With soccer specific stadiums currently being all the rage within MLS with DC United getting approval for their new stadium as well as Las Vegas passing a stadium resolution (contingent on the city getting awarded an MLS franchise), I decided to look at our own PPL Park.
Now, I’m not decrying PPL Park’s design nor its location, I think we all enjoy the River End and the bridge view from the stadium is, to put it mildly, awesome. However, what could it have meant for the team if they had managed to get approval to plop down the stadium in the Philadelphia Sports Complex, the same place where Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park, and the Wells Fargo Center occupies? I decided to do a semi-serious examination of “What If?” for the Philadelphia Union and see what might have been for the Union.
For all that let's go back to a time before time to...2007. It was in October of that year that Delaware County approved funding for the stadium. But let's say that before that fateful vote the process was cut off by a suddenly zealous Philadelphia city council and mayor that decided that an MLS soccer franchise should be based with all of the other sports franchises. The new stadium is agreed to be set across from the old Spectrum which would be demolished in 2010. So when the Philadelphia franchise is officially awarded to Jay Sugarman and his ownership group on February 28, 2008, Philadelphia fans are already incensed with the knowledge that the as yet unnamed stadium would eventually occupy its rightful place with all the other major sporting franchises of the city.
So What does that mean for the Stadium?
Basically when talking about a PPL Park in Philadelphia, the elephant in the room is Xfinity Live owned by Comcast-Spectator. In doing my research for this article, I found that as early as 2008 the concept for what would be Xfinity Live was already being discussed. Let's just state a major fact here folks, if Comcast doesn't support the Philadelphia Union or simply get out of the way of the franchise, there is pretty much no way that the Union put PPL Park in the city. Jay Sugarman's value/income from what I've been able to find value is more than likely hundreds of millions of dollars (it's notoriously hard to pin down), however, Comcast as a company pulled in $64 billion dollars in 2013. Even if you combine the combined income/investments/etc of the rest of the ownership group, it’s more than likely not even close to what Comcast pulls in. In terms of financial muscle there is absolutely zero way that the Union's ownership group goes toe to toe with Comcast and wins.
So for the purposes of this exercise we're going to briefly discuss each possible outcome.
Comcast Supports the Union Stadium and the Team
The most intriguing (and mouth watering) prospect for the Union. If Comcast had said, "We're going to jump in on this soccer thing," it could mean that the Union have a sponsor at first kick on March 25, 2010.
Comcast support would also more than likely mean that the Union start getting Designated Players to help fill out the roster. In terms of financial muscle there are few people or organizations that would be able to match the spending power of a Union/Comcast partnership.
But what does that mean for the stadium?
Once again we must go back to Comcast. It depends on whether or not Comcast is willing to totally drop the idea of Xfinity Live or incorporate it into the design of PPL Park. Xfinity Live was conceived almost like a mall with an idea of a spa, restaurants and more built into it. Xfinity Live's ultimate purpose was to get people to "be able to come early and stay later," as Comcast-Spectacor (the company that Ed Snider is the chairman of, which is owned by Comcast) spokesperson Ike Richman put it. An integrated Xfinity Live/PPL scenario means that the Union's new stadium is not only going to be larger than PPL, but also more expensive. More than likely pushing it to around the $200 million dollar threshold if not slightly more, which would put it in line, cost wise, with other MLS stadiums like Sporting Park and Red Bull Arena.
PPL Park (which probably gets a different name from this deal also) is essentially not designed the same as it is now. Being down in the Sports Complex means that a stadium with a minimum of 20,000 would be built with future expansion a distinct possibility. While parking would be an nightmare for Union fans that chose to drive down there it would be alleviated by the fact that mass transportation would be readily available. The slightly larger stadium with Xfinity Live attachment is a bigger draw to local Philadelphia residents who when they go to watch Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, 76ers games are also curious about this "soccer" thing that is attached to the stadium.
While the hardcore fan base would be annoyed by having to constantly fight for parking with other Philly sports team fans, that would alleviated by the fact that the Union would have some of the biggest pockets of any MLS team and easily in the running for players like Dempsey, Bradley, Martins, etc.
Comcast Stays Out of the Way of the Union
The other possible outcome, that Comcast doesn’t get involved with the Union and simply doesn’t choose to build Xfinity Live in any capacity.
In that situation, we're still looking at a Union stadium of equal size to PPL or up to 20,000 people. Even without Comcast's money, the Union are looking at a decent future, but a very frugal one. The Union would still benefit from being close to the other sports franchises, but a more expensive stadium means that perhaps Sugarman and company plead poverty longer than before and it also has greater long term repercussions.
What about the Practice Fields?
The brand new Union practice fields that opened up next to PPL, what about them? Where do the Union practice?
This also must be examined in the vein of with and without Comcast support.
With Comcast Support
If Comcast was involved with the team, its a matter of how much they're willing to shell out to help the team by this point. The 76ers in 2013 were rumored to be trying to get a practice facility built in the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. While the 76ers have since moved their future facility to the waterfront in Camden. However, imagine if the Union were able to step in and get practice fields/facility built in the old Naval Shipyard? The possibilities are great. The Union would have a training facility a mere mile and a half from the stadium.
Without Comcast Support
This is where the Union feel the pinch from building in Philadelphia. Costs for the 76ers facility in Camden run in the area of $80 Million. However, costs for the 76ers facility at the Naval Yard were estimated in the region of $20-$25 million. Suffice it to say that is probably the low end of the spectrum. Depending on how "fancy" the Union want to get with their practice fields/facility, we're probably looking in the $40 million range.
Obviously, that poses a huge problem. While financial statistics aren't fully known, it's a safe bet that Sugarman and the other owners are unable or unwilling to invest that much money. Meaning that more than likely the Union don't have practice fields for the foreseeable future, much to the chagrin of the fans and players.
Basically the Union being in Philadelphia could have worked. It would have been better in some areas, worse in others. While fan attendance would have been high, without big money backing it’s hard to think that the team would have any Designated Players or practice fields. If by some miracle Comcast had jumped into the Union's camp, the Union pretty much overnight become heavy hitters within Major League Soccer. Without that backing? Much more financial hardship.
But when all is said and done, PPL Park in Chester is a gorgeous place to go and honestly, I don't think I'd have it any other way.
(Editor's note: We originally ran this with a possible practice facility at "The Philadelphia Navy Yard." Since, we have learned that since 2000 it has been a mixed-use campus branded as "The Navy Yard")