the square ball week: no bullBack
When they report, as they have this morning, about a shirt sponsorship deal with Red Bull, possibly leading to a sale to the same of the stadium naming rights, the Yorkshire Evening Post are talking about something that doesn’t really exist. Red Bull don’t do ‘sponsorships.’
Paul Robinson’s story must be based on some solid info: the YEP “understands top-level discussions have started between club and company about a possible shirt sponsorship agreement,” but noone is prepared to discuss it on the record; they’ve even gone so far as photographing (or Photoshopping, who can tell anymore?) a can of Red Bull outside the East Stand.
But a “megabucks link-up” with Red Bull would not be a sponsorship, and that’s why Leeds fans should worry. When Red Bull link up with a football club, they don’t just settle for a name on a shirt or a token stadium name change that all the fans ignore anyway. They engulf everything about a club and its history that isn’t Red Bull branded and they destroy it.
That isn’t hyperbole. The Leeds United blog The Beaten Generation has followed the Austria Salzburg story since 2005, when the fans of the club, founded in 1933, were kicking back against Red Bull’s takeover of their side. Red Bull bought one of the most famous teams in Austria, and didn’t just change the name (‘Red Bull Salzburg’), but changed the shirt colours from purple and white – the fans’ beloved violett-weiss – to Red Bull’s corporate red and blue. Solidarity protests were held by fans across Europe, and stock PR letters were sent to fans who contacted Red Bull to complain.
It’s worth going over some of the key points of that 2005 letter to learn about Red Bull’s attitude toward the beautiful game:
“[Our football] concept was based on Red Bull’s overall approach to sport: Red Bull is not a sponsor in the traditional sense; it never was and never will be. Red Bull contributes its own ideas and concepts to all projects to which it is committed.
“Traditions are part of sport. But every tradition needs to grow. This takes time. Nobody can, nobody should buy themselves a tradition … Since the start of this season we have been working at creating a new tradition. This tradition cannot and will not be separated from the history of football in Salzburg. But this new tradition is not purple, because purple is not the colour of Red Bull.
“[Fans] are not owners; they do not carry any responsibility for the future. Therefore they have the right to be consulted, but not to make decisions. Some fans have trouble understanding this.
“99% of the fans of the ‘old’ club are also fans of Red Bull Salzburg … They realise that Red Bull has its own tradition, its own history and its own approach to football.”
There’s much more in that vein. In short, Red Bull aren’t interested in your tradition, but in theirs; they don’t sponsor, they takeover. The fan-written Austria Salzburg history says, “Red Bull Salzburg made it very obvious that it saw itself as a completely new entity, with quote: ‘no history and no records’, and no longer wished to be associated with SV Austria Salzburg in any way – other than the fact that the club had served as a means of obtaining the licence to play Bundesliga football.”
The proof of this is in the names of the clubs with which, like the one apparently proposed with Leeds, they have ‘linked-up’: Red Bull Salzburg, Red Bull New York, Red Bull Leipzig, Red Bull Brasil, Red Bull Ghana. You might like to do an image search on those names and see how much individuality and tradition can be found at those clubs.
At Salzburg, the situation got severe. Fans wearing the old colours of violett-weiss were banned from the stadium, and, seeing no future in a club that had no regard for its fans or for its past, a new Austria Salzburg club was formed in the Austrian Fourth Division, proudly wearing purple and white. TBG went over there in the early days to see what the new club was all about, concluding that the new Austria Salzburg was “on a long and winding road, but in the sheer energy stakes neither Red Bull nor its millions could ever hope to catch them.” Despite the tragic death of a fan on an early away trip and a fire that destroyed the main stand in their first home, the Viollett-Weiss have overcome the obstacles to be promoted as champions four times on their march back up through the Austrian league system. Red Bull Salzburg, meanwhile, despite being backed by fizzy drink millions, and despite hiring Giovanni Trapattoni and Lothar Matthäus to manage them, have failed to make any impact on the European competitions Red Bull set out to dominate.
The bizarre thing about the Leeds situation is that, after taking over in December and finally getting rid of the Batesatross round their neck less than a month ago, GFHC have been getting a lot of things right in terms of reintegrating our club with our city. Bates withdrew the whole LUFC operation behind closed doors – no city centre retail shop, no Leeds shirts for sale in Leeds sport shops, no advertising in the city, no role for BBC Leeds, no involvement with fans – and United have gone a long way to fixing those things this summer. BBC Radio are back, adverts are going up round the city – not quite on this Photoshopped scale, but they are there – and the away kit treasure hunt, while cheesy, links the shirt to the local geography, it ties the club and the city and the community together. These are all good things. But they only work in the context of the tradition of the club as it stands. “Red Bull has its own tradition, its own history,” as the PR letter said, and that’s not a tradition or a history that has anything to do with the city of Leeds.
Money can’t buy you happiness, and it can’t buy you success. It also can’t buy a soul. But while soul and success and happiness can’t be bought, they can certainly be sold. Check again Red Bull’s ‘concept’: “Red Bull is not a sponsor in the traditional sense; it never was and never will be.” Read what they did to Austria Salzburg, and switch the names around: “Red Bull Leeds made it very obvious that it saw itself as a completely new entity, with quote: ‘no history and no records’, and no longer wished to be associated with Leeds United AFC in any way – other than the fact that the club had served as a means of obtaining the licence to play Championship football.”
That’s the danger, and if managing director David Haigh – the committed Red Bull fanatic whose “have well-placed contacts” at the company are presumed to be driving this – really does understand what it is to be a Leeds fan, and have great passion for the club, and isn’t just draping himself in a scarf to seem like one of us until he makes a profit, then he should understand what is truly at stake here. The problem is that there is no way of knowing if David Haigh’s understanding of football and its culture extends beyond a few ghostwritten ‘my favourite game’ platitudes and a load of management-speak. For all his enthusiasm Haigh is a business person and not a football person, and it may take some football people to prevent his selling our club out. People like us, the fans.
A shirt sponsorship is one thing; a stadium name change is another. But complete erasure of a football club’s history and tradition is what Red Bull do, and I don’t know why any Leeds fan would welcome that.