By Peter Schwartz
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Before a game, the parking lots are filled with people tailgating and the plaza is loaded with fans enjoying interactive games, music, and activities.
As the capacity crowd settles into their seats, the teams are introduced and the atmosphere is simply electrifying.
At what New York/New Jersey sports venue is this all happening?
MetLife Stadium? No.
Madison Square Garden? No.
Yankee Stadium? No.
All of those venues, along with places like Prudential Center, Citi Field and Barclays Center, are first-class facilities, but the place that I was describing is Red Bull Arena, home of Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls.
Located off Route 280 in Harrison, New Jersey, Red Bull Arena opened for business in 2010 with the Red Bulls facing Santos of Brazil. The magnificent stadium seats 25,000 and has 30 luxury Skyboxes, to go along with 1,000 club seats.
After spending 1996 through 2009 at 77,000-seat Giants Stadium, the MetroStars/Red Bulls franchise has called the soccer-specific venue its home for seven years and the marriage couldn't be stronger.
"It's really special," said Shaun Oliver, VP of operations at Red Bull Arena. "Nothing really compares to it. It just has a special feel because of the dedication that it has to the game of soccer."
Even when there was a good crowd at the Meadowlands, a gathering of 25,000 fans looks a lot smaller in an NFL stadium. The sea of empty red and blue seats was depressing and the atmosphere was miserable. After years of planning and waiting, the Red Bulls would eventually get a home of their own.
The wait was worth it.
"The stadium was sort of a pivotal moment for the franchise," said Red Bulls general manager Marc de Grandpre, the 2015 MLS Executive of the Year. "It is the best MLS stadium in North America and the best pure soccer experience in the Americas."
A soccer match at Red Bull Arena is an exciting and unique experience. Because of the design, the stadium is always loud, regardless if there is a full house of 25,000 on hand or a modest gathering of 12,000-15,000. The stadium is lively and you can feel the emotion from top to bottom, making it an experience that is second to none.
When you think about the acoustics and the atmosphere, it all starts at the top.
"The signature feature of the stadium is the curved roof," Oliver said. "It's made of Teflon and it's translucent, so it lets some light through."
Another great thing about the roof is that the fans are protected from the elements. If there's precipitation, the field and the players will be out in the rain or snow, but all of the seats are covered. Unless there's a gust of wind, the fans will stay dry.
While the stadium features an incredible fan experience, perhaps the most important aspect of Red Bull Arena is the pitch. The natural grass field is precisely what the beautiful game should be played on and the Red Bulls are fortunate to have a perfect field to play on.
"Not only does it create an intimate environment for the fans, but for the players, I have yet to go anywhere in Major League Soccer that has a better pitch than we do," Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles said.
If you're not a soccer fan, there's a good chance you haven't been to Red Bull Arena, but it's worth giving it a chance because the stadium is terrific and the atmosphere is incredible. But while the stadium has been, for the most part, all about soccer since the gates opened in 2010, that is about to change.
This past March, there was an English Premier League rugby match at the stadium and there have been discussions about bringing another match to Harrison. Back in 2011, Red Bull Arena hosted its only concert, a performance by the group "Dispatch," but there are more to come. The team has hired an entertainment and concert industry consultant to develop Red Bull Arena's concert business model.
But that's not all.
The stadium is already open on dark days for corporate events and the happiest of occasions.
"Some of our fans got married here, so we're really opening up the doors and making sure that we drive the awareness that we're open for business," de Grandpre said. "We are open to hosting all events."
And that includes a potential outdoor hockey game.
Red Bull Arena is literally a Sacha Kljestan corner kick away from the Prudential Center in Newark (or a Kyle Palmieri slapshot back the other way), so there is the possibility for the Red Bulls and Devils to work together on some projects, specifically a hockey game played on a rink constructed over the pitch.
"(Devils and Prudential Center president) Hugh Weber and I have discussed potential synergies between our two teams," de Grandpre said. "If it mutually made sense for both parties, it would be something we'd be open to explore."
The Red Bulls have also explored the possibility of a naming rights deal for Red Bull Arena. Given the growth of the franchise, the increased visibility of Major League Soccer, and the anticipated expansion into the concert business, there figures to be plenty of interest.
Regardless of what other events come to the stadium, Red Bull Arena was born to be a spectacular soccer venue and it has certainly lived up to the expectations. From the pregame entertainment, to the customer service inside the stadium, to the incredible soccer atmosphere, to the product that the Red Bulls put on the field, going to a game at Red Bull Arena is an amazing experience.
Expanding the scope of events past soccer will certainly expose the stadium to a greater number of fans.
"I absolutely do consider it a hidden gem," Oliver said. "One of my main goals is to make sure that the gem gets uncovered."
While the objective is to bring more events to Red Bull Arena, there is one soccer game, in particular, that only the Red Bulls' players can make happen and that is to one day host MLS Cup. They were very close last year, but fell short in the Eastern Conference finals against Columbus.
"I think we're going to bring it to our fans sooner than later," de Grandpre said. "They've been through a lot over the last 21 seasons and it's something that we owe them."
If you thought Red Bull Arena had a great atmosphere now, just wait until the Red Bulls win a championship on their home field. They just might blow the roof off the place.
Don't forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NewYorkRedBulls
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