Superstorm Sandy left the New York Red Bulls without electricity in their arena days before their planned match against D.C. United in New Jersey. Rather than move the game to a neutral field, the decision was made to switch home dates, with United hosting Red Bulls on Saturday instead of next Wednesday. As a result, United was giving up home-field advantage, and it meant that a front office that thought it had a week to prepare for such an event now had three days.
“We always try and think, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ Whether it’s our work in the community or whatever,” said Doug Hicks, United’s senior vice president of marketing communications. “That human element was a factor in this decision.”
The first order of business was to do everything they could to let the fans know about the change. All of their previous advertising and marketing efforts promoting the original dates would have to be scrapped. New print, television and radio ads were implemented immediately, and MLS agreed to supplement United’s advertising budget to defray the costs incurred as a result of the switch.
One of the casualties of the process was the match-day program. Planned as a 28-page booklet, it has been abbreviated to two pages.
The team’s partners sped up their process and rushed their own promotions, and the city’s other professional teams jumped in, tweeting about the change and promoting Saturday’s game. Kyle Sheldon, United’s director of marketing communications, said that sense of urgency was much appreciated.
“The other sports teams in town have been incredibly supportive,” Sheldon told me. “I’ve gotten e-mails from just about every one of the different teams saying, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’ The teams are really supportive of each other, and there’s a camaraderie that exists. That has been really cool to see.”
The biggest effect, however, was on the fans. Work shifts had to be rescheduled, social plans canceled and some had to make a decision between the United match and the Wizards‘ home opener. It was too late for supporters like Nick Orban, who had scheduled a surgery around what was originally a mid-week home game.
“Because the time between surgery and the game moved from nine days to two, I am unable to attend the first playoff game in DC in 5 years,” he told me via e-mail.
The announcement was met with immediate disappointment by some fans, who took to Facebook fan pages and Twitter to vent their frustrations. Small differences, like having to work a half-day before getting on a bus, and returning to the District after the Metro closes, also make Wednesday a much less convenient day for traveling, especially on short notice.
“A lot of us feel like we had something taken away from us. People were wondering if they can play the Giants game and hold the marathon, why can’t they host a match?” said Jorge Gadala-Maria, a member of United fan group Barra Brava. “When the marathon got canceled, it helped calm [United fans] down a bit.”
In an effort to make things right, United, in partnership with MLS and the Red Bulls, is providing buses and tickets for supporters who want to make the trip to New Jersey on Wednesday. Tickets are on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“I think it put the people who were still deciding over the edge,” said Gadala-Maria of the free transportation and match entry. “We’re going to have a lot more supporters now.”
The team is trying to make the situation on Saturday as easy as possible for the fans. Tickets dated November 7th will be accepted at the gate on Saturday. Anyone who can’t attend on Saturday can get a refund on their ticket. Food trucks will be on site, and it will be business as usual at RFK Stadium.
“It’s a dire situation up [in New Jersey], and it just needed to be done,” United midfielder Chris Pontius said of the switch. “But we were always going to play on Saturday, and for us it doesn’t matter where that is. We just need to them to be as boisterous as they were at the last home game. We thought that was fantastic, and we need that support tomorrow again.”