masterpiece of engineering and design, in spite of the fact that we were up on the Promenade level, the “food courts” were masterfully designed. I felt that I was at an outdoors food pavilion at Jones Beach rather than somewhere in Queens adjacent to LaGuardia airport. The open-air feeling, and the variety of food choices, were a sheer delight.
Unfortunately, the food was insanely expensive and of fairly low quality.
$8 beers, *cold* fried dough, carrying trays unable to hold 3 mini-sausage & peppers, and no carrying trays able to contain draft beers without massive spillage were annoying at best.
The game experience - in spite of my wanting to LOVE everything – was disappointing.
The seats (we were in section 424), were decent. In fact, it seemed that most seats were pretty decent in the new CitiField (except for the fact that we had to stand to see balls hit along the third baseline in the outfield). No complaints there.
But the Corporate over-kill was overwhelming.
I counted thirty-six different corporate advertisements assaulting my senses around the stadium. Even the scoreboard that gave basic information (balls, strikes, outs) disappeared from time to time for “corporate messages.” Every inning and half-inning was introduced on the Jumbo-tron by a new Corporate Sponsor and fan who had “won” a corporate sponsor contest. The sheer information-overload made it almost impossible to separate – and comprehend – the player statistics from the game stats to the Corporate infomercials.
The stadium floor is poured concrete, which meant that it was virtually impossible to drum up excitement, as all fan sound was muffled even as it started. And the musical accompaniment was incompetent when it came to generating excitement. As a child of the 1960s, I was used to the Jane Jarvis Organ getting the crowd excited.
Instead, at Citi Field, the musician played one, perhaps two measures of a song or chant. The crowd would try to join, the organ would stop, and the fans would be lost. End of excitement. For 12 innings, this continued without change: there simply was no momentum established to get the fans excited. It was a BIG change from the days of Shea that I remembered as a child.
Perhaps most disappointing of all - were the Clothes Police.
Keep in mind, this was a sporting event. An OUTDOORS event. In 95 degree heat. It was not an Opera at Lincoln Center.
Guys at Football games arrive shirtless and paint their bodies with team colors or spell out words. When we went to Red Bull Stadium, we took our shirts off and waved them in the air in celebration of Cooper’s goals.
But at Citi Field? No way.
As I left my seat to get some beer, I was shirtless, but brought my shirt with me (just in case). As I somehow anticipated, one of the hundreds of security-conscious employees grabbed me and explained that I needed to wear a shirt. I decided to comply without a fight, and walked away, arranging my tank top over my head.
Security ran after me.
“You can put your shirt on in them restroom, or right here,” he commanded.
“I’m putting it on right here,” I responded, as I continued to walk and arrange my shirt. He followed me to make sure.
Later in the stands, both my boyfriend and I removed our shirts in the 95 degree heat, with the sun bearing directly down upon us. We saw other guys in sections 404 and 435 taking their shirts off.
A Mets Security Goon came running into the stands to “require” us to wear shirts (in spite of the fact that our backs were against a wall, and no one was sitting next to us). 20 minutes after complying, a different security goon came to check that we were properly clothed. I learned later that Citi Field refuses admittance to anyone wearing a T-shirt that conveys what they feel is a ‘controversial’ message.’
After I got home, I received an email survey about my Citi Field experience. It asked if I was satisfied with the level of Security. The implication was that in security-conscious, paranoid New York, “Security” was a “good “ thing.
For me, it was like watching a game under the surveillance of a Corporate-driven Fascist State.
The comparison between these two stadiums was stark.
The difference was *not* in corporate financing: both were clearly corporately financed. The difference was in the perspective that both teams took towards their fan base, the freedom they afforded their fans to celebrate, the inclusion of their fans in their overall team drive towards success.
I am thinking, today, that I am glad I did not have that Mets tattoo inked on my calf. And that I can’t wait to see my next Red Bulls Game.