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Red Bulls finally have a place to call home - and sell

This photo shows the nearly finished Red Bulls

This photo shows the nearly finished Red Bulls stadium in Harrison, N.J. (March 5, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

HARRISON, N.J. - Upgrade? No, that's not quite right. That better describes the new buildings that house the Mets, Yankees, Giants, Jets and Devils, and the one now on the way for the Nets.

What the Red Bulls are doing goes beyond upgrade; it is a transformative, franchise-altering shock whose ripples will be felt around the league and sport - or so American soccer hopes.

"It means everything,'' Red Bulls managing director Erik Stover said Wednesday, standing just off the grass field of Red Bull Arena, the team's new 25,000-seat home in Harrison, N.J.

"It totally changes our business. It's a 180-degree switch.''

For 14 seasons, the Red Bulls - previously known as the MetroStars - rattled around Giants Stadium in search of a large fan base and an identity. They largely whiffed on both counts.

Now this: The latest in a series of mid-sized, soccer-specific stadiums to sweep MLS, this time within the largest metropolitan area of soccer's last frontier.

For the Red Bulls, Stover said, "It's something we can be proud of, and not an environment that even our staff wasn't very excited to go to on game day.''

For MLS, he said, "There is now in New York a featured venue where marketing people or sponsorship people or the league office can bring Madison Avenue types over and be proud of it.''

The finished product is the result of a decade of discussion, and took 3½ years to complete even after a groundbreaking amid abandoned factories across the Passaic River from Newark.

First, there was years' worth of toxins to be cleaned up, then a radical rethinking of priorities.

After Red Bull - an Austria-based energy drink maker - bought out Anschutz Entertainment Group's interest, it ditched plans to make the stadium concert-friendly and focused squarely on soccer.

"No disrespect to the other [new] stadiums, but none of them are close to this when it comes to truly a soccer-specific stadium,'' Stover said. "There is no stage. This is a soccer venue.''

The redesign also trimmed the number of suites and club seats and increased the number of affordable seats, which range from around $20 to $45.

Stover expects season ticket sales to reach 8,000, double last year's total, when the Red Bulls flopped on the field and at the box office. Club-seat sales have been sluggish, and 17 of 30 suites have sold.

The seating areas are covered with a translucent roof, and the first row is an intimate 21 feet from the touchlines, elements that give the facility a European feel.

The public can check out the place for no charge at 4:30 p.m. tomorrow for a game between the U.S. under-17 team and one from Red Bulls Academy.

The official opener is March 20, when the Red Bulls host the Brazilian team Santos, followed by the MLS opener March 27 against Chicago (pending a threatened player strike that week).

Stover plans to book other international events, even with New Meadowlands Stadium nearby. Turkey plays the Czech Republic in May.

The Red Bulls have marketed themselves in the immediate vicinity, including the heavily Portuguese Ironbound neighborhood of Newark that is visible from the stadium.

But they hope to reach well beyond that, deep into the city and Long Island. The privately funded, $200 million building is a short walk from the Harrison PATH stop and a mile or so from Newark's train station, from which free shuttles will run.

There also is a new parking garage within a five-minute walk.

What about those swaths of flattened dirt adjacent to the stadium? They look like parking lots to be, but in fact they are sites of planned commercial and residential developments.

So, someday, others will call the neighborhood home. For now, it's enough that at last the Red Bulls have one.

Brand names off CBS hoops dance card

For all the excitement of upsets by upstarts in the NCAA Tournament, the reality is more people watch when brand-name powerhouses play.

So where does that leave CBS, with North Carolina, Connecticut and UCLA all out of it - for the first time since 1966.

"You would ideally like to have as many of the marquee teams, first of all in the tournament and to get deep into the tournament,'' CBS Sports president Sean McManus said. And if not . . .

"You play the hand you're dealt, and more often than not, there are a lot of really spectacular memories and story lines that develop, whether they involve the larger, traditional teams or they're upstarts.''

McManus had a similar take on the now familiar lack of New York-area teams in the NCAAs.

"At the outset, yes, of course you'd like a stronger team in New York if you could get it,'' he said. "But doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get a low-rated tournament or a tournament without a lot of interest.''

Tiger would mean monster Masters rating

Speaking of brand names and CBS ratings . . . With speculation mounting that Tiger Woods will play the Masters, TV types have to be salivating, right?

But Jim Nantz, the voice of the event for a quarter century, said his anticipation for it has nothing to do with Woods' status.

"If he's there, I'll look forward to covering it; if he's not, it's not going to make an ounce of difference in my world,'' he said.

"These tournaments are about the event you're covering. Sure, I want [high ratings] for the numbers guys and sales crew and whatever it means to them. I get that. But to define the tournament by if Tiger's there you have a bigger rating? I don't look at it that way.

"I look at: What's the best story? And that goes for every sport I do.''

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