The Philadelphia Union had everything going for it when it arrived in the Delaware Valley in 2008 – a major market with no professional soccer team, an energetic marketing approach, a shiny new stadium, and a rabid fan base that embraced the idea of pro soccer in Philadelphia, even though it was in Chester.
What the Union hasn’t had going for it is victories, and that’s why, despite all the promise and potential, the Union has failed to capture the general public’s imagination or attention. They’re currently 9-17 and in ninth place in the 10-team Eastern Conference, and on their way to their fifth season out of six without making the Major League Soccer playoffs. They’ve changed coaches and players, but the results have largely remained the same.
The Union knew coming in that it would never compete with the Big Four of Philadelphia professional sports – the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and 76ers – and they were initially content with their niche market and fan base, but with the understanding that the team and the league would grow beyond that and become more acceptable to the general public and not just devoted soccer fans.
And nothing excites sports fans like winning. Sports fandom is filled with bandwagon-jumpers and the Union needs to lure them aboard, but you can’t do that if you lose more games than you win. Since playing its first game in 2010, the Union has made the MLS playoffs just once, in 2011, when it also had its only winning record (11-8-15) and its best finish (third in the 10-team Eastern Conference). Other than that, the Union’s best finish was sixth, and it’s also finished seventh twice, eighth once and is currently in ninth. This is not progress.
The Union still has its loyal supporters and attendance continues to be good, although not great. Last year, the Union’s average attendance at PPL Park was 17,631, which was the 10th highest in MLS. This year, the Union averaged about the same – 17,460 – but that dropped to 15th in the league, a number that is not befitting a market the size of the Philadelphia area.
Of course, no team has more rabid fans than the Union’s Sons of Ben, a group that was instrumental in bringing MLS to Philadelphia (sorry – Chester). These people are soccer purists who love their sport and will support it no matter what – even if their heroes lose a lot more games than they win. They’re just excited to have the best soccer league in America in their back yard. But the real secret to success in sports is to draw the non-soccer fan, the kind of person who doesn’t follow the sport religiously, but still likes having fun and being in the middle of the excitement that comes with major sports events.
When was the last time you heard fans in a bar debating/arguing about the Union? When was the last time you heard fans discussing the Union on sports talk radio? The answer to both questions is never, and the constant losing has to impact that. And not only does having a loser in town hurt attendance, it also impacts things like merchandizing, which is the real Golden Goose in professional sports.
The Union has done a good job connecting with the zillion youth soccer leagues in the Delaware Valley and that has kept them in touch with the younger demographic – which, of course, will grow up to be an older demographic with money to spend. Part of that is taking advantage of the jolt that the U.S. women’s team gave the sport with its stirring victory in the World Cup, and so far that hasn’t materialized.
The Union has established itself with soccer fans. Now it’s time to lure the rest of us, and the only way to do that is to win.