Prime time for soccer?

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2007.)

He’s not David Beckham, but he doesn’t need to be.

As Mexican superstar Cuauhtemoc Blanco steps to the ball, 18,454 soccer fans fall silent in the Chicago Fire’s Toyota Park on a late summer night. The ball is set just outside the box, the free kick is readied and Blanco is the man of the moment.

Blanco steps. He kicks. The ball rises, sails past a wall of players and curls left. It doesn’t stop until it hits the back of the net.

The stadium erupts in joyous noise. Fans stomp their feet, cheer, hug, sing and pound drums. Smoke bombs explode in Section 8, and a gray, acrid haze rises to the sky. Fans throw red streamers down to the field. “Write that down!” a Fire fan yells at a reporter.

Amid the pandemonium, the reporter wonders: Could this happen in the Delaware Valley? Professional soccer, with real players, real fans and a real stadium?

That answer may come some time this fall, when MLS officials are expected to award two expansion franchises for the 2009 or 2010 season.

Philadelphia, the nation’s No. 4 media market, appears to be a front-runner, along with St. Louis and Seattle.

MLS officials say three factors will determine who gets a franchise: an ownership group, fan support, and a 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium.

The first two appear to be in place for Philadelphia. An ownership group met with MLS and Pennsylvania government officials on Sept. 6 to discuss a $150 million plan for a stadium near a new Harrah’s casino on the Chester, Pa., waterfront.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell supports the effort, but hasn’t pledged any money. That’s key. A stadium plan for Rowan University in Glassboro collapsed last year when state funding fell through.

Then there’s the question of whether fans will support a Philadelphia-area team. Yes, the MLS may draw the soccer families that give the Delaware Valley one of the nation’s highest youth soccer participation rates. And yes, a raucous group known as the Sons of Ben that claims more than 600 local supporters has emerged to back a franchise that doesnt even exist yet. But what about everyone else? Is Philadelphia a legitimate soccer market?

“Now, is it a sure thing? No,” said Charles Kopp, attorney for the prospective Philadelphia ownership group. “Are you going to lose money in the early years? Yes. But I don’t count it out.”

The reasons that it can’t be counted out may lie on battered soccer fields throughout the Delaware Valley.

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It’s Sunday in Chelsea Heights, Atlantic City. At the neighborhood park, graffiti adorns trash cans. A welcome sign still lists James Whelan as mayor, although he left office more than five years ago. Bits of glass and what appear to be empty marijuana bags mar a dusty field with scattered grass.

On this day, they’re playing soccer in the park.

It’s the Atlantic Soccer League’s 20th year, and the league is no closer to securing regular playing fields today than it was in 1987. But that does not matter. The players’ uniforms are sharp. Their passing is crisp. Chelsea Heights may barely pass for a real field, but these players come to play. About 80 percent of the players are Latin American, many of them day laborers who work six days a week. Some work on farms, in kitchens, on construction sites, and it’s their only day off.

“They come here to work hard,” says Asdruval Monroy, a 30-year-old player from Pleasantville. “In the meantime, they have time to play.”

Fifty miles west, in Bridgeton, the city park’s fields go untouched. Players in two adult leagues, with 30 to 40 full teams between them, have trampled the fields in this soccer mecca in Cumberland County so badly that they’re unfit for play.

In Wildwood this summer, 908 teams took over the city’s wide beaches, with 96 fields set up to host the annual Beach Blast five-on-five soccer tournament.

In Philadelphia, the 2-year-old Casa Soccer League essentially owns Pennypack Park on Saturdays. Twenty-nine teams spread across three divisions run from morning until dusk here. Back across the Delaware River in Camden County, there’s the South Jersey Adult Soccer League. Farther south, a league prospers in Delaware.

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For non-soccer fans, there may remain a “so what?” element to Major League Soccer, or MLS.

“You go and see all these (professional) soccer failures (in America),” said Keith Weigelt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business who studies sports economics. “A lot of people have tried this, and a lot of people have failed.”

But MLS officials and supporters say times have changed. The league has a 10-year record of attendance averaging about 15,000 fans per game. Its predecessor, the North American Soccer League, never matched that in any one of its 17 seasons, and its teams never had their own stadiums.

This year, the MLS team in Chicago — a sports market not unlike Philadelphia — averages more fans per game than the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks drew in the 2006-’07 season, albeit in fewer games. Closer to home, the Philadelphia 76ers NBA team also drew a lower average per game.

“There is a trend that it’s the thing to slam soccer,” says Justin Sterenko, a recent Rowan University graduate who lives in Washington Township, Gloucester County. “The people that didn’t play soccer, (those) in their 40s and 50s, they’re more likely to be anti-soccer. But I’m in my 20s. I grew up with it.”

Much of the sport’s new support is coming from immigrants who grew up with the game, people such as Robert Maduro, an Aruban casino worker from Galloway Township, Atlantic County. His wife calls herself a “soccer widow.” Maduro spent several years helping run the Atlantic Soccer League.

“The interest is here. The people are here. I don’t see what the problem is,” said Mike Granigan, head of the Cape Express soccer club in Middle Township, Cape May County; Cape Express organizes the Wildwood Beach Blast. “The (MLS) soccer is pretty good. If it weren’t for the Meadowlands being so far away, we’d be going to games. No, they’re not Manchester United. No, they’re not AC Milan. No, they’re not Chelsea. But neither are the Detroit Lions, and people go see them play.”

* * *

MLS seized the moment this year. With a slew of new stadiums opening, major TV contracts with ESPN and Univision, a growing list of sponsors and an already stable attendance record, league officials took the leap for established — critics say “declining” — marquee international players.

The Los Angeles Galaxy signed David Beckham, possibly the world’s most famous athlete. Despite injury problems, coming in a year in which he has had no off-season, the Englishman brought star power.

“What David Beckham honestly did was (bring) the spotlight onto Major League Soccer,” said John Guppy, general manager for the Chicago Fire. “People could recognize all the good things we were already doing.”

The Fire nodded toward Chicago’s 1.5 million Mexicans by signing controversial Mexican superstar Cuauhtemoc Blanco. When the team first introduced him, 6,000 fans showed up. Since Blanco’s first game in July, the team has averaged about 20,000 fans per home game. Blanco jerseys have been on back-order in stores.

“Since then, we just started coming,” said Jairo Barbosa, a longtime fan of Blanco’s old Mexican team who spent the Fire’s Aug. 25 game cheering and yelling at the referees with his friends in a mix of Spanish and English. “It’s getting exciting. Before, you had to go to Soldier Field. Now, you have a real field, real fans.”

That new field, Toyota Park in the suburb of Bridgeview, is the linchpin for the franchise’s future. Since it opened, the team attracted a new buyer, began a youth development initiative similar to European soccer academies, and sparked economic development in this old manufacturing town south of Chicago.

Few, if any, MLS markets compare with the Delaware Valley as well as the Chicago area. Both have diverse populations, professional teams in the four other major sports leagues, and large media markets, ranking fourth and third, respectively. With that in mind, the Bridgeview experience is worth noting.

Factories and warehouses surround Toyota Park. When some began to struggle financially, Bridgeview took a $130 million gamble that professional soccer could help its transitioning economy. It’s slowly paying off. A $15 million cinema and $50 million hotel and water park complex are set to be built near the stadium.

“A lot of communities chase retail anchors,” Bridgeview Mayor Steve Landek said. “I chased a sports anchor.”

Today, that type of sports anchor is a prerequisite for any MLS expansion bid because league officials view soccer-specific stadiums as key to long-term sustainability. Rather than renting stadium time from football or baseball teams, soccer franchises can draw revenues from scheduling concerts and other events. Teams in Denver and Dallas have built massive youth soccer complexes around their stadiums.

“It’s all about control,” MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said. “You control the revenues. You control the dates that you schedule.”

The 20,000-seat stadiums create a better ambience than the cavernous football and baseball stadiums MLS teams rented in the early years, fans say. Everything seems a little louder, a little closer, and a little crazier.

“It’s just an incredible place to watch a game,” Chicago Fire season-ticketholder Greg Wallis said of Toyota Park.

The expectations that come with these stadiums are more realistic. Instead of trying to match National Football League game attendances of 60,000-plus — which no league can match — they’re aiming for the 20,000 mark that’s common in the five major European soccer leagues, as well as American basketball and hockey arenas.

That number seems realistic to the Philadelphia ownership group, which includes Jay Sugarman, chief executive of iStar Financial, real-estate developer Robert Buccini and former Philadelphia School Reform Commission Chairman James Nevels. They have been the region’s highest-profile potential ownership group since the Rowan stadium plan fell through last year — but they have stiff competition.

A St. Louis group has secured land and government backing for a suburban stadium, publicized its architectural plan, and even partnered with three major local youth-development leagues. Many regard St. Louis as the cradle of American soccer, known for producing college soccer’s first dynasty at St. Louis University, hosting last year’s national championship game, and providing five of 11 starters for the U.S. National Team’s greatest international win, the 1950 World Cup upset of England.

Meanwhile, a Seattle group already may have secured one of the bids. Sports Illustrated reported last week that MLS officials have decided to grant a Seattle expansion team to Hollywood movie mogul Joe Roth and Adrian Hanauer, head of the Seattle Sounders, which last week won their record fourth championship of the United Soccer Leagues’ first division. MLS officials, however, denied the report.

As the MLS season comes into its stretch run, so, too, does the competition for the league’s 15th and 16th franchises. League officials say they plan to stay at 16 teams for some time after the next expansion. Whoever loses out on this expansion bid may have a long wait on their hands.

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A look at where several soccer teams compete, compared with the Philadelphia area.

CITY                        PHILADELPHIA     ST. LOUIS          SEATTLE
Media Market ranking             4             21                 14
Other major league teams         4              3                  3
Pupulation metro area        5,823,233       2,801,033         3,263,497
Favored stadium site        Chester, Pa.   Collinsville, Ill   Undecided
Current semi-pro team           None            None            Sounders
Formal NASL team                Atoms          Stars            Sounders
Government support             Unknown          Yes             Unknown
Likely MLS rivals                N.Y.,        Chicago,          San Jose
                            Washington, D.C.  Kansas City
                                                            - Press graphic

Major sports attendance
A look at the major sports attendance average per game for the 2006-07 season, compared with the leading English socer league.

 League                             Attendance
 National Football League           67,738
 Major League Baseball*             32,785
 National Basketball Association    17,757
 National Hockey League             16,961
 English Premier League             34,459
     Sources: English Premier League, Soccernet, NBA, NHL MLS, NFL, MLB 2006-07 season.
 * MLS and MLB stats are from the 2007 season.
                                                          -Press graphic

In support of pro soccer
‘I think all we need to do is build a house, and it’ll come. It’s a
successful model now. It’ll work. The thing is you got to have the right stadium now. It can’t be where the Eagles play. That’s a 60,000 stadium.’

– Matt Driver, Egg Harbor Township. Former MLS assistant coach, New England Revolution. Founder, Atlantic City Diablos. Former chief operating officer, Ocean City Barons. Former professional soccer player.

‘It establishes more of a permanency to the league. In the past, it was always a question of whether it might get up and fold at any time.’

– Chicago Fire defender Jim Curtin, who grew up near Philadelphia, on a soccer-specific stadium.

‘Being from this area, you always have to expect there’s going to be something that’s going to shut down all your hopes or make you question why you have them. But if I was the MLS looking at Seattle, St. Louis and Philadelphia, I wouldn’t pass on the (nation’s) No. 4 media market. That’s not smart business.’

– Bryan James, co-founder of the Sons of Ben, a Philadelphia-area supporters group for a prospective franchise.