I think it’s a gutsy move from a company revolutionizing the beverage business. Red Bull didn’t get where they are now by being timid. Let’s review the risks.
The team could lose… regularly. New Yorkers hate losers. The brand becomes associated with a pack of losers. But this is a World Cup year, soccer’s profile is huge. The Red Bulls could finish with the wooden spoon and the market impact would still be positive. Soccer is the most played team sport in America due to the number of kids playing it. The move shows long term commitment to the sport in one of the biggest media markets in the world. FIFA wants to grow the code’s popularity in the States and is going to spend money there.
The players could get involved in scandal. This isn’t the NBA, NRL or any of the European or South American leagues. The MLS is still not the big show in US sports. As such the stars are not treated as gods with the egos and behaviour to go with it. No individual players will consitently risk their future careers in Europe behaving like prima donnas on the road. Owning the team actually reduces the risk associated of individual player endorsements.
Pre- and post-season camps and road trips are a risk, especially with the sexual assault scandals rocking professional sports on all continents. Team owners in every sport are addressing these risks, team-wide scandals are not good for anybody’s business or career.
By owning the team rather than sponsoring it, Red Bull can’t use morals clauses to weasel out of sponsorship deals. No doubt all the players have morals clauses to limit the team risk. So if the deal goes bad Red Bull has to step in an fix it. The up side is the deal is all up side for Red Bull: they get a sporting brand to go with their existing extreme games sponsorships. As they build the brand they build their equity value for about the cost of a sponsorship deal.
There is the possibility that soccer in the States will remain a marginal sport. So the risk is MLS fails financially as a league. I don’t think Red Bull or FIFA are expecting it to knock the NBA, NFL or MLB of their pedestals anytime soon. It is a niche play to capitalise on the penetration of the sport. Plus as a European company, Austrian Red Bull would love to see soccer conquer the US market. Just like they imagine the day when they are the world’s #1 non-alcoholic beverage.
Update I also forgot to mention the subliminal association of “New York Red Bulls” with “Chicago Bulls” who play in red and are one of the most recognised NBA franchises outside North America. English Premier League also has the Red Devils (a.k.a Manchester United) now owned by an American. Branding buzz all round.