Jan 8, 2008
If Seattle can, why not Philly?
I’m not going to make any predictions as to whether the state legislature will come through with the rest of the funding for the MLS stadium in Chester. Predicting what politicians will do is often more difficult than predicting the weather, and unlike the weather, you usually have less than a 50-50 chance of being right.
But I will say this. If Philadelphia had the same circumstances come about with its prospective ownership as Seattle, the Sons of Ben would already be painting their faces in the colors of the new team.
By that I mean a deep-pocketed local owner who controls his own stadium.
Let’s examine the comparisons between the Seattle and Philly markets and ownership groups.
Philadelphia is a top-five market with a good soccer tradition. Seattle, though smaller in size, also has a good soccer tradition, and fills a big void in the league’s national footprint.
The Seattle ownership group had local investment in the form of Adrian Hanauer, the managing partner of the city’s USL franchise, as well as a well-heeled out of town investor in Hollywood studio executive Joe Roth, former Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, and Chairman of Twentieth Century Fox.
But Seattle had no plans for a soccer-specific stadium. Only a larger National Football League stadium that was built with the express purpose of housing an MLS team.
A big rattle factor is something MLS wants to avoid in its stadiums. The league already has endured a sea of empty seats in places like New York and Kansas City, as well as high rental and small share of ancillary revenues that go with playing in those facilities.
Enter Paul Allen and his Vulcan Sports Group, owners of the Seahawks and Qwest Field. That closed the gap for Seattle. There was no longer a need to build a stadium, as long as the ownership group would have access to stadium revenues like luxury seating, advertising, concessions and parking.
Now, look at Philadelphia’s ownership group. There is local involvement in the form of businessman Jim Nevels, and William M. Doran, a senior partner with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, as well as the deep out-of-town pockets of iStar Financial’s Jay Sugarman.
What’s missing? The stadium. If the legislature doesn’t agree to the funding deal, what are the chances of Philadelphia getting an MLS team? Almost none, unless a local owner who controls his own stadium, one that perfectly accommodates soccer, is willing to join the ownership group.
Unfortunately, the Eagles seem so far unwilling to get into the soccer business. The Linc might not be as soccer-specific as stadiums being built around MLS, but it is certainly up to the task. It offers great sightlines, all the amenities, and could probably be downsized just as well as the stadium in Seattle.
Both stadiums have 67,000 seats, both were largely funded by the public, and both have sold out for games involving Manchester United.
For now, Philly fans must wait for the legislature and slug it out with St. Louis for the next MLS team. The Gateway City already has stadium funding in place, but is still assembling an ownership group, while touting the city’s soccer heritage.
Philly’s soccer heritage is just as strong. The Philadelphia Atoms, not the St. Louis Stars, were among the league leaders in attendance when they won the North American Soccer League championship with a largely homegrown squad in 1973, so the history angle works both ways.
Since being awarded its MLS franchise, Seattle has sold more than 10,000 season tickets, which by most estimates put it third in the league behind Toronto and Los Angeles. Judging by the already fanatical support for a franchise shown by the Sons of Ben, Philadelphia could provide that same level of support. True, it would look better in a 25,000 seat stadium, but if it can work for Seattle, why not Philadelphia?