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Attendance woes mean Union could be moved out of Chester for $10 million

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Current ownership is committed to Chester but what’s to prevent a situation here like the one in Columbus?

Photos / USWNT vs Colombia Trey Madara / Brotherly Game

Be careful what you wish for, Philadelphia Union fans.

Calls for a new, deeper-pocketed owner to rival the spending of teams like Toronto FC, New York City FC, Seattle Sounders FC, LA Galaxy and Atlanta United have become an off-season ritual for Philadelphia Union fans. The voices were particularly loud this past off-season as the weeks went by without any news or even rumors of potential high profile signings.

Those signings eventually came — David Accam was acquired from Chicago Fire on draft day and a loan deal for Czech Republic international attacking midfielder Bořek Dočkal was finally completed last week. Both deals seems like they could benefit the club’s push for relevance and a playoff berth, but are still a far cry from the amount of money it would take to land a big-money, high-profile player like a Sebastian Giovinco, Carlos Vela or David Villa.

An owner willing to splash cash would change that.

This mythical deep-pocketed owner(s) could also, it turns out, endear themselves to a sub-section of supporters by moving the team out of Chester.

The lease agreement for the stadium now known as Talen Energy Stadium signed in 2009 stipulates that in the first 10 years the only way for the team to get out of the 30-year deal would be to pay off the remainder of the what is owed on the bonds. Beyond the 10 years there is a stipulation that the team could leave by essentially writing a check for $10 million to the county should game attendance fall into the bottom 25 percent of the league for back-to-back years.

This attendance scenario happened last year when the team was near the bottom of MLS attendance charts for the second year running. Overall, the Union finished 19th out of 22 teams in the league last season with an average attendance of 16,812. Only Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas had worse attendance figures.

Matthew De George, in an excellent piece for the Delco Times looking back on the promises made when the stadium project was announced a decade ago, draws attention to this clause in the original lease agreement and puts it in the context of Columbus Crew SC’s owner Anthony Precourt’s attempts to move the team to Austin, Texas.

For all of the chatter about how the team would draw better within the city limits of Philadelphia, a potential scenario also exists where the Union gets the deep-pocketed owner fans have been clamoring for only to have said owner promptly move the team out of Pennsylvania altogether. Like with Precourt’s attempts to circumvent the expansion process and get out of paying the expansion fee to put a new team in Austin, paying $10 million to Delaware County would be significantly less money than the expansion fee for a new team.

Of course, abandoning Talen Energy Stadium and the nearby Power Training Complex seems like a pretty ludicrous idea, especially given the recent investment in enhancing the property surrounding the stadium with training facilities and offices. The team may not own the stadium but they now control a mile stretch of land along the Delaware River waterfront. According to De George’s article, Union holding company Keystone Sports and Entertainment Group “purchased the land around the stadium from the Buccini/Pollin Group whose principle are co-owners of the Union.”

De George’s story quoted one of only two Union executives to have been with the club since 2008 in CFO Dave Debusschere.

“I would tell you it’s so not on the radar that it hasn’t even been brought up,” Debusschere was quoted saying in the Delco Times article. “Ownership is 100 percent firmly committed to Chester, to Delaware County. And we’ve got a lot of work left to do. We’re excited what we’ve done, very proud of it but we know there’s work left to be done.”

For now, we Union fans have no reason not to take Debusschere and the current ownership group at their word. Still, no assurance from the ownership group of their long-term plans makes up for the fact that this now nine-year-old exit clause exists and that low attendance figures could potentially make a #SaveTheUnion campaign necessary. You simply can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube on this one.

As Neil deMause, author of the book Field of Schemes, wrote on his blog, “giving sports teams an exit clause is just handing them a gun and inviting them to rob you.”

“This is probably not the most opportune time for the Union to demand stadium upgrades, what with the local paper reporting on how the stadium has been a disaster all around; but using exit clauses to pry loose publicly funded renovations is certainly a time-honored tradition, so you absolutely don’t want to leave the door open to it,” deMause wrote. “It’s too late for Chester, but city lawyers writing future leases, bookmark this post, okay?”

David Miller, a spokesman for the grassroots #SaveTheCrew effort, said the exit clause in Chester is further evidence that what is happening in Columbus impacts the entire league.

“We hope that our cautionary tale of ‘it can happen to you’ is obvious to teams like Philadelphia who are not that old in the expansion of MLS sense, yet now face the threat of relocation at the whim of investor-operators who see dollar signs if they court new markets,” Miller wrote in an email. “Someone is always going to be least profitable or finish last in some ‘business metric.’ That doesn’t mean you alter a community, by ripping out its team.”