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The Philadelphia Union could be the next Toronto FC if it wants to be

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The two teams have more in common than you might think

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When General Manager Earnie Stewart gave his end of the year press conference, he said something about the way that the Philadelphia Union constructed its roster that has stuck with me. Stewart said in response to a question about team owner Jay Sugarman spending money on the team,

It’s who we are, and I think a lot of times this is — you know, can we spend like Toronto? No, we can’t. It’s as simple as that. So we have to do it in a different way, and I think we’ve found that way. Those discussions are going on, and Jay has been good in that.

The problem with comparing the Philadelphia Union to Toronto FC is that Toronto and Philadelphia are extremely similar markets. While TFC currently enjoy a much bigger profile and place in the professional sports landscape of the Greater Toronto Area than the Union do in Philadelphia, the Union have a great opportunity to grow and reach similar heights in their market.

Market Size

One of the biggest similarities between the two metropolitan areas is the population. The Greater Toronto Area (or GTA as our friends to the north refer to it) has a population of 6,242,300 people. The US Census estimates the population of the Greater Philadelphia area (or the Delaware Valley as it’s sometimes called) to be 7,179,357. Toronto might be the biggest metropolitan area in Canada, but Philadelphia is still a bigger market. And while these numbers might be a little fuzzy, it’s what the nice people at the Census departments in both countries use, so at least the methods will be similar in determining what exactly the “metro” area of a city is.

Competition From Other Professional Sports Teams

This one is a little harder to gauge for a variety of reasons, as it’s difficult to exactly place how “popular” a team is besides attendance to the sporting events, which doesn’t even exactly determine how “popular” a team is, due to the limited nature of stadium and/or arena size and pricing of events. I chose to use the number of people who follow the professional teams on two of the biggest social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook, as proxies to determine just how “popular” each of the teams are. It’s probably not exact, but it will do the job. Now a lot of people will follow teams on both and maybe even people who live outside of the area will follow the teams, but generally speaking, short of polling everyone who lives in each of the metropolitan areas which sports teams they follow, this will do.

Toronto:

Toronto FC: 326,000 Facebook followers, 328,000 Twitter followers.

Maple Leafs: 1.3 million Facebook followers, 1.73 million Twitter followers

Blue Jays: 1.7 million Facebook followers, 2.18 million Twitter followers

Raptors: 2.2 million Facebook followers, 1.56 million Twitter followers

Argos (CFL): 60,000 Facebook followers, 120,000 Twitter followers

Philadelphia:

Union: 175,000 Facebook followers, 123,000 Twitter followers

Flyers: 1.198 million Facebook followers, 1.42 million Twitter followers

Phillies: 1.7 million Facebook followers, 1.76 million Twitter followers

Sixers: 1.6 million Facebook followers, 1.29 million Twitter followers

Eagles: 3 million Facebook followers, 2.64 million Twitter followers.

(Note: these numbers tend to go up a down a little bit, but they’re pretty stable, so if you look them up and they’re different, sorry)

Not surprising that the Eagles are the most popular of all of the teams in both markets, as the NFL is extremely popular and the Eagles are one of the most popular teams in the NFL. As much as the Argos recently will have gotten a boost from winning the Grey Cup, they aren’t nearly as popular in Toronto as the other professional sports teams, with a lot of fans of the NFL north of the border as well.

The popularity of the Blue Jays and Raptors are larger than the Phillies and Sixers, and the popularity of the Leafs is greater than that of the Flyers, so while the Argos may lack the popularity of the Eagles, the other teams in the GTA are much more popular than the Philly teams. While the totals may be larger for Philadelphia, the important thing to remember is that once you get past the Eagles, the totals really aren’t that different.

So where does that leave Toronto FC vs the Philadelphia Union?

Market Size Doesn’t Always Translate to Popularity

It’s worth pointing out that market size doesn’t necessarily translate to popularity of the soccer teams. The Seattle and Portland metropolitan areas are both smaller than Philadelphia metro area, but those clubs occupy a much higher place in their city’s professional sports landscape and popularity in general. Conversely, despite the large population of LA, Chivas USA could never pull the kind of popularity that other MLS clubs did.

Market size is useful however when you want to talk about potential fans. Seattle and Portland might just be better cities for soccer much in the way that Atlanta will just never be as good a market for the NHL as Montreal. That said, there is no reason that the Union can’t at least come close to the popularity that Toronto FC has in its market given the similarities. Given the histories of both clubs, the Union have an opportunity to “reboot” the same way that TFC did after attendance and eyeballs started drifting away from the team.

Toronto FC Spends a Lot of Money and Spends it Wisely

Toronto FC, much like the Union, started off with a bang. They had large crowds for the first few years of their existence, with lots of fans spending lots of money on tickets, merchandise, etc. Then after a few years of not seeing results on the field, the numbers started to drop. Despite having a nice stadium (BMO Field) located near the downtown core, attendance finally started to dip after a few years as fans tired of the team constantly losing.

But then 2014 happened, and Toronto made a few smart DP signings, and TFC got a little bit better. First, Toronto signed former England international striker Jermain Defoe from Tottenham Hotspur, and signed United States international Michael Bradley from AS Roma. This at least showed intent on the part of the owners of TFC, as they realized their goodwill with fans had run out, and results on the field were needed to improve their attendance numbers and popularity.

After 2014 ended in tears as the club still missed the playoffs, Toronto went out and got Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus in January of 2015, sent Defoe back to England, then got US international Jozy Altidore in return from Sunderland. While these were expensive moves, the club retooled and brought in a high-profile Designated Player Giovinco to play as the “number 10” role, and they’ve been in the playoffs and seen as a contender for the MLS Cup ever since. They’ve seen a renaissance at the gate, going from an average of 18,000 fans in 2013 to an average of over 27,000 fans this past year.

Now can the Union go out and spend $7 million on a salary for Giovinco to go along with the large transfer fees & salary that TFC paid to land Defoe and Bradley? Probably not. But can they afford to break the bank for one of those kind of players? Probably.

Toronto has the highest payroll in the league, and the Union’s overall spend is about in the middle, in 12th place. The Union’s payroll is however still a third of what TFC is spending on players. To put that in perspective - the Union’s overall payroll spend, about $7 million, is as much as TFC is paying Giovinco.

While the Union were middle of the road in compensation, on the field they were closer to the 22nd place team (the Houston Dynamo) than they were to the 7th place team (the Seattle Sounders). The Union probably can’t spend like Toronto, but even a small increase in payroll spent on the right players could easily translate into increased performance and increased attendance and team income.

The Union have spent a lot of money on salaries with poor results this year, and with some roster turnover, they have an opportunity to spend some money on critical parts of their roster. For example, if they are committed to playing a 4-2-3-1, they should spend money on a number 10 creative midfielder instead of looking for bargains from the Eredivisie or a Brazilian converted right back from Ukraine. To his credit, Jay Sugarman has said he’s intending on spending some money to get results.

Rather than look to bring in a non-attacking midfielder such as Alejandro Bedoya, who makes over $1 million to fill the stands and improve the results on the pitch, the Union should look to spend its DP slots on either a striker or a creative, goal-scoring midfielder, as those positions provide bang for the buck. And while they can’t afford a Giovinco, the Union could afford a Federico Higuain, who makes about $1,000,000 playing for Columbus SC, Ignacio Piatti, who makes $450,000 playing for Montreal Impact, or Sacha Kljestan, who makes $787,500 playing for the New York Red Bulls.

Opportunity Exists to Increase Popularity

Now will the Union get sell-out crowds overnight? Maybe not, but given that the Union’s attendance is on life-support, going from 4th in the league in 2010 to 19th in the league in 2017, the Union are going to have to do something to improve the results on the pitch to increase attendance. Given the opportunity in the market, the Union could easily improve their attendance numbers.

Those fans that were filling the seats back in 2010 and 2011 are still out there, but the Union have to do something similar to what Toronto did in 2014 and 2015 to bring those people back to the games. While a high-profile DP won’t necessarily cure all, the Philadelphia Union need to create some buzz to recapture the attention of the city. Toronto isn’t so different from Philadelphia, and to recapture the magic, the Union need to follow a similar plan as TFC did to re-energize the fanbase and fill the stadium up again.