NYCFC, Red Bulls' fight for supremacy produces rapid rise in fan intensity
A 7-0 victory in a soccer match is a thrashing, so after the New York Red Bulls defeated New York City FC by that score line in May 2016, Steve Ferrezza wanted to make sure the losing club wouldn't soon forget the defeat. Ferrezza is a board member and travel coordinator of the Empire Supporters Club, a Red Bulls fan group, and he organized an effort to send a copy of the movie thriller "Seven" to NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira.
It was a harmless gesture, a bit of fun between two franchises located in the same metro area. But it was also a symbol of something larger: A genuine rivalry is developing between the teams and their fan bases.
The Hudson River derby, which has its next installment on Saturday at Red Bull Arena, began as something created at MLS headquarters on Park Avenue and in the marketing departments of the two squads. But a little more than two years later, the game is marked by excitement, fierce rhetoric, occasional brawls and, yes, the odd DVD.
"Being in the same city, it's sort of a pride thing," Ferrezza says.
Ben Glidden, director of marketing and external communications for NYCFC supporter group The Third Rail, agrees: "When any young team comes into the league, you're hesitant to call someone your rival, but when a team is in your own backyard like the Red Bulls are, and when a team uses a city's name that you're based in and they're not [the Red Bulls are based in N.J.], you're going to have some heated feelings. And that's what we've seen."
The initial driving force came from team executives. Joe Stetson, the Red Bulls' vice president of marketing and communications, says he worked with his counterparts at NYCFC before the team launched in 2015 to build momentum for the matches. They in turn coordinated with MLS to ensure that the squads played during Rivalry Week, which was a blow to established tradition.
"Our main rival is still D.C. United," Ferrezza says. "But you're not going to run into a D.C. United fan getting off the subway. It feels much more territorial than the D.C. rivalry."
So yes, there's some corporate oversight and push but, at the same time, Stetson and the other executives understood that while they could help create an environment where the rivalry could thrive, they couldn't make it thrive on their own.
"We had a very strategic approach, which was: 'We're not going to manufacture a fabricated rivalry,'" Stetson says. "For it to be authentic and sustainable, it has to come from the fan base. It's not something that two marketers can produce on their own."
(At the time this story was written, NYCFC had not responded to an interview request.)
And the rivalry between fans picked up because some switched sides.
"I felt at the beginning that it was a fabricated rivalry, but once we started seeing Red Bull fans from the MetroStars days jumping over [to NYCFC], then it became a rivalry," says Amanda Ianetti, a board member of the Red Bulls supporters' group Viking Army. "Let's face it: You love rubbing it in your friends' faces when your team wins."
"I have a lot of respect for people who have been [Red Bulls] fans since they were the MetroStars," says Michael Benham, a member of NYCFC fan group Hearts of Oak. "I always tell people: If you're from New Jersey, you have no choice but to support the Red Bulls."
And neither fan base can resist taking shots at the other. "The whole 'New York is red' thing is kind of comical," Benham says. "They are named after a soda company. I don't know how they have fans to begin with. I can say comfortably that every single person I know f---ing hates them."
"[NYCFC midfielder Andrea] Pirlo was one of my favorite Italian players, but it's fun to make fun of him," says Ianetti. "I'm a huge Arsenal fan, but I hate Patrick Vieira [NYCFC coach and former Arsenal star] for another couple of years."
The rivalry hasn't delivered on the field -- the Red Bulls have won five of the first six matches since the beginning of 2015, NYCFC's debut season -- but the fans have turned out, averaging an announced audience of more than 32,500 fans per game, and the in-stadium atmosphere has been excellent.
"The game last year at Red Bull Arena was one of the loudest games I remember," Red Bulls fan Ferrezza says. "We tend to have an issue when it's a bigger game that we start up strong, but people fizzle out by the end of the game. But that 4-1 game, people kept it up for 90 minutes."
"What's important about the games is that they've all been intense," Glidden says. "They've had players pushing and shoving. They've all had fan interaction that hasn't been so positive."
"We aren't accustomed to dealing with stuff like this," Ferrezza says. "It definitely makes it feel more real." Everyone ESPN FC spoke to said that the security situation has improved and continued to get better, but there's no excuse for fan bases physically fighting with each other.
While there's a fine line between passionate support and dangerous overzealous behavior -- and fans from both sides have gone over it on occasion -- it's rather remarkable that there's this much intensity just a half-dozen meetings into what should be a decades-long battle for NYC superiority. And as long as the competition between Red and Blue tilts toward enthusiastic support instead of hooliganism, it will help both teams make a dent in a crowded market.
"I feel like it's raised the profile of the league at least a tick in the city," Ferrezza says. "There are still a ton of people who don't know we have one team in the city. It's going to take time and effort to make this better, but I think it definitely has helped."
In time, the rivalry will simply be another aspect of sporting life in New York City. It's already taking root.
"For the first two years, we were pretty fierce on Twitter," Benham says. "Going to derbies was really intense. Now it's slowed down a little bit. It's just part of the game. It's part of normal soccer life that you have derbies."
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.