Philadelphia Union Chief Business Officer Tim McDermott hosted about 17 fans from Twitter on Tuesday night for a three-hour conversation at The Wharf Building in Chester on the team and its future.
After starting off with a salute to Union Twitter folk hero “Union Hulk,” who was unable to make it due to obligations at Rico’s, McDermott gave a synopsis of things to come and goals the organization has set for itself.
Topics discussed included: revamping the Union Foundation, increasing attendance, waterfront campus planning, Bethlehem Steel; reaching out to women, Latinos and the African-American community; streaming and TV deals, the academy, winning and strategies to becoming recognized as a Philly team.
Increasing attendance is definitely a priority for the team. It’s no secret that the team’s attendance has been seeing a decline over the past few years. When Tim came in three years ago, he made immediate changes to try and stop the bleeding so to speak. They have invested heavily in new staff to decrease turnover on season tickets, and are among the highest in the league in terms of number of fan service reps and ticket rep staff.
When comparing attendance numbers to the early seasons, as well as the new expansion clubs that are drawing big numbers, Tim made a great distinction that I think everyone should acknowledge, “It’s easier to be new than new and improved.” The Union failed to capitalize on their newness to the league 10 years ago and are paying for it now. Hiring Earnie Stewart was the first step in the right direction in terms of improving the on-field product and it seems that Ernst Tanner really has elevated every aspect of the organization since taking over as sporting director last fall. They expect to be in the playoffs this season and they want fans to have that expectation as well. It’s obvious the squad has acres more depth than in previous years, and I think the talent on the roster is better than it’s ever been.
Besides improvement to the on-field product, the long-term goal for the organization is 25,000 fans per game. While Talen Energy Stadium currently holds 18,500, attendance is generally closer to 16k than 18k, but the stadium is configurable to expand by around 7k seats. Short-term, they want to fill the stadium to capacity every game, but they have been looking into other options outside of Chester. Franklin Field at Penn was brought up as a potential venue, and the Union looked heavily into it recently, but the pitch isn’t wide enough and the cost for placing sod over the field and over the track doesn’t make much sense. It was clear that they are looking into every option, including moving the team downtown, but it doesn't seem likely at the moment.
Reaching the Diverse Philly Market
Philly is a sports town, but the Union don’t get the same publicity or coverage as the other big sports in the city from local radio or TV. It’s a complex problem that the team is actively trying to address, but it boils down interest in the team. People watching TV and listening to the radio programs need to want to be hearing about the Union for the sports media to cover it. Increasing attendance will no doubt help, but Philly needs to identify with the team.
During the discussion, reaching out to a more diverse population was brought up at length. Specifically the Latino population in the city remains a largely untapped market. Tim told us that the team is close to announcing a Spanish langue broadcast partner which is definitely a step in the right direction, as well as increasing marketing efforts with Marco Fabián. A good suggestion included emphasizing Spanish heritage month, which falls towards the end of the season, as well as reviving the team’s Spanish twitter account. The team also wants to improve its exposure to the many students in the city. Previous ticket offers and marketing haven’t been very successful, but they are close to unveiling a new ticket and bus offer that sounds positive. The party atmosphere and energy that the student and millennial crowd can bring to games is really sought after.
Overall, they hope that convincing new people to make the trek to Chester will get them hooked on the game day experience.
Developing the Chester Waterfront
Just walking into the beautiful team offices at the newly renovated Wharf Building, you can see that the team has been investing a lot into their facilities. The training complex, and completing the purchase of a mile of contiguous waterfront last year were the first step, but now the big time planning is at work. It was publicized that there was to be significant development with the stadium when the team was announced, but the economic downturn really put the development on hold. Currently they're at work with master planners to determine what should go in on the waterfront to help make the complex more than just the Union. Ideas include a sports complex with rock climbing as well as destination retail (i.e. Cabela’s). They are still in the planning phase but are actively contracting planners, so hopefully development gets off the ground in the not too distant future.
Improving mass transit to Chester was also discussed, but it’s likely that the significant redevelopment needs to happen before there are major changes will be made to the transit infrastructure.
Along with Chester, Tim mentioned the Union Foundation is revamping itself and it looking to help Chester High School fund new women’s and men’s soccer programs including possibly buying equipment, paying for coaches and fields, as well as maybe letting them play in Talen a few times per year.
In-market streaming has been a hot button topic among fans, as the Union online broadcasts are blacked out locally. Currently the only option is to watch the game on television, but with the increasing number of cord cutters, some fans are left without an easily accessible broadcast. Tim made it clear that the ESPN+ deal blacking out the local broadcast is a league deal, and that if they wanted to put their local feed up for people watching in-market, it costs a lot of money and doesn’t make sense right now. There are other options in the works, and the team is patiently seeking out the right deal.
Bethlehem Steel attendance has been disappointing so far since their move to Talen Energy this season. Currently there are no stadiums that meet the USL’s very strict standards in the Lehigh Valley, which forced the Union to move them for the time being. Tim mentioned that they are in daily discussions with potential stadiums to host a game or two this season, but so far none are particularly interested or willing to make a deal. They would like to move back, but are currently exploring a plethora of stadium options in different locations.
Playing a game this season at the Linc against DC or the Red Bulls was discussed as well, but there are a lot of factors, like the Eagles preseason schedule, that make it seem unlikely at the moment.
To conclude, the discussions were productive, and the leadership present was incredibly attentive. Tim’s hand probably hurt afterwards from writing down so many notes. It was quite apparent that the current leadership really wants to bring the Union to the forefront of MLS in multiple ways, and they want to do so openly. Just scrolling through Tim’s twitter feed, you can see how responsive he is to fans’ ideas, and his desire to improve the organization top to bottom since his arrival is clear.
I want to thank Tim for the invite, and I left the discussion really optimistic about the direction the organization is heading. What they are doing isn’t easy, and making up for the lost time has proven a big task, but Tim and co. seem to be really attacking things head on.
There were a few other topics discussed, so feel free to ask questions in the comments and I’ll get back to you.