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Jul 19, 2008

Beckham draws the casual fan to Giants Stadium

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Save the date: Aug. 10.

Three weeks from now, Red Bull New York makes their next home appearance for a league match and it is then when the trickle-down effect of David Beckham can be judged. New York has the fourth-worst home attendance in MLS at 13,525 per game, roughly 2,500 fans below the league average and nearly half of what the Los Angeles Galaxy -- the Red Bulls' opponent Saturday night -- draw to the Home Depot Center. With a reported crowd of 46,754 in attendance, this was an uncommon night for the Red Bulls. This is the battle that New York, more than any other team in the league, faces.

The trouble for Red Bull will be taking these onetime fans and converting them to regular match attendees. Scan the parking lot before kickoff and the seats during the match and you'll see a fair share of jerseys from clubs and countries around the world. Red Bull, and even retro MetroStars gear, is at a minimum. Many in attendance for Saturday's 2-2 draw have not been to a MLS fixture since Aug. 18, 2007, when L.A. last visited Giants Stadium.

Not all fans are like this and some go to great lengths and distances in their devotion to their team. Thomas Binkley made the trip from Herndon, Va. -- roughly a five-hour journey -- to see New York, and not the Galaxy, play. He has been a Red Bulls season-ticket holder the past five years and has continued to retain those tickets despite having moved south two years ago. Beckham did not factor into his decision to make the drive past the Beltway and up the Turnpike to Giants Stadium.

"The environment we've created here and outside the stadium is worth being a part of. There is something to be here for," said Binkley, whose seats are behind the goal with the Empire Supporters Club. "The team has been disappointing this season, but we are still here."

But Binkley wasn't done quite yet.

"Who's David Beckham? Who is he?" Binkley asked. "It doesn't matter to me who is on the field. The casual fan who wouldn't show up for a normal game will say after tonight, 'What is MLS?' and they still won't know."

That is the million-dollar question, or rather, the hefty salary that Beckham draws and MLS hopes will spell near-term and long-term answers. Before Beckham arrived last year, MLS was struggling for an identity with soccer fans in this country. At least now it is on the radar of some, but that isn't enough. For many who came out Saturday, the home team was an afterthought at best, even if the Red Bulls play in their own backyard.

Jason Kial of Hoboken lives a skip, a hop and a jump from Giants Stadium. Wearing an England national team jersey and kicking around a ball, he is the prototypical fan the franchise hopes to get back for another sip of Red Bull. He came into tonight's match with low expectations, and plans to keep it that way for the time being.

"I really don't think MLS has given me a lot of reasons to support it," Kial said. "I don't find it very exciting and I would rather watch the [English] Premiership than watch MLS."

Though the game wasn't as successful in the stands as last year's epic match which drew over 66,000 to Giants Stadium, Beckham's second game in New York was still an unqualified success. Last season, Red Bull aggressively pursued the new fans in attendance at the game to market what they hoped would be some ready-to-be made converts. Attendance did take a slight turn for the positive after the Galaxy game in 2007. The phone calls and mailings will continue this year.

"I am very impressed with how our staff marketed the game this year," said Red Bulls managing director Eric Stover. "I thought the first go-round of the Beckham experience, you'd see a spike and then it'd come down significantly. I certainly don't think that is the case, based on what we've seen here tonight."

Kial remains the perfect example of that elusive fan. He said he would probably follow New York more closely if its roster had the same star power as the Galaxy. Citing how the Galaxy fields players such as Beckham and U.S. international Landon Donovan, Kial wants that type of draw on the field for the Red Bulls. He was in attendance for the U.S.-Argentina game at Giants Stadium in June, but his last MLS match was last year, when the Galaxy played the Red Bulls. He doesn't plan on going to any more games this season.

The simple truth is that for New York to draw like the Galaxy or even the Cosmos, the team will need to emulate these clubs in the transfer market. New York loves a winner, but it wants its superstars too. That, for starters, might mean spending it like Beckham.

"I think that leaguewide, the most important thing is that teams take the same risk as the Galaxy did," Stover said. "You'll see that in us, I think in 2009, maybe in 2010. Then, our designated player will be one of the top 20 players in the world."

And perhaps then, Jason Kial will be back to Giants Stadium.

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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