How Do Fans React When Sports Teams Are Named After Corporations?

ABSTRACT
The reaction to Red Bull naming its soccer teams after the corporation and prominently displaying the company logo on team uniforms is a mixed one among media critics and fans. Although many media observers note that trends seem to indicate that more sports teams may be named after corporations, there is still a fine line between what is seen as hip and what is taboo. Grathoff (2006), however, suggests that the idea that Major League Soccer would allow a team to be named after a corporation reinforces the league’s second-class status.

INTRODUCTION
The reaction to Red Bull naming its soccer teams after the corporation and prominently displaying the company logo on team uniforms is a mixed one among media critics and fans.
Travis (2006) criticizes the notion that sports teams should be named after corporate interests and predicts that it may not be long until other franchises are named after alcoholic drinks and other products most fans crave. He comments, “Somehow, as a sports fan, I like to think there’s something about a name that can’t be bought. Even if teams, players and stadiums can all be sold to the highest bidder, the last refuge of the fan should be the team name itself.” In contrast, Lewis (2001) argues that the owner of a franchise has the right to determine how a team should be named and marketed. Similarly, Burn (2006) comments that naming a team after a corporation may likely disturb fans more than merely placing a business name on a stadium. Burn contends that fans like to maintain the illusion that at least the team is not merely a business enterprise (as indicated when the squad is named after a corporation) but is at heart a sports organization. On the other hand, Quirk & Fort (1999) and Zimbalist (1998) correctly point out the need for additional review streams (including economic gains that may result from the naming of a team) that are needed to keep up with the exponentially growing cost of running a professional sports franchise.

Although many media observers note that trends seem to indicate that more sports teams may be named after corporations, there is still a fine line between what is seen as hip and what is taboo. Anderson (2006) and Boswell (2006) describe instances in American sport in which teams were named after corporate interests, including basketball franchises in the 1930s (e.g., the Firestone Non-Skids and the Toledo Red Man Tobaccos), soccer teams in the World War II era (e.g., Bethlehem Steel, the Akron Goodyears, and the St. Louis Central Breweries), semi-professional softball teams in the 1980s (e.g., the Coors Light Silver Bullets), and a soccer team in the 1970s (the New England Lipton Tea Men). For decades stock car racing in the USA has been prominently associated with a naming rights sponsor, first Winston and later Nextel. In a few cases, prominent American sports franchises named after corporations have gradually become accepted by most fans. For example, one of the most famous National Football League teams, the Green Bay Packers, were named after a meatpacking company, while the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association were named after a manufacturer of automotive parts. Hughes (2006) and Grathoff (2006) suggest that a corporate name for a professional sports team may be more likely to be accepted by the public if it connotes an image associated with a sporting endeavor, is similar to names used by other teams (e.g., the Chicago National Basketball Association franchise and the University of South Florida use “Bulls” as their name) and is not seen to be politically incorrect. “Red Bulls” seems to meet these criteria.

On an international scale, there are examples of soccer teams named after corporations (Spangler, 2006). For example, Bayer Leverkusen in Germany is named after the firm that manufactures aspirin, while PSV Eindhoven of Holland is named for Philips Electronics. In that light, it could be argued that there is a tradition of naming soccer organizations after corporate sponsors.

Grathoff (2006), however, suggests that the idea that Major League Soccer would allow a team to be named after a corporation reinforces the league’s second-class status. Grathoff notes how the National Basketball Association, a more established and prosperous league, refused a bid by FedEx Corporation to name the Memphis franchise “The Express,” as well as a request to have a proposed Louisville team play its home games at an area to be called “the KFC Bucket.” Said Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon (quoted in Grathoff, 2006), “In the American sports landscape, we would have expected to see the Red Bull thing happen in a start-up league or a fledgling league rather than one of the mainstays. The NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NHL have been very cautious with their approach.”

HISTORY
The Birth and Marketing of Red Bull
Austrian Dieter Mateschitz created Red Bull after visiting Thailand in 1982 and learning that tired drivers in that region consumed large quantities of energy drinks. The top brand in Thailand was a mixture of caffeine, water, sugar and taurine marketed as “Water Buffalo” (referred to locally as Kratindaeng). Mateschitz created his own version of the drink, which he called Red Bull, loosely modeled after that Thai beverage. Shortly thereafter, Red Bull was introduced to Austria, Germany and other European nations. It was first marketed in America in 1997 (Gschwandter, 2004).

Sales of energy drinks like Red Bull and its competitors have increased by 75% since 2005 and totaled more than $3.5 billion in 2006. In 2006 Red Bull sold 2.5 billion cans of the drink worldwide, about 1 million of those in the United States. More than 500 varieties of energy drinks were sold in 2006, and Red Bull is one of the leading brands in the category (Rouvalis, 2006). Estimates suggest that roughly one in every three American teenagers consumed an energy drink in 2006 (Lord, 2007).

Red Bull is known as much for its unique marketing programs as for the highly caffeinated taste of the drink (Hein, 2001), which some marketing experts refer to as liquid Viagra. Van Gelder (2005) suggests that Red Bull is at the leading edge of relatively young companies that combine the best elements of creativity and strategy when building their brands. As a result, he contends, Red Bull will continue to flourish, as long as it emphasizes innovative branding strategies. McCole (2005) describes Red Bull’s branding efforts as “experiential marketing” in which target audiences are exposed to energized special events that create vivid memories. McCole argues that involving stakeholders in live action-sports events can create strong relationships between potential customers and the brand. Similarly, Dolan (2005) describes Red Bull’s promotions efforts as “guerilla marketing” relying on creative special events to bypass traditional advertising in the mass media. Ho (2006) comments that Red Bull is creating a new marketing model by actively owning teams and sports events rather than merely serving as a corporate sponsor. Gschwandter (2004) suggests that Red Bull is marketed using “alpha bees”: individuals who will enthusiastically tell others about a product they love.

Red Bull has often marketed on-site at nightclubs and extreme sports events (such as base jumping and extreme skateboarding), and motor sports events such as BMX motorcycle racing and NASCAR and Formula One automobile racing. Initially, the focus was not to market Red Bull through team sports, but instead to promote individual personalities (Lidz, 2003). Lindstrom (2004) describes Red Bull’s efforts to creatively promote and market the drink to young adults and college students; an example is the company paying people to paint their car in the company colors and place a large replica of a Red Bull can on the roof. As a result, Red Bull is consumed in large quantities on college campuses, either by itself or mixed with liquor.

Typically, Red Bull is only advertised once a target market has matured and buzz has already been created about the brand. For example, most distributors buy the drink directly from the company and sell Red Bull exclusively. According to Ho (2006) and Heinz (2001), Red Bull seeks to align itself with the lifestyle associated with action sports.

Even though it has been criticized by public health officials as being detrimental to human health and even lethal in some cases (Wilde, 2006), a few athletes, including some soccer players, tout the drink’s benefits. MLS forward Taylor Twellman of the New England Revolution endorses the product and said “Drinking Red Bull before training and matches provides me with the needed energy and focus to give me that extra edge on my opponents” (Sells, 2006). In contrast, Zeigler (2006) points out that some public health officials are concerned that the drink may lead to dehydration and that Red Bull seems to be primarily used with alcohol, so people can drink without getting tired.

Red Bull Salzburg
SV Salzburg has a rich history. The club was formed in 1933 when teams associated with the left and right wings of the political spectrum merged. In fact, the selection of violet and white as team colors was intended to suggest the new team was politically neutral (Guenther, 2006). SV Salzburg has traditionally been one of the strongest teams in Austria’s Bundesliga and won the league championship in 1994, 1995, and 1997. In 1994 the team finished as the runner-up in the UEFA Cup.

However, SV Salzburg began encountering financial difficulties around the year 2000, and Red Bull purchased the team in 2005. Robinson (2005) describes how many fans were initially supportive of Red Bull’s purchase of the team, since it would provide needed finances to recruit top-caliber players. But he notes that (fans) soon … recognized that the new management’s purpose was to destroy the old club to establish a Red Bull company club.”
Austria’s premier football association, the Bundesliga, has a history of allowing football club names to help promote private investors (Joyce, 2003). Still, Red Bull took this concept to the extreme, completely rebranding the team and replacing the traditional purple and white uniforms with the red, blue, and yellow colors used to market its drink (Plenderleith, 2007b). Red Bull also referred to the origin of the club based on when the company made the purchase (2005) rather than on the year the team was founded (1933). According to Guenther (2006), “There was a clear intention to sever any ties with the ‘old’ Austria Salzburg. Club sources went on to say that, as far as Red Bull is concerned, there is no history, no tradition” associated with the transformation of SV Salzburg to the new ownership.

When discussing the rationale for changing the color of the team’s uniforms, Red Bull CEO Dieter Mateschitz (cited in Joyce, 2003) referred to fan protests as “kindergarten stuff.” He said, “The Red Bull can’t be violet or else we couldn’t call it Red Bull. Whether you play in purple, blue, or green is irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the team being successful.”

Red Bull also instituted policies that discourage fans from showing the violet and white colors used for many years and prohibit fans from displaying in the stadium banners criticizing the new ownership. Some fans who wore the violet and white colors to Red Bull matches were harassed and assaulted with beer bottles. The end result has been that relationships between the team and many long-standing supporters were significantly damaged. In addition to claims that people who cherished the old traditions were harassed, Red Bull may have offended potential fans by providing a game-day experience that features loud rock music, a disco-style laser light show, a celebrity kick-off with the driver who leads Red Bull’s Formula One team, and fan animators who exhort the crowd to cheer when prompted (Joyce, 2003).

The divided loyalties to old and new ownership have created a group of disaffected fans calling itself “the Campaign for Violet and White” (Violett-Weiss, 2007). Some of the most important goals of this campaign are to incorporate the original team colors of violet and white into the club’s new identity; to make sure that Red Bull refers to the 1933 founding in its marketing and literature; and to improve public relations and dialog between Red Bull and fans of SV Salzburg.

Changing the Name to Red Bull New York
The New York franchise was founded at the creation of Major League Soccer in 1996. Initially, the team was named the New York/New Jersey MetroStars after another corporation, the MetroMedia Entertainment Group. In 1997 the team dropped New Jersey from its name and became known simply as the New York MetroStars.

In March 2006, Red Bull purchased the team for a reported $100 million from the Anschutz Entertainment Group (Bell, 2006). As part of negotiations that led to the purchase, Red Bull lobbied hard for permission from the league to prominently place the logo on the front of the team jersey (Weinbach, 2006). According to Red Bull CEO Dieter Mateschitz, purchasing the MetroStars made sense because it provided an opportunity to market the drink to more than 18 million Americans who play soccer, as well as to an additional 60 million fans who follow the game as spectators. Mateschitz said, “Soccer is just about to make a big breakthrough in the United States media” (Red Bull, 2006). Fatsis (2006) suggests that the investment by Red Bull is one sign that Major League Soccer has a promising future and is poised for economic growth.

The new ownership also acquired a stake in a soccer-only stadium, Red Bull Arena, now being built for the team in Harrison, New Jersey, and opening in 2008 (Thomaselli, 2006). Clark (2006) suggests that buying the club makes sense economically for Red Bull, since it allows them to promote their products using the team as a “walking billboard” in a huge media market. Clark commented that the purchase of the team by Red Bull may likely improve the team’s performance on the pitch, given the owners’ successes in Europe and the amount of capital they will invest in the team. In 2006, Red Bull New York suffered a $14 million loss, perhaps because all the branding and marketing of the energy drink lessened the participation of other corporate sponsors (Plenderleith, 2007).

Several local politicians were upset that the team will be “Red Bull New York,” even though the state of New Jersey is financing the stadium in Hudson County, New Jersey. Brendan Gilfillan, a spokesman for New Jersey Governor John Corzine, opposed dropping New Jersey from the franchise name and stated (Frankston, 2006):

Their new name may be Red Bull New York, but striking New Jersey from their name seems to be a different kind of bull altogether. This is a team that sells its products in New Jersey, draws its fan base from New Jersey, and receives funding from New Jersey.

In addition, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg urged Red Bull to reconsider the decision (The Global Game, 2006). George Zoffinger, president of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority which runs Meadowlands Stadium where the team now plays, said, “It is an insult to us for them to remove the name of the state,” calling the new name a “lack of respect for the state of New Jersey” (Bell, 2006). Meanwhile, Page (2006) opines that removing New Jersey from the team name disrespects the state and its residents.

The potential economic benefits of changing a team name to reflect a franchise’s association with a larger media market (i.e., the change from New Jersey to New York) are illustrated by a similar case involving the Angels Major League Baseball franchise. Nathanson (2007) and Flaccus (2006) describe how owner Arte Moreno changed the name of his team from the “Anaheim Angels” to the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim,” despite the fact that the team did not make a geographic move, but simply rebranded itself. According to Flaccus, Moreno “changed the name to make the most of the Angels’ location in the nation’s second-largest media market …. Using Los Angeles in the name would attract more sponsorships, advertising, and broadcast contracts.” Giulianotti & Robertson (2004) suggest that fans throughout the world often are more likely to identify a sports organization with its brand, rather than with its city or region of association.

Beyond concerns about removing New Jersey from the team name, “Red Bull” has been criticized for sending signals that Major League Soccer is not first-class. Former MetroStars public relations specialist Tony Miguel (quoted in Spangler, 2006) said:
The biggest problem (for Major League Soccer) is regarding the credibility and perception of soccer among the mainstream media. MLS is already seen by most in the mainstream media as a minor league. Red Bull New York only adds to the perception. Imagine the outcry that would occur if the New York Yankees became the New York GEICO’s. This is a desperate move by a league desperate for investors. I think in the long run this hurts MLS much more than it helps the league.

Another factor that likely increased tension about the renaming is that a small group of diehard fans may have feared that Red Bull would discard MetroStars history and traditions. However, Galarcep (2006) suggests that Red Bull learned from its mistakes with SV Salzburg and will handle the matter more sensitively. He contends that the team’s success on the pitch—not its name—will be the key to keeping existing fans and wooing new supporters.
In contrast, Red Bull officials contend that taking New Jersey from the name is not really significant. Red Bull spokesperson Patrice Redden stated that, “In the tradition of the New York Jets and the New York Giants and even the New York Cosmos, we believe that the metropolitan New York area is truly one of the most influential markets in the entire world and the New York affiliation is an excellent representation of this international culture” (Zeigler, 2006).

The French news service Agence-France Presse contends that Red Bull bought the soccer club to boost the image of its brand in the United States. Said sports marketing specialist Rainer Kress of Vienna, “American Major League Soccer … is booming and with the MetroStars deal Red Bull is pursuing a strategy built entirely around marketing” (Butler, 2006). Alexi Lalas, at the time the general manager of Red Bull New York, said renaming the team was “bold,” and “the marketplace in particular needs bold moves.” He also suggested that fans who know the history of and trends in international professional soccer should accept corporate naming. Lalas described further the significance of Red Bull’s purchase of the team (Freedman, 2006): “We are associating ourselves with a world-renowned brand that is synonymous with creative, innovative and unique marketing. All the resources of Red Bull will be brought to bear to market the Red Bulls. I’m excited.”

WHERE MIGHT THIS LEAD?
According to Chris Smith, a Dallas-based specialist in sports and event marketing, Red Bull’s example may not necessarily lead to other teams being named outright for corporations. “It will probably be more of a trickle than a flood,” he said. “While sponsors are eager to step up, they understand the emotional attachment that fans have with teams they love. There’s the potential for a strong negative backlash” (Anderson, 2006). Commented the University of Oregon’s Paul Swangard (cited in Turnbull, 2006), corporate naming is “sort of the last bastion in American sports … [American sports fans] haven’t been willing to accept it.”

On the other hand, some marketing experts contend that the corporate influence found throughout international soccer, and increased advertising in many American sports, may make corporate team names more acceptable. For example, soccer jerseys in Europe typically feature a corporate sponsor’s name prominently, while the logo of the football club may be barely noticeable. Despite the significant commercial presence, however, these teams are almost universally referred to by the name of the football club, not the sponsor. In 2007 Major League Soccer began to allow franchises to prominently display the names of corporations on the front of jerseys, although most teams do not take the name of the corporate sponsor. For example, Real Salt Lake’s uniforms prominently display the name Xanga (a natural juice drink), Chivas USA features the PEMEX logo (Mexico’s national gas company), and the jersey of the Los Angeles Galaxy is adorned with the name and logo of HerbaLife. In all these cases, the logo of the corporate sponsor is shown much larger than the team name (Weinbach, 2006).

FC Barcelona, one of the most storied football clubs in Spain, recently put a new spin on this trend when they entered into an agreement to feature the United Nations children’s charity, UNICEF, on uniforms. Even though FC Barcelona will not directly gain any revenue from this decision, featuring UNICEF’s logo is seen by marketing experts (Hughes, 2006) as a way to create an image of social responsibility on the part of the club and its supporters.
Skidmore (2006) discusses the merits of naming sports teams after corporations, writing that, “Because of mergers, bankruptcies, etc., no league wants a franchise to have a new nickname every two seasons. There is also the problem of cheering for the ‘Verizons’ or the ‘Colgates’ … [Still,] if Team Red Bull can work for MLS, it may not be much longer before we see corporate names in the big four leagues.”

Similarly, Allan Adamson, brand manager at WPP Group, warns that there may be a downside to naming a team after a corporation, especially when problems arise (cited in Bosman, 2006). “The risk is, ‘What happens to the team when a product starts selling badly?’” says Adamson. “It’s a risky strategy, especially when you choose something that’s both an energy drink and an alcoholic mixer.” He likens the permanence of a team name to a tattoo and suggests it may be more difficult to change a team than a stadium named after a corporation.

CONCLUSION
It is clear that renaming professional soccer teams after the Red Bull energy drink led to at least some level of public opposition in both the United States and Austria. However, it is important to differentiate the public outcries in each nation. In Austria, it appears that much of the anger at Red Bull was due to perceived refusal of the new owners to acknowledge and maintain traditions of the original club. Fans found it especially offensive that Red Bull Salzburg ignored the 1933 founding date, instead treating the club as a new expansion team. In a similar light, Austrian soccer fans had closely affiliated SV Salzburg with many time-honored traditions, including the violet and white colors worn for decades. Breaking that tradition was a personal affront to large numbers of fans. In contrast, fan reaction in New York and New Jersey was more localized. There was relatively little criticism in either state, largely because of the relatively low profile of Major League Soccer on the American sports landscape. Certain politicians and civic leaders were angered by the removal of New Jersey from the team name when public funds were building its stadium in New Jersey. Many local residents, however, were not especially bothered by the move: Many activities and organizations around the region refer to themselves as belonging to the “greater New York City” metropolitan area (S. Weston, personal communication, Month Day, 2006). For smaller apples, it just makes sense, from a public relations and marketing perspective, to associate oneself with the Big Apple brand.
On a broader scale, a key question to ask is the extent to which naming a team after a corporation is thought offensive. In Europe, football fans have come to expect the fronts of uniforms to be adorned with large corporate symbols. Still, few football organizations in Europe are yet named after corporations. In America, it has gradually become acceptable to embrace, for a few professional teams at least, names that stem from corporate ties (e.g., the Green Bay Packers or Detroit Pistons). In contrast, the National Basketball Association recently denied a request to name a new Memphis franchise after FedEx Corporation. Perhaps the key principle is to choose a name that is not offensive or politically incorrect and that connotes, in a broad sense, our sports traditions or sporting endeavors.

The experiences of Red Bull provide some insights into how corporate names for sports teams might meet with more public acceptance. For example, after angering Austrian fans by discarding existing club traditions, Red Bull learned how important it is to understand the passionate relationships between teams and their fanatic supporters. A wiser Red Bull then worked hard to ensure that the traditions and supporter groups of the MetroStars would be respected following that team’s acquisition. In addition, the most important factor that may influence fans’ response to a new name is the extent to which the team succeeds on the field of play. If Red Bull shows it is willing to invest in teams and facilities to boost team performance, the issue of the franchise name may become less important.

In sum, one has to ask whether Red Bull’s practice of naming sports teams after its product is a trend that will become more widespread in America and Europe. The general consensus seems to be that naming teams after corporations may be more common among teams and leagues that, like Major League Soccer, have lesser status. The top-of-the-line sports leagues in the USA seem unlikely to adopt the practice in the immediate future. In the larger cultural context of sport, one has to come to grips with the reality that corporations have been investing in and promoting sports organizations for decades, even to the extent of naming teams after themselves. Although naming an established team after a corporation may seem egregious, perhaps it is just an indication of the important role of private investors in supporting sports organizations

For more information, contact Jensen at rwjensen@ag.tamu.edu or (979) 845-8571 or (979) 574-5187. Weston can be contacted at westons@mail.montclair.edu

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