How far will the Red Bull Revolution go?

By Chris Freestone

Germany, or at least part of Germany, has stopped to watch. The Bull throws his athletic, muscular frame between the enemy and the ball, touches the ball out of reach, and with explosive power and elegance that belies such a powerful beast, he ghosts past two more and stabs the ball goalwards. He may have been isolated, but luck is on the Bull’s side as an opposition defender inadvertently nods the airborne ball inside the near post and past the hapless goalkeeper, undoing ninety-five minutes of hard work. The lone Bull wheels away in victory, joining the awaiting herd of Bulls as they charge towards the sudden explosion of raucous applause emanating from the sea of white and red. The roar of the eleven on the field can be heard above the wall of noise coming from the stands as if in tribute to the scarlet Bulls adoring their shirts. Glory will be returning to Leipzig this fine day.

RB Leipzig would go on to add another, from the penalty spot in the second half of extra time, ensuring the overall victory and promotion to the third tier of German Football for the latest addition to Red Bull’s football project. RB Leipzig, along with FC Red Bull Salzburg, New York Red Bulls, Red Bull Brasil and Red Bull Ghana make up Red Bull’s portfolio of football teams, giving Red Bull a foothold in some of the biggest football markets across the world. Red Bull, the energy drink manufacturer founded in 1987, have a massive presence in the sports industry, having founded popular sporting events such as Flugtag and Red Bull X-Fighters (and many, many more extreme sporting events all over the world), in addition to owning numerous sports teams including EC Red Bull Salzburg (an Austrian Ice Hockey team) and the very successful Formula 1 team Red Bull Racing (and its sister team Toro Rosso). Having ‘conquered’ the extreme sports world, football seemed to be the logical next step; the immense following and truly global reach of the beautiful game provided the moguls at Red Bull with the perfect backdrop to take their business empire to the next level.

Red Bull’s first venture into football took place in the company’s native Austria, where in 2005, they purchased the three time Austrian Bundesliga champions SV Austria Salzburg. Within five years, Red Bull had added teams from Germany, Brazil, the United States and Ghana to their domain. The buying and selling of football clubs is nothing new, with a significant number of the world’s top clubs now owned by multi-billionaire businessman looking for a new plaything, bored of their luxury yachts and sports cars. Ownership of football clubs is, however, reasonably novel territory for businesses, with Red Bull being among a very select group of current club owners. German sides Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg are the most notable members of this group, partially owned by Bayer AG and Volkswagen respectively. Even still, what Red Bull are doing is markedly different to anything that has ever been done before in football. Bayer Leverkusen started out as a sports club for workers at Bayer AG, and understandably, Bayer have supported and financed the team since its inception. VfL Wolfsburg carries a similar story. Wolfsburg, itself a worker’s town built in 1938 to house workers from Volkswagens factory, gave birth to a works team that led to the formation of VfL Wolfsburg in 1945. Red Bull’s approach, on the other hand, has largely involved the purchasing of, and subsequent investment in existing teams. Thus far, SV Austria Salzburg, New York MetroStars and SSV Markranstädt have all been rebranded to fit the guise of their new owners.

The major difference here is that Bayer AG and Volkswagen were a fundamental part in the inception of their two respective clubs and have been a key part of their clubs ever since. Red Bull, however, saw their chosen clubs as a gateway to the football world. SV Austria Salzburg, for example, could boast a 53 year existence during which the club had been successful both domestically and on the European stage. With the club suffering from financial difficulty following the turn of the century, Red Bull saw an opportunity, and in the spring of 2005, purchased the club. With ownership of the club under their belt, Red Bull went on to totally overhaul the club from top to bottom with Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz even going so far as to say, “this is a new club with no history.” Needless to say, this didn’t go down well with supporters.

The clubs traditional colours of violet and white were replaced by the red and white of Red Bull while the long-standing club logo was scrapped, to be replaced by two raging, crimson bulls. In addition, a majority of staff and management were replaced, removing virtually all trace of the old club. The acquisition of New York Red Bulls and RB Leipzig followed almost exactly the same pattern, although Red Bull seemed to have learnt from their previous experience dealing with the takeover of Salzburg – where a large section of the support were so outraged by what they perceived to be the destruction of their club that they reformed SV Austria Salzburg as a brand new club restarting life in the seventh tier of Austrian football – easing the transitional period this time around to appease the fans and keep them on side.

Red Bull’s entry into football has drawn attention and criticism in almost equal amounts. No two clubs had ever been under the same ownership before, (although Udinese’s owner Giampaolo Pozzo recently purchased both Granada (2009) and Watford (2012) let alone five, each a member of a league in a different country. Questions have been raised in regards to the rationale behind Red Bull’s acquisition of these football clubs. Are Red Bull really in it for the right reasons?

There is no doubt it’s a characteristic Red Bull move; after all, Red Bull are a heavily sports-orientated business. There can be no doubting Red Bull’s success either, with four promotions, four Austrian Bundesliga titles and an Eastern Conference MLS title to their name in little over eight years. Their treatment of SV Austria Salzburg not only enraged a large number of Salzburg supporters, but also evoked the fury of a huge section of the footballing world who see it as a step too far in the commercialization of football.

Football clubs foster a special sense of community and togetherness between fans that is encapsulated in the history and identity of the club. History and identity lives through the clubs logo and the traditional club colours, a beloved link to past glories and club heroes of old. Although colour changes and crest alterations do happen from time to time in football – Cardiff City for example have recently had their traditional blue replaced by the preferred red of their new Malaysian owner as well as an updated badge where a Welsh dragon has relegated their age-old bluebird to playing a secondary role on the club’s crest - very rarely are the colours and club crest completely wiped out and replaced. 

It’s hard to argue with the criticism directed towards Red Bull, but nevertheless, what they have done thus far and look set to do in the near future deserves attention. A ‘family’ of football clubs is both an exciting and daunting prospect in equal measure. Red Bull’s ambition and financial investment to match makes it all the more impressive, especially considering their successful record thus far. Red Bull’s two lesser known clubs, Red Bull Brasil and Red Bull Ghana, are perhaps the hidden gems amongst their portfolio of clubs.

The two are shaped in almost a completely different mould when compared to the other Red Bull-owned clubs. Both clubs were founded by Red Bull themselves and help to shine a new light on Red Bull’s ownership strategy. Of course, first and foremost, creating football clubs in Ghana and Brazil is a marketing tool, a way of instantly projecting their brand across these new markets.

However, the relationship between Red Bull and their clubs is one of mutualism; offering great economic and social benefits to their local communities, but more importantly, a platform for local talent to make their way into the game. Red Bull’s ownership of a Ghanaian club in particular, provides levels of investment and stability never seen in the country before, which should allow Red Bull to nurture and develop talent to a very high level. No longer will talented footballers from Ghana go unnoticed as Red Bull could use the two clubs as feeders for their more established European and North American sister clubs. 

To an extent, it’s quite surprising that Red Bull are the first to attempt this sort of thing. Football clubs are not money-making machines, even Red Bull will know that; but they are big business. If Red Bull can make their clubs successful, they will undoubtedly reap the rewards. Association with sporting success, a grouping of loyal supporters, brand enhancement, and even debate over the sheer notion of corporate ownership will all benefit Red Bull as a drink business. The Red Bull company have had a positive impact on the world of extreme sports, and their successful business means they have a lot of cash to throw at their football ambitions. The ill-handled take-over of SV Austria Salzburg aside, they have handled their entry into football relatively well and their presence in Ghana and Brazil have been a benefaction for the two respective countries. The Red Bull revolution is underway and it has made for an interesting tale thus far. There’s one thing to consider: Red Bull’s narrative is only getting started, so where does it go from here?

This piece was written by Chris Freestone, who is the founder of The Green Rectangle. Comments below please.

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