Sunday, December 21, 2014

Miles away from a sleepless night

I said I'd be back with my thoughts on today's Philadelphia Union news, and here I am.

Miles away from a sleepless night

Seattle Sounders fans at Pioneer Square before their game against Barcelona this past August. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
Seattle Sounders fans at Pioneer Square before their game against Barcelona this past August. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)

I said I’d be back with my thoughts on today’s Philadelphia Union news, and here I am. This could take a while, but I hope you’ll stick with me.

Let’s start with the announcement that the Union’s home opener will be played at Lincoln Financial Field. I suspect it will be a controversial decision, and here's why.

At the simplest level, playing at the Linc will cost the Union rent money to the Eagles, though that can be made up for with a big gate.

The bigger potential problem is that playing at the Linc could be a hindrance in convincing people to buy tickets in advance for games in Chester, as many people have already done. An average Philadelphia fan who just wants to go to one game, or to be part of a big moment in Philadelphia sports history, might go only to the opener at the Linc.

He or she might also feel inclined to wait until closer to the day of the game, and maybe until the game itself, to buy a ticket. Major League Soccer has been trying to push back against that mentality for a few years now. Building soccer-specific stadiums helps the effort considerably because of the scarcity of seats at soccer-specific stadiums.

While the Linc’s seating capacity will be limited to 37,500 - the lower bowl and club level - you could still get a pretty sizeable number of people who will sit on their hands until the spring.

It is a sound argument in a lot of ways, especially with regards to economics. I disagree with it, though, and here’s why.

We are told often in life that you only get one chance to make a first impression. But moving the first home game to Lincoln Financial Field gives the Union two first chances.

The Linc game will be a big spectacle, with a huge crowd and lots of buzz. The Union will then get another shot of attention when the new stadium is christened. That is certainly a good thing.

And frankly, it will be a good thing to have a big show on the Eagles' turf. It's a significant stage, of course, and being at the Sports Complex for a day will resonate with the local fan base.

There's another reason for the Union to have a relationship with the Eagles: the Chester stadium will be too small for big international exhibition matches. Both teams know this, and it was good to hear this afternoon that they will work together going forward to bring more showcase games to the Linc.

We already know that Lincoln Financial Field is a pretty good soccer venue. Yes, the field is too narrow, but other than that it’s a great place. The sightlines are good just about everywhere, and the stadium footprint is pretty compact - unlike caverns such as Giants Stadium and Gillette Stadium. This holds the noise in and makes for a better atmosphere (unless you’re in the press box).

In fact, Lincoln Financial Field bears more than a passing resemblance to Qwest Field, where the Union will play their first game next season. Which brings me to what I really wanted to write about today: the significance of christening the Union in Seattle.

Not that you would have realized this, but I was on vacation during the first week of August. My travels took me to Qwest Field to watch the Sounders host FC Barcelona. I had heard a lot about the electric atmosphere at Sounders games and how the team had captured the city’s hearts, and this was my chance to see it all in person.

It was every bit as advertised. From the stadium’s location - right on the edge of downtown and adjacent to the city's biggest train station - to the boisterous pregame rally at Pioneer Square, it was as great a soccer atmosphere as I’ve seen in this country.

The atmosphere inside Qwest Field was just as impressive. The stadium was completely sold out, with at least 65 percent of the fans in attendance wearing Sounders green. The supporters’ club sections were large and loud, with colorful arrays of banners and flags.

They were also impressively coordinated with each other. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find video of the clubs’ call-and-response chanting. I will admit that hearing it at kickoff of the Barcelona game produced more than a few goosebumps.
 
In a lot of ways, Seattle and Philadephia are opposites as soccer markets. Seattle has no NBA or NHL team and the Mariners aren’t doing so well these days, which gave the Sounders an opening to get serious attention in a market that was already passionate about soccer.

Philadephia, by contrast, has professional teams in all the major sports, and all are firmly entrenched in the city’s sporting conscience. We know the Eagles inhale TV time and newspaper space, and the Phillies’ continued success has earned them considerable attention as well. Flyers fans consume everything they can get a hold of, and the Sixers aren’t going anywhere.

Add to that seven Division I colleges and a raft of minor league teams, and you can see how much work the Union has to do. It will not be easy to carve out a niche with all that competition.

Oh, and did I mention that Villanova could be playing in the Sweet 16 at the Carrier Dome on the same night as the Union's opener? The NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinals are also on March 25. If I had to pick one, I’d rather be in Seattle than Syracuse. But even on that big night the Union will have competition for attention.

It is not an impossible task, though. The team and its fans have already demonstrated that they can create buzz for themselves. Among other examples, soccer stories on Philly.com have generated enough traffic to get attention from some reasonably important people around here.

You might recall that a few months back, I wrote a piece for the Inquirer in which I argued that soccer’s status in America will be measured this summer by how many newspapers send writers to the World Cup.

That argument can be scaled to Philadelphia Union as well. If you see Bob Ford or Kerith Gabriel getting lunch at F.X. McRory’s on that Thursday afternoon, it will mean something.

To borrow from the old Robert Frost line, this day gave the Union and its fans some real promises to keep. Their long wait will end six months and two days from now, when the Sons of Ben join the Emerald City Supporters to march from Pioneer Square to Qwest Field.

How fitting that a journey of so many miles will end with a few short blocks.

Jonathan Tannenwald Sports Producer
About this blog
Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

Jonathan Tannenwald Sports Producer
Andrew Albert Sports Producer
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