The Philadelphia Union have revamped a lot about the game day experience over the past couple of seasons, however the fans in the stands are less concerned with that then they are with seeing a winning product on the pitch. That’s a fair statement, and one perhaps the Union brass should take heed to.
But let’s lay it all bare, shall we? The Union have an attendance problem right now. Attendance has declined every year since 2010, with last year being the nadir with an average of 17,519 tickets distributed (15th best in MLS). This is not actual butts-in-seats numbers, as these aren’t ever released by the club or the league. Last Saturday’s match against the Portland Timbers saw 15,437 tickets distributed, and I would be shocked if there were anywhere near that many actually in the stadium. In the two games this year, the Union are averaging just 16,116 tickets distributed.
(Editor’s note, the low point of attendance was 2015 with 17,451. We’ve written a retraction around this.)
It stands to reason then that the Union would pull out all of the stops to try and woo fans into coming. The people responsible for this aspect of things aren’t responsible for player acquisition. Their budget is separate from the MLS-controlled salary cap budget, so it’s not like the Union are taking money out of those coffers to pay for the new features.
It’s also not like the Union are taking money away from a non-salary cap Designated Player salary by paying for these things. The cost (in the grand scheme of things) for these things is probably negligible in the grand scheme of things. The few thousand dollars a game to have a parachute jumper or drum line or whatever isn’t going to make or break bringing in a player of the caliber that some fans clamor for.
Now I’m not defending the parachute jumpers, drum lines, or any of the other new game day gimmicks. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a curmudgeon and hate fun in general, so I’d rather not have these things. I realize however that it’s a false equivalency saying this is why the Union are bad.
The Union are bad because the Union can’t seem to not have an expensive bench warmer at any given time. Last season it was Anderson Conceicao who was the club’s Juan Diego Gonzalez Golden Paperweight. This season, Giliano Wijnaldum is eating a very valuable international roster spot in addition to whatever the Union are paying him to play in Bethlehem. Fafa Picault has been ok as a bench option, but I don’t see him challenging anyone for a starting job any time soon. Jay Simpson is another player brought in and while he’s looked decent at times he hasn’t been the answer at center forward the Union needed.
Going back even further, Alejandro Bedoya (brought in last year) has underperformed thus far because he’s being played out of position. Maurice Edu is hurt and has been hurt for what seems like an eternity, and when asked about if there was anything new on Edu’s progress, Curtin’s answer was a curt “No.” Ilsinho hardly played last season, and Roland Alberg seems to be a bench option for the second year running.
This is the underlying problem - resources like salary cap money and international slots are consistently wasted on players that under-perform or who in the case of Anderson (or Gonzalez, or Freddy Adu, or Porfirio Lopez, or...) just flat out suck. If the Union are going to be the small-market team looking for value that’s fine, however they’re going to have to start being smart about spending what little money they have. A winning team cures a lot of things, including sagging attendance.