By Ridge Mahoney
While it’s true that expanding into Philadelphia in 2010 will mark the fourth straight season, and fifth occasion in the last six years, that MLS has added at least one new team, this move might be the most important.
Philly will not be a melding of MLS and NFL, as is the case in Seattle, nor the NHL-MLS partnership that is present in Toronto. The Seahawks and Maple Leafs, respectively, aren’t threats to win the championships of their respective leagues, yet both are powerful enterprises deeply rooted in their communities.
In those markets, soccer tradition and interest has been transformed into sales – of tickets, of sponsorships, of merchandise, of advertising – that are the lifeblood of success.
Both teams have yet to prove they can stand the test of time yet both have gone off the charts in markets thought to be promising but hardly stupendous. They’ve also run first-class, efficient operations far removed from the USL-esque management practices of a few of their, allegedly, “MLS” partners.
MLS can’t mandate that all its teams spend and hire sufficiently to staff up as do the Seahawks and Maple Leafs, but they have certainly raised the bar.
One reason MLS executives don’t want freedom of movement among league teams for players is not fear of spiraling salaries – a salary cap and other financial strictures will regulate those costs – but rather concern, justifiably, that the better players will flock to the better organizations when given the chance.
Fans and certain observers clamor for a larger salary cap and more money spent on players; what is just as necessary are higher standards of performance off the field as well, to provide players and coaches with the resources and facilities to attain optimum performance.
A few teams are costing their more ambitious partners money – a fair share of losses incurred at the team level are shared amongst the ownership groups -- and said partners aren’t thrilled about it.
Philly is also not San Jose, which has already lost one MLS team to another city, Houston – the only league team to suffer such a fate – and is trying again with different ownership, that of yet another member of the big American sports leagues, the Oakland A’s, and a better stadium option.
As of now, the Quakes have finalized only plans to build a training facility near the proposed site of a new stadium, but for a team that has already used three different sites this preseason, that’s some progress, at least. President of the A’s, Michael Crowley, is also president of the Quakes, which are run by executive vice president of business operations David Alioto.
Chivas USA doesn’t have a domestic sports partner; owner Jorge Vergara owns the mother ship, Guadalajara, as well as Costa Rican club Deportivo Saprissa amid his vast business holdings. Since investing in Real Salt Lake, owner and former NBA executive Dave Checketts has bought the St. Louis Blues hockey team and is preparing a bid, perhaps, for the NFL Rams. These MLS teams aren’t as closely linked to other pro operations as is the case in Toronto and Seattle yet still there exists a sports and business infrastructure to be utilized.
The Union starts its inaugural season at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles, and will co-promote some events with the NFL team, but for the most part is being cast into the harsh, fierce Philly sports landscape all by itself. President and CEO Nick Sakiewicz believes a pent-up demand that has helped drive attendances and coverage in Toronto and Seattle is present in the market he is selling. Unless the Union can’t win a game out of the gate, demand should be rabid once its stadium in Chester, Pa., is ready for a June 27 unveiling. The Sons of Ben lit up the SuperDraft last month, but they can't do it all by themselves.
“I think it’s a function of timing,” says Sakiewicz. “I’m not sure if Philadelphia would have been any different than any other MLS market if they came in for 1996. What’s happened is, the sense I get from talking to a lot of fans, is that they kind of grew up with MLS, whether it was going to D.C. games or MetroStars games, and they’ve been sitting around in the middle of it without a team of their own.”
That “team of their own” feeling fuels an intense love-hate relationship the city has with all of its sports teams. “In Philly, the worst thing is not to be booed,” says Sakiewicz, who says the team will cut off season ticket sales at 12,000 in its 18,500-seat facility. “The worst thing is to be ignored.
“If it’s Philadelphia, people in that area support it. It has one baseball team and one football team and one hockey team and now it has one soccer team. If you’re losing, they’re demonstrative. I’ve sat in the stands at Eagles games and watch them have some bad losses, and the fans aren’t bashful about letting them know it.”
The Union has high standards to match on and off the field, and in a Northeast market steeped in rivalries and tradition, it doesn’t have a big-league partner to buttress its efforts. It is a crucial test case for MLS.