The New York Red Bulls found themselves in hot water with the eyes of the world on them. The August 26th match against Inter Miami CF and superstar Lionel Messi put a massive spotlight on the team.
The 2-0 loss was one negative aspect. The other came down to the t-shirts being sold in the official team store at Red Bull Arena.

The BULLShop at RBA usually is only full of New York’s team gear. But last month, one rack at the store included official Lionel Messi t-shirts for purchase.

The Adidas shirts were not Inter Miami merchandise but from the player’s own line. Two designs were available.

While covering the match for NYCSN, and prior to fans entering RBA, I was able to take the first photos of the shirts and post them online. Reactions came in quickly and were almost universally negative.

Marc De Grandpré *Inadvertently* Comments Beforehand

What didn’t help the situation was the comments of a front office member ahead of the match. New York Red Bulls General Manager Marc de Grandpré was interviewed by ROI-NJ for an article that went out the week of the game.

The article mostly focused on the business side of RBNY and de Grandpré’s past experience working on David Beckham’s first match against New York in 2006.

At one point, though, the interviewer asked the GM if Lionel Messi jerseys would be sold at the arena during the game.

“We won’t have Messi jerseys in the building,” answered de Grandpré.

“But we’re going to be selling our hip-hop kit that the players will be playing in. It’s our third kit, and it’s already been one of our best-selling uniforms for the season.”

Technically, de Grandpré didn’t lie since no Messi “jerseys” were sold in the arena. But technically correct is, in fact, not the best kind of correct in this situation.

The “League Mandate” Angle

There were those that defended the decision, in a way. Some fans replied to the initial tweet saying MLS probably mandated the Red Bulls to sell the shirts that some in Messi’s contract forced the issue.

Adidas is the official league-wide kit supplier for MLS. Earlier this year, the two sides signed a six-year, $800 million extension to their partnership. However, the German athletic apparel company is also directly tied to Messi. Argentinian has sponsored their products since the mid-2000s and has his own line of apparel with the company. Plus, his contract with Inter Miami has some revenue sharing with Adidas, Apple, and other companies.

The “mandate” angle got a kick start when the story and my tweet were featured on ESPN FC’s “Fútbol Americas”.

But this past Sunday, those theories fell apart. Inter Miami headed west to play defending MLS Cup Champions Los Angeles FC.

Around the time the Red Bulls were losing to Philadelphia Union in their own game, fans began to enter BMO Stadium in LA.

One fan, host of “ThisWeekInMLS” Eli Lesser, confirmed that the Messi shirts were not for sale in LAFC’s team store.

This led to more outrage from the New York Red Bulls fanbase. Lesser’s replies were full of anger, calls for firings, and the ever-common “Red Bull out” mentality.

But it also raised questions. Why were the shirts there? Who’s idea was it? And how did that affect the rest of the league?

Source Provides Additional Context For Deal

Neither the New York Red Bulls nor General Manager Marc de Grandpré responded to official requests for comment. However, a source close to the situation was able to provide details to New York Sports Nation. The authority, who was granted anonymity, had no input in the decision to sell shirts at the game.

According to the source, it was Adidas and not Major League Soccer offering the opportunity to sell Messi shirts. It was not a league mandate or directive but rather an optional “thing” (direct word) for teams to opt into. They claim that since Messi joined Miami this summer, Adidas has been fighting a war against counterfeits.

Allegedly, the claim is that more black market merchandise has been confiscated for Messi “than (normally done for) the Super Bowl.”

“(It was) understood that 80% of the fans there are gonna be there for Messi,” the source said.

“Let them buy a real shirt versus a fake shirt.”

Ahead of last month’s match, multiple vendors could be seen outside RBA selling, almost certainly, knockoff merchandise. Bucket hats with “Messi” on them and pink Miami kits were the common item. Plus, jerseys and shirts from various Central and South American national teams. At no point did security or police try to stop this in the four hours I was outside the arena pregame.

And at least two were still there, selling $50 Miami kits afterward.

“Seems like it’s Adidas trying to protect themselves by offering this to clubs,” the source said.

If fans are going to see Lionel Messi, Adidas will want their products available. They, however, left the choice up to teams if they wanted to participate. The source was unable to confirm what exactly MLS sides gained from doing this. The best guess is that there is a cut in revenue since the merchandise is being sold in the team’s store. Again, it wasn’t Inter Miami merchandise being sold at an opposing stadium; it was a Lionel Messi shirt. Meaning IMCF did not benefit directly from any sale.

The source also believes the reaction to RBNY selling the Lionel Messi shirts “scared off” other MLS teams from taking part. In effect, the Red Bulls were the guinea pigs in this experiment.

It’s unknown if Los Angeles FC was ever going to sell the Messi shirts at their game last weekend. The team never responded to requests for comment for this story.

When asked about Marc de Grandpré’s comments, the source did not know if the GM was aware of the Adidas deal when he did the ROI-NJ interview. The source went on to say they weren’t sure if Grandpré even knew the shirts were being sold ahead of time. The source also noted that more RBNY jerseys were sold on 8/26 than any other matchday in the last decade. That only factors in sales at the stadium. This fact was backed up in a report by NJBIZ. That article clarified the newly debuted Freestyle Kit was the leader in sales. There’s also a chance the new 3rd kit sold well online, too, after debuting on such a large stage.

In the end, the source admitted selling the shirts was probably not the right “tone” for the match. But even they understood the type of soccer fan that was going to Harrison, New Jersey, that day. The crowd of 26k was mostly rooting for Lionel Messi. Many New York Red Bull fans sold their tickets to cash in on the spectacle. From the team’s angle, it made sense to try and tap into that “Messi fan” revenue source with something that appealed to them.

The New York Red Bulls actually have soccer to play later this month. The team heads to the Bronx next Saturday to play New York City FC.
The last edition of the Hudson River Derby is critical for both team’s playoff hopes. Inter Miami and Messi host Sporting Kansas City in Fort Lauderdale this weekend.

Photo: Michael Battista/NYCSportsNation

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