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Philly makes it sweet 16, eventually
by Ridge Mahoney, February 29th, 2008 6:45AM

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Another major market, another sports-mad city, another enticing stadium proposal, and another well-heeled ownership group add up to another MLS expansion team. And yet another coup, at least on paper.

The 14th and 15th teams haven't played a game yet, but already MLS has announced team No. 16 will be Philadelphia. The entry, to begin play in 2010, marks a return of pro soccer to Philadelphia 28 years after the NASL Fury followed the Atoms and NPSL Spartans into oblivion.

"Philadelphia brings in one of the most passionate sports markets in the country and provides a natural rivalry with the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United," said MLS commissioner Don Garber, who for the past few years has been lobbying for the city's inclusion.

Vied in a head-to-head battle with St. Louis for the past year or so, Philly pulled away a month ago when the state legislature approved its share of a funding formula for an extensive redevelopment project in Chester, Pa. Already in place was a strong ownership group, which is comprised of several newcomers to the pro soccer scene and one familiar name: iStar Financial CEO Jay Sugarman, Swarthmore Group Chairman James Nevels, Philadelphia attorney William Doran, Christopher and Robert Buccini, founding partners of The Buccini/Pollin Group, and former MetroStars general manager Nick Sakiewicz.

"And this ownership group is passionately committed to doing things in a major-league way," said Sakiewicz, the group's CEO and operating partner. "It will be the people's team, with a world-class stadium." Sakiewicz labored for years on the New Jersey stadium development that eventually became Red Bull Park in Harrison and left AEG last year to work on the Philadelphia project.

The lead investor is Sugarman, the founder, chairman and CEO of iStar Financial, an investment firm whose primary operations are services are tailored to high-end private and corporate real-estate ventures. According to the MLS statement announcing the deal, iStar Financial's investment portfolio exceeds $20 billion.

"Major League Soccer is truly a league with the wind behind its sail," said Sugarman. "We're going to build a first-class organization on and off the field and we will create a development that makes the community proud."

The Buccini/Pollin Group, Inc. is a real estate acquisition, development and management firm with offices in several Eastern Seaboard cities, including Philadelphia. The Swarthmore Group, an investment firm, is based in nearby West Chester.

A 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in Chester, 13 miles from downtown Philadelphia and accessible by public transit and Interstate 95, is the centerpiece of a $500 million waterfront development project along the Delaware River. Philadelphia and the adjacent Delaware Valley area is the nation's fourth largest population center with an estimated 6.5 million people and is also the fourth-largest TV market with nearly 3 million households.

The Pennsylvania state legislature approved $47 million in state funds for the redevelopment project, including $25 million toward the construction of the stadium, the cost of which has been estimated at $115 million. Delaware County and the city of Chester have committed $30 million for the project and the Delaware River Port Authority has pledged $10 million. Sugarman and his partners will be responsible for funding the costs of stadium construction beyond the public monies earmarked.

The team has no nickname, no jerseys, and no team colors. It does, however, have the Sons of Ben, a fan club with more than 1,000 members who, until Thursday, were without a home team to support.

Already, Philly is well ahead of at least a few MLS teams.

 



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