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Report: New York Red Bulls' 2015 season ticket sales are...OK?

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RBNY has decided to join the crowd of MLS teams bragging about 2015 ticket sales. But what does the number it has allowed to leak out really mean?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

BigAppleSoccer.com's resident scoop-magnet, Kristian Dyer, is reporting the New York Red Bulls are upbeat about season ticket sales.

The 2015 home-opener isn't until March 22nd (vs. D.C. United), but the season kicks off in early March (RBNY will be in Kansas City on 3/8) and this is as good a time as any for teams to brag about ticket sales. The Red Bulls are reporting they've shifted more than 9,500 season tickets for 2015 - a number characterized as a "good building block for the team".

Sounds like a decent number. How does it stack up with other teams in the league?

NYC FC, our truth-challenged neighbor across the river, has let slip season ticket sales are in the region of 13,000. Old habits being hard to kick, the blue team's bluer parent club, Manchester City, also told the Guardian's Daniel Taylor it was 100 tickets short of selling out NYC FC's recent friendly against St. Mirren. Before he'd even wrapped up that paragraph, Taylor was reporting "100 tickets left" did not correlate with being close to filling the 7,000-capacity venue for the match. From this we learn mischaracterization is a hereditary condition.

But if 13,000 is an exaggeration, it probably isn't by much. The last time someone "mischaracterized" NYC FC's season ticket sales (Don Garber back in December), the club issued a correction: 11,000 was the number it was comfortable with toward the end of last year. It isn't too much of a stretch to imagine it has tacked on another 2,000 since then.

Fellow MLS expansion side, Orlando City SC, recently reported it had cleared 11,000 season tickets. San Jose Earthquakes are opening a brand new stadium this year, and they are also past the 11,000 mark. Seattle Sounders reportedly sold around 34,000 season tickets in 2014, and claim more than 90% renewals for 2015. Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City maxed out their season ticket sales in 2014 - 15,300 and 14,000 respectively - and each reported waiting lists that suggest their sales are unlikely to be dramatically affected by disappointing campaigns last year. Toronto FC reported 17,000 and a waiting list last year, and has been conspicuously accumulating star power to keep that fan base from drifting away in 2015.

Vancouver Whitecaps claimed around 13,000 in 2014. Real Salt Lake has suggested it could hit 16,000 by opening day 2015. Houston Dynamo and Philadelphia Union both reported five-figure season ticket sales for 2014.

At the other end of the scale, last year's worst club in the league (points-wise; ticket sales were middle of the pack), Montreal Impact, is reporting around 5,000 season tickets sold so far for 2015.

So 9,500 season tickets isn't a gaudy number by the standards of those clubs in the league with bigger attendance (Seattle), bigger stars (Toronto), or novelty value (NYC FC and OCSC). But it's better than Montreal.

How does it compare to RBNY's 2014 numbers? Good question. The club doesn't make that the easiest question to answer. Grant Wahl's annual MLS "ambition rankings" carry mention of season ticket numbers when he can find them. But in 2014, the Red Bulls, despite being generously listed at sixth on Wahl's list, chose not to disclose their season ticket numbers. RBNY was the highest-ranked team on last year's Wahl chart (sorry...sorry) not to feel its season ticket sales were worth bragging about.

Well, another way of figuring the number out might have been to look at last year's CONCACAF Champions League games at Red Bull Arena. Those matches were included in season ticket packages, and RBNY - as is standard practice for its industry - tends to report tickets sold rather than actual attendance.

Against CD FAS on August 26, 2014 - when RBNY was freshly entered in the tournament and there was some excitement about its prospects in CCL - the club reported 11,569 in attendance. For the October 22 game against Montreal Impact, when the weather was terrible and RBNY was already eliminated from CCL, reported attendance was...huh...no numbers. The Red Bulls were wise to this game: no attendance would appear to have been provided for that match.

So we deduce RBNY's season ticket numbers for 2014 were...somewhere below 11,569 - and sufficiently modest that the club was not inclined to make a big deal out of them to the media.

Indeed, given the fact that only one team in MLS disclosed season ticket sales below 10,000 to Wahl last year (LA Galaxy: 7,500), it would seem fair to infer that teams around the league don't particularly like talking about ticket sales unless they're breaking five figures. This would suggest RBNY's season ticket numbers for 2014 weren't over 10,000.

(Note: Marc de Grandpre told Vice Sports the team set a record for season ticket sales in 2014, and was exceeding that pace in 2015 - and still didn't reveal an actual number.)

So RBNY's reported 9,500+ season tickets sold is...OK. Sure, at least seven teams can be fairly assumed to be doing better (NYC FC, OCSC, RSL, San Jose, Seattle, Portland, KC); four more (Vancouver, Toronto, Houston, Philadelphia) may be considered likely to report higher numbers when Wahl's next ambition ranking is published. But if RBNY wasn't cracking 10,000 tickets sold last season, it is understandable that the club should be finding ways to let us know it's on course to do so this year.

Nonetheless, making allowances for the undoubted tendency of all teams to exaggerate or err on the side of optimism, it seems safe to conclude RBNY's season ticket numbers are middle-tier for MLS 2015.

In light of the club's tumultuous off-season, in which it threw away pretty much all the momentum gained from last year's playoff run by losing or discarding many of the biggest names associated with the achievement, holding a respectable place in overall season ticket sales isn't a bad thing.

Speaking of momentum: the team will have benefited from early renewals locked in by fans excited by 2014's thrilling conclusion and unaware of RBNY's plan to trash the whole project and start again in 2015. The club reported 7,500 season tickets sold by the first week of September. (Renewals started in August, with incentives to get signed up by early September.)

That would suggest RBNY has shifted around 2,000 season tickets in the last five months.

By comparison, NYC FC was bragging about 10,000 "seats" sold in mid-October; so it would appear to have shifted 3,000 season packages in the last four months. It started accepting deposits toward the end of April, which suggests its season ticket sales rate has basically dropped by 50% (around 1,600 per month from April-ish to October-ish; about 750 per month since).

So it is exaggerating to say RBNY's ticket sales have cratered since the early enthusiasm shown by a fan base enjoying the team's late-season surge in 2014. At least one other team has seen also sales drop off significantly in recent months.

Of course, that was a team that got caught in a lie to its nascent fan base - and it still looks to be outselling RBNY by a ratio of close to 2:1 over the past few months (the Red Bulls' implied season ticket sales rate since September is 400 per month).

What does it all mean? First, one must acknowledge these are rough calculations based on unreliable figures without any insight into the seasonal ebb and flow of season ticket sales (maybe the first and last quarters of every year are traditionally slow periods). And the issue raised is not one of failing to keep pace with the new neighbors: the dynamics of their fan base is still a mystery; all we're seeing now is the baseline against which future NYC FC attendance will be judged.

But the knowledge the Red Bulls had 7,500 season ticket holders renew by the first week of September would suggest the 9,500 signed up to date are substantially those who were enjoying the ride last season -  before the team started its run to the Conference Final (the win over Sporting Kansas City that sparked RBNY's six-wins-out-of-nine charge to the playoffs was on September 6; Empire of Soccer reported 7,500 season tickets had been renewed "through the first week of September").

What looks like sluggish sales since that initial surge suggests the team's appeal has not increased immensely since it closed out 2014 on a relatively high note. The club may yet set another season ticket record this season - primarily thanks to a solid late-summer renewal drive.

It could be argued much of the credit for any season-ticket success story in 2015 belongs to the team of 2014. If almost 80% of the current season-ticket holders renewed while watching a team captained by Thierry Henry and coached by Mike Petke, then it is their legacy the club is counting as the core of its fan base this season.

The challenge for the new regime is not to squander that legacy. And 2,000 season tickets sold in the last five months suggests there is plenty of work to do on that front.