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Let’s Speculate About the New Jersey Devils at Red Bull Arena

With a recent local sports article about Red bull Arena mentioning discussions between the Red Bulls and New Jersey Devils, I speculate whether an outdoor hockey game could work in RBA.

MLS: Playoffs-D.C. United at New York Red Bulls
Imagine a hockey game here (and without a fisheye lens).
William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

I am not just a New Jersey Devils fan. I’d like to think this site is a testament to how much of a fan of them I am. I am also a supporter of the New York Red Bulls. I’ve been a season ticket holder since 2008 and my spot is right in front in the South Ward. Needless to say, I was most interested in this article at CBS New York by Peter Schwartz (hat tip to Steve Lepore for letting me know about this) appears about Red Bull Arena. It features Red Bulls general manager Marc de Grandpe stating this rather interesting quote.

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.”

If they want a potential synergy, a Devils game at RBA would be a pretty big one. I’d like to think that this is a sign that some plans have been discussed between the two organizations and/or will be discussed in more serious detail. Due to a recent deal with the Red Bulls, the Hudson County Improvement Authority wants (needs?) events at RBA and it would benefit them to have a large one to tout. More importantly, the two organizations have at least been in contact. I also personally would like it to happen. So let’s talk about it.

Another Outdoor Game

Say what you want about NHL regular season games that count and played outdoors. Call it a gimmick. Call it overplayed. Call it a novelty. It’s still a big event that has caused fans to pay up and fill massive venues in the middle of Winter. The Winter Classic (which started in 2008), the Heritage Classic (which came first in 2003) and the extended Stadium Series (which started in 2014) has been successful in terms of drawing larger-than-usual crowds to hockey games and, therefore, earning larger-than-usual amounts of revenue. The additional attention of television certainly has not hurt either.

The New Jersey Devils have played all of one (1) outdoor game in this timeframe. They were a part of the beginning of the Stadium Series when they played Our Hated Rivals at Yankee Stadium. To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. The game itself aside, the game itself was big enough rivalry to warrant a big crowd - officially announced at 50,105 - at an iconic sports venue and it was. While the game itself was in The Bronx; New Jersey is close enough to the heart of the New York metropolitan area that most would find appeal in making the trek to East 161st Street. As far as I could tell, that game was a success from the league’s standpoint. In terms of revenue, game at Yankees Stadium was “technically” a home game for the Devils; but they split it with the Rangers. The gate must have been huge as it drew nearly three times as many people as a sellout crowd then at The Rock (I assume it was still 17,625 then). For that alone, I would like to think the Devils would be interested in playing outdoors again - and perhaps with a true home game where they’d get most of the revenue.

That said, the NHL has scaled back on the outdoor games somewhat. 2014 started the Stadium Series with four additional outdoor games along with the Heritage Classic and the Winter Classic. Since then, there’s only been one game under each brand per year. That includes this coming season. For the upcoming 2016-17 season, there will be only three such games: Chicago at St. Louis in Busch Stadium for the Winter Classic; Philadelphia at Pittsburgh in Heinz Field for the Stadium Series; and Edmonton at Winnipeg in Investors Group Field for the Heritage Classic. Two out of three are big rivalry games in large, iconic stadiums. They should draw plenty of attention and command plenty of money.

So, let’s go back to the start. RBA may be more open for business; the two franchises have been in talks with one another; and another outdoor game would at least boost the bottom line for the Devils. Would an outdoor game in Red Bull Arena work? Let’s discuss it.

Is It Available?

It should be. MLS runs their regular season from March to October and the MLS Cup Playoffs ends in early December. While HCIA would want to use the building for more events, it’s likely going to be for the building itself in the Winter and not the actual field. In theory, the NHL and their crew would have plenty of time and access to set up the field of play for an outdoor hockey game anytime beyond mid-December.

Is a Set-Up Seemingly Possible?

As Red Bull Arena is a soccer-specific stadium, the field of play is certainly large enough to put a rink in the middle of it. Players could come out the same way the soccer teams do; the media would have a fantastic spot above that location that overlooks the middle of the field; and there are multiple avenues to get equipment and vehicles on and off the field from the sides of the stadium. There will have to be plenty on the field; but that’s no different from previous outdoor games. So I would think it is possible.

Would the Fans Be Able to See This Game?

In terms of literally seeing the game, then mostly. Red Bull Arena features unobstructed seating. There are no bleachers; all seats are, well, plastic seats with a roof over it. Only the field is uncovered, which makes for an excellent atmosphere to go with the convenience of knowing that you won’t get drenched or exposed too much to the elements while at the game. Regardless, the only people who may have a problem seeing the action would be people like myself that would be in the first few rows of the lower bowl. It’s perfect for soccer in that the field is the lowest part of the. Whether one can see over the boards from that angle is questionable. There are only two big screens to follow the action; one attached to the roof at each end. That’s not ideal; the whole point of going to a game is to see the game, not to effectively watch television while there. But that would impact the first few rows. For the most part, though, the crowd would be high and angled enough to be able to see what’s going on the actual ice.

In terms of being able to get there and see this game, it is one of the strengths of Red Bull Arena. It’s right by the Rock, actually. It is a 15-20 minute walk from Newark Penn station through the Ironbound and right over the Jackson St. Bridge. I’ve walked it countless times, with and without a crowd, and I can attest to it being safe. For those who wouldn’t want to walk, there’s a PATH Station in Harrison that literally is a few blocks right in front of the arena. That’s perfect for those incoming from New York City. Those who insist on driving would have to pay quite a bit to park near the arena in Harrison or in Newark, but that is no different than having to do so for Devils game. RBA is close to where the Devils play and as people do not have issues getting to The Rock, they won’t have them for Red Bull Arena.

Who Would the Devils Play?

Most of the outdoor games have featured a rivalry game to help boost interest. For this coming season, Chicago-St. Louis and Pittsburgh-Philadelphia fit the bill. Past games featured Detroit-Colorado, L.A. - Anaheim, and Montreal - Boston in addition to the Devils’ own hated rivalry with the New York Rangers. That one with Our Hated Rivals filled Yankee Stadium without much issue, so there’s one right there. The Devils have another hated rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers, who are league darlings. Being owned by Comcast helps. They will be playing many games on national television in this coming season and they will be entering their third outdoor game since 2010. While I wouldn’t say it is a big rivalry by any stretch, the rise of the New York Islanders can be sold as a local, inter-division game that has more significance than, say, a game against Carolina.

Should the league be interested in using RBA for an outdoor game, a game against the Islanders would seem like a nice fit. Another game against the Rangers can presumably fill a much larger venue than RBA since 50,000 came to their last meeting in 2014. I’d go as far as to wonder whether it’s a game that could fill up MetLife Stadium; although those logistics would be harder to figure out. The Flyers might be able to fill a larger venue too. Since RBA is smaller, the league could justify a Devils-Islanders match-up in that it may not be as heated, but it may speak to the strength of playing games outdoors that a smaller-profile game could still fill in arena.

How Big is Red Bull Arena?

I regret to write this paragraph, as it may make this idea a non-starter for the league. Red Bull Arena’s capacity is only 25,000. An outdoor game there would be the smallest by far. All of the Stadium Series games have drawn at least 50,000 and the Winter Classics that drew less than that still met capacity of the arenas they did hold the game in. The bizarre Philly-Boston game in at Fenway Park drew less than 40,000; but that was acceptable as it was still a sold out game in an iconic place. As much as I think Red Bull Arena is great for soccer, I can’t say it is so highly regarded as a place for games that it could be a selling point for the game itself. It would be a new place, but its small capacity will undoubtedly limit how much could be made on the game. As much as ticket prices for these games are increased for a big event like this, there is such a thing as too much. Just look at the prices for your tickets for Devils-Rangers games at the Rock for the past few seasons and you won’t have to wonder why they didn’t sell out. Making up the difference for revenue could very well lead to a less-than-full capacity for the game and that’s simply not good for anyone as all of these other outdoor games have largely filled their places. I’d like a Devils game to be played there one day. But unless the NHL is really interested in going there or if they want to try to see if a “smaller” game can still fill a larger-than-usual venue and make for good national television, I don’t see how it could work in the near future. Perhaps if the outdoor game concept loses a lot of steam, but by that point, who knows if there would be any such games then.

Overall, it looks like if the Devils are to get back into the spotlight with respect to an outdoor game, then it would likely be in a larger venue with a bigger opponent like the Flyers or Rangers. The Devils themselves are not big enough to draw such attention. While Red Bull Arena is nearby, it would be available, and I think a game could work in there, the relatively small arena size is a massive drawback. Say what you want about the Winter Classic and/or the Stadium Series, but they’re still filling in baseball parks and football stadiums. Soccer stadiums just don’t compare yet. While the state of New Jersey has two sizeable football stadiums - MetLife Stadium in East Ruthersford and High Point Solutions Stadium in New Brunswick - the lack of chatter for each suggests to me that they aren’t under any consideration beyond speculation.

I hate to rain on my own parade, but I suspect that this is why this idea may have only been discussed so far.

So What Other Potential Synergies Could the Devils Have with the Red Bulls?

Whatever else (?) the two organizations are discussing may end up being something behind the scenes. Something in public could be a bit tricky, particularly for the Red Bulls. They still market themselves as a New York team. They’ve been in the New York market since MLS started in 1996, playing in Giants Stadium. Phillip Anschutz saved the franchise (and many others in MLS) from death in 2001 when the original owners went out (why some supporters support that brand is beyond me). Red Bull bought them in 2006 along with the rights to a planned stadium in Harrison, New Jersey. Red Bull Arena opened up in 2010 and has since been a successful franchise on and off the field. Their whole history has been in the Garden State, but they were placed there for practical reasons and sought the larger NY media market. With some scrubby blue team taking hold in the Bronx and despite them being repeatedly put into place (example 1, 2, 3), the Red Bulls have put an extra emphasis on New York. As in, New York is Red. Which it is. Therefore, they may not be so currently inclined to do something like market with the New Jersey Devils. Working with NJ would undercut stating that New York is theirs despite the results on the field. It also wouldn’t play well with the Red Bulls fans that are also hockey fans but, for some reason I can’t fathom, don’t support the Devils. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but that’s why I’m not expecting something obvious like ads for either at each other’s arena anytime soon.

So What Do You Think?

I’ll admit I’m not particularly creative enough to think what the two teams could discuss beyond some kind of marketing agreement or a potential game to be played at the arena. What do you think the Devils and Red Bulls could or should be discussing? As much as I’d like there to be a game, I don’t see it happening anytime soon as bigger games the Devils could be in could take place in bigger locales and going to a smaller arena - relative to where else these other outdoor games have been - doesn’t make a lot of sense at the moment. That’s just how I see it. Let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you for reading.