October 9, 2010
By Charles Cuttone
Two nights at the park
I donít recall the last time, if ever, I spent two consecutive evenings at the same soccer stadium. Certainly not for two unconnected events. If it has happened, it was likely for back-to-back days of a tournament, but I really donít recall, since most tournaments have at least a day in between matches.
The two nights could not have been more different. Wednesday was cold and wet, while Thursday was warmer than expected and dry,
The differences in the evenings donít end there. Wednesday night, PPL Park was so devoid of atmosphere, I didnít think it was possible for the stadium to be that quiet, certainly not when it was in use.
The announced crowd of 2,550 was one of the smallest to see the U.S. Womenís National Team in recent memory. The last time the women played in Philadelphia in 2008, they drew a more respectable 17,000 to the Linc. It was also the last time they lost on U.S. soil, a feat they came close to repeating on Wednesday.
So why the huge disparity in attendance for the U.S. Women? For starters, in 2008 it was the only professional soccer game played in Philadelphia. In fact, it was the first one in nearly four years, so you could certainly say there was a pent-up demand to see the game in any form.
This year the landscape is vastly different. The Union is nearing completion of its first MLS season, while the Independence advanced all the way to the WPS championship. Manchester United, Celtic and Chivas de Guadalajara have all made a stop here this summer, as has the U.S. Menís National Team, which will be back on Tuesday .
So, in a span of two weeks, PPL Park will have hosted two Union games, the womenís national team, the menís national team, and throw in a Big East match between Villanova and USF on Saturday. Thatís a lot of soccer.
But oversaturation and playing games on a school night are not the only culprits. Add to it U.S. Soccerís seemingly steadfast refusal to do anything to promote the womenís game beyond sending out a couple of press releases and a few mailers. Thereís no Mia Hamm anymore, no Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt, and, as for the nine-year-old girls that screamed and squealed during the 1999 World Cup, theyíre out of college and in the real world now. For Wednesday nightís game, one suite holder told me he had a hard time giving away tickets. There were only eight takers for his 25 seats.
Fast-forward 24 hours. By an hour before the Union kickoff against the LA Galaxy, the corridors at PPL Park were teeming with people. The Union store was packed with shoppers and the vast majority of the record 18,779 in attendance for David Beckhamís first appearance in Philadelphia had not even entered the stadium. By the 8pm kickoff every seat in the stadium was filled. Fans were lined up along the railings in front of and next to the stadium club. Most of the suites were filled as well.
The Union has been successful because they have worked at it. The team is in the community, players make appearances, the club advertises all of its games and the players and team personnel have built a relationship with the fans.
When the U.S. played here earlier this summer, as their send off to the World Cup, there was a buzz around the team and the sport. Now, with the Phillies in the playoffs, the Eagles and college football in full swing, and the Flyers and Sixers starting their seasons, itís harder to get that buzz. Oversaturating the market doesnít help. And as this weekís matches demonstrated, soccer is still a sport that needs to be sold. The Philadelphia Union understand that. U.S. Soccer either doesnít, or doesnít care.