NEW YORK — Any time a struggling sports team is threatened with relocation over off-the-field issues, fans of other struggling teams look around and wonder whether their franchise could be next.
In Major League Soccer right now, the threatened team is the Columbus Crew. Their owner has been making very public and very loud overtures to Austin, Texas, unsettling one of the league’s original markets.
And those other struggling teams? Well, one of them is a state border and a turnpike away, at least when it comes to public perception. In addition to perennially spending less on players than their rivals, the Union have ranked toward the bottom of MLS average attendance for a few years. Their overall lack of resonance in a sports-crazed region is no secret.
But MLS commissioner Don Garber isn’t worried. In an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News at the league’s headquarters on Tuesday, he offered a robust defense of the Union and owner Jay Sugarman.
“It’s a huge market. It’s an influential market. It’s a big sports market, as evidenced by the absolute hysteria around the Eagles winning the Super Bowl,” Garber said. “We continue to have great faith in the club, its ownership and the market.”
A recent report in the Delaware County Times returned to light a clause in the Union’s lease of Talen Energy Stadium which states that after 10 years, if the team’s attendance is in the bottom 25 percent of MLS, the team can pay the county $10 million and leave the venue. The Union have insisted that will not happen, and Garber does not expect it.
“Whether or not their attendance is what they want it to be today, there is a belief in the market; there is an absolute commitment on behalf of ownership; there is a terrific stadium; there is a good partnership locally with the city of Chester, and with the county,” Garber said. “No fan in Philadelphia should be remotely concerned about that team being anywhere other than where it is, and I would almost look at it as saying the team is not as appreciated, in my opinion, as it needs to be.”
Garber appreciates not just Sugarman, who serves on influential league boards; but also Richie Graham, the main investor in the Union’s youth academy. That part of the team is highly regarded, and not just by optimists.
“I have great faith in Jay, I’ve got great faith in Richie, and hopefully their strategy will pay off for them,” Garber said. “I believe that the Union should have a very strong following in a very passionate soccer market. I think it’s a terrific stadium, I think the location is fine, and I just hope that the team can continue to get more deeply connected with their fans.”