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MLS stadia have historically fit into one of two categories. The first generation of converted football stadia often made a mockery of the beautiful game, with hash marks and yard markers dotting a choppy (or worse, plastic) pitch. The second generation, which started coming to life in the past decade, is the soccer-specific stadium.
Some of these are better than others, but all shared one thing in common – a cheapness in construction befitting soccer’s second-tier status in America. Red Bull Arena, which opened in 2010, broke the mold. The highest compliment one could pay to Red Bull Arena is that it wouldn’t be out of place in Europe, from the translucent roof to the intimate seating bowl to the (unfortunate) industrial brownfield location.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The food is actually better quality than what you find at most sports venues, and slightly less expensive.
The tacos are fantastic and a relative bargain at $6. Pizza will run you $4.50, cheese steaks are $8, and the surprisingly good chicken tenders are $8.50.
Domestic drafts are $6 for a small and $9 for a large, and the arena also boasts a "Beers of the World" stand with a diverse variety of bottled beers from all over the globe.
Red Bull Arena also offers a special promotion of $1 hot dogs on the plaza level (underneath the stands) at halftime, and the dollar dogs are the same ones served upstairs for $4.
Red Bull Arena dominates its industrial neighborhood, rising like a silver monolith out of a wasteland of abandoned factories and open fields. The "retro" stadium craze hasn't ever taken hold in soccer, and Red Bull Arena fits this perfectly - it's a modern, sleek, steel-clad, building. Wide, European-style entry stairs lead up to an elevated concourse with all the trimmings you'd expect from a modern stadium. The entire building is spotlessly clean and well-maintained.
Inside the seating bowl, if anything, it's even better. The translucent roof and lots in huge amounts of light while still sheltering fans from inclement weather. The pitch of the seats is very steep by the standards of a new building and very close to the action, so views are terrific. The seats themselves are wide and comfortable, and emblazoned with team logos like you'd see in Europe.
Red Bull Arena is built on brownfields. Having taken in a Devils afternoon game in Newark prior to the MLS nightcap, my wife and I walked the mile or so from downtown Newark and didn't see much after leaving downtown - a few fast food joints, but mostly just residential housing in the Ironbound neighborhood. Once you cross the Passaic River into the stadium area, there is literally nothing apart from fields and abandoned warehouses.
If you're coming on the PATH train, there are a few restaurants north of the Harrison station (including a Five Guys), but you're still not spoiled for choice.
Given New York's huge metro population, ethnic diversity, and historic support of the NASL's Cosmos in the 1970's, you wouldn't think that RBNY would have trouble selling tickets. You'd be wrong. The team has played in New Jersey since their foundation, and New York has always been somewhat parochial when it comes to supporting teams across the Hudson River (with the obvious exception of the Giants and Jets). True, old Giants Stadium was for practical purposes inaccessible by public transit, and many New Yorkers don't own cars, but with RBNY now playing at a location a short walk from the PATH, you'd think they'd draw better. But no. The crowd is mostly suburban Jersey families on a night out.
Like most MLS teams, RBNY has a supporters section of mostly young men who make noise, sing songs, and do all of the things that proper footy fans do. It's a shame there aren't more of them.
Red Bull Arena is easily accessible by car or by transit. The PATH train will take you from the World Trade Center to the Harrison PATH station in about twenty minutes, and the station is a five minute walk from the stadium. There's lots of parking on site as well if you're coming by car, and the interstate is only a stone's throw away.
The biggest downside to Red Bull Arena's location is that the area was clearly not designed to have 25,000 fans descending upon it at once. By PATH, the tiny Harrison station can't even come close to handling that many people trying to board trains at once. Transit police do an admirable job of crowd control after the game, and the New York-bound trains are loaded until full and then have another pull up instantly, but there's only so much you can do with a station designed only for small numbers of commuters.
By car, the bottleneck is worse. Red Bull Arena is surrounded on three sides by the Passaic River and a rail yard. Rogers Boulevard is the only way in or out, and it simply can't cope with that many drivers all trying to get on the interstate at once.
The game I attended had about 18,000 people there. I'd hate to see what the postgame snarl looks like when it's sold out.
By New York standards, a Red Bulls game is a bargain. If you're even a casual soccer fan, it's a worthwhile trip to see what a proper game looks like in a proper venue. If you live in the area; yes, it's in New Jersey, but it's easily accessible on the PATH. The atmosphere has a fair amount of proper vocal football support, but it's also family-friendly.
The Red Bulls win extra points for running their game day operations right. Pregame tailgating is a North American innovation that's been imported here, and the Red Bulls allow a fun, anything goes atmosphere with live music and plenty of games for the kids. But inside, the game is presented properly without constant interruptions or music or anything else to distract the casual fans. A European stadium somehow wouldn't feel right with cheerleaders and jock jams and nonstop promotional interruptions like we deal with in most North American sport. Red Bull Arena feels European not just architecturally, but also in the way it's run, and that is about the highest compliment I can pay to it.
The Red Bulls blew the budget and built something incredible in Harrison. Red Bull Arena is the class of the MLS and a signal that maybe, someday, long-suffering North American soccer fans will have our own real football grounds instead of the cheap aluminum benches or gridiron-first design we put up with in most cities. With the MLS continuing to grow and expand at a steady rate, maybe someday the cheap "all expenses spared" BMO Fields and Crew Stadiums of the league will be replaced with a new generation of proper football grounds. If that happens, someday we'll look back on Red Bull Arena as the stadium that began that change.
Judging by the relatively sparse attendance at Red Bull Arena, it appears the soccer craze hasn't fully caught on in the New York area just yet. But with the brand new, state-of-the-art facility the Red Bulls have built, it shouldn't take long.
The arena, new for the 2010 season, is intuitively designed, squeaky clean, and extremely fan-friendly.
From the architectural innovations that allow the arena to be open air but still stay warm, to the easy-to-navigate concourse packed with concession stands boasting diverse food and drinks from around the world, the Red Bulls offer a venue that will satisfy everyone from the die-hard soccer hooligan to the novice checking out their first professional soccer match
This soccer-specific stadium is quite striking on the inside as it feels like you are in the middle some brand new grounds in the middle of England, Switzerland or Germany. From the translucent roof covering all the seats to the terrific sightlines on the great seating design it is an excellent place to watch a game. Looking forward to it being shown off during the MLS all star game in a few weeks. Too bad Red Bulls management continue to bring in overpriced guys who have yet to win anything in the franchise's 15 years of existence. There are a lot of diehards who go and it was a blast watching the Empire Supporters Club during the game. Yes, the neighborhood surrounding RBA is as bland as it gets full of abandoned warehouses and drab industrial areas. Its well worth eating inside with all of the great options featuring a Newark flavor to it.
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