In addition to the subjects covered in Wednesday’s main story on the Union’s business side, Tim McDermott spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News about a range of matters. Among them was the team’s relationship with the Sons of Ben supporters’ club. Here’s a transcript of the conversation on that subject and a few others.
For the home game against Chicago in late September, you noted on Twitter that Talen Energy Stadium was sold out, thanks in part to a record for the “largest group sales ever” at the venue. It’s interesting to contrast the success of group sales with the look of a half-empty River End, which is where your core fan base is. Is it possible that you’d rather not be filling the seats by group sales, if you could?
I think it’s fair to say that our aspirations are, and they continue to be, to have a completely full house every single game. For us, that’s being around a 12,000 season-ticket holder base. We’re at a 9,500 or so season-ticket holder base right now.
So for us, if you get to a 12,000 to 12,500 season-ticket base, you will effectively sell out the stadium every single game, because you’ll have 3,000 or so group tickets, you’ll have another 2,000 or so single-game tickets. And then just naturally you’ll have a handful of complimentary tickets because you have tickets for the players, the staff, the visiting team, so on. That’s really how the model looks.
At the end of the day, I 100 percent think the Sons of Ben are very critical to us as a team. As the Sons of Ben go, so do we in a way. I see them as so important to us. I love their passion, I love their energy. We meet with them very frequently, quite frankly, on: what can we do to help you guys?
There’s this unique balance that we have to have with them, because they are an independent entity. The genesis was, and is, their independence. So we want to respect that. But we also say, “How can we help? Tell us what you need. We’re here to help.”
They’ve asked for more capo stands, and we’ve done that. They’ve asked for more of the tifo poles, and we’ve put those up.
One of the things we’re looking at for next year is the location of the Sons of Ben tailgate area, which is currently in that direction [in Lot D]. One of the things that I’ve observed is I don’t think that’s the best place. I think it’s just not. From an awareness standpoint, I think they are too far removed from the stadium.
People seeing the festivities that they have, that’s not happening as much as I think it should, and I think it would be beneficial for them. So we’ve spoken to them about moving what they’re doing out there, and getting it closer to the stadium.
Would you try to get them back to the plot of land between the stadium and the Delaware River that used to be their tailgate site?
No, it’s going be in a corner of Lot B. Putting them over there and just trying to help them from that standpoint. Getting them a little closer to the stadium, closer to the vibe. We feed off of one another. So the energy they create will create more energy for the rest of the fans that see them. And I think as people park in Lot C and they walk to the stadium, and they see the festivities, they’ll see the Sons of Ben.
I think that’s a better place for them, and quite frankly, it’s just a nicer place for them as well.
Are you going to fully pave Lot B at some point?
It’s a matter of prioritization. To me, if you said, is that the thing where I would put my next dollar? No, that’s not where I would put my next dollar.
I went to the Super Bowl a couple of years ago in San Francisco, at the new stadium, and at the Super Bowl, it was unpaved. They had paved lots as well, but the place where I parked, which was a major parking lot, was unpaved. I’ve been at the Buffalo Bills’ stadium*, and while they have paved lots, they also have massive amounts of unpaved lots, just like ours.
So to me, yeah, that’s a nice thing, don’t get me wrong. But I think there’s other areas that are more of a priority and more strategic for us, in terms of getting the brand wider, that I want to spend more of our energy and more of a focus on.
[* – McDermott’s brother Sean is the Bills’ head coach.]
There is a criticism of this organization that in making a choice between any two such things, you ought to be able to do both, because many other MLS teams are able to do both. Montreal, Orlando, Portland and Real Salt Lake are examples of teams that have a track record of that.
First of all, I would say that every time I have asked Jay [Sugarman] for something, he has said yes to it. As long as we present a well-defined, well-thought-out plan, he has been extremely open to those ideas. That goes back to doubling the size of the ticketing staff, increasing our staff on the sponsorship side of the house, increasing our marketing staff. He has been completely on board with pretty much everything I’ve asked of him.
And I also say this: Jay has consistently funded this team to the tune of millions of dollars every year. He has never taken a dime — never taken a dime — out of the Philadelphia Union, and has said he will never take a dime out of the Philadelphia Union. He continues to fund it every single year, even though we are not a company that makes money. He continues to fund it with millions of dollars. So he is committed, and he is doing whatever he can to continue to support that.
I think for us, we are in a situation where our stadium is 18,000, and it’s not a 40,000-seat stadium. It’s not Atlanta’s stadium. So there are going to be some opportunities that teams like that do have, given the sizes of their stadiums. And if you have a fan base that’s 40,000 fans, they’re going to generate some more revenue. So it just means for us: How do we work more unconventionally? How do we try to take the underdog mentality and think differently about the things that we do?
How far in the red are you?
Jay funds it in a significant way every single year.
Any thought of moving the away fan section so that it’s not at the same end of the stadium as the Sons of Ben?
We talk about this all the time. In some regards, as you know, this was put there from day one. So me, as the new guy coming in, I see where it’s located and that’s probably one of the first question I had. Why do we put the visiting supporters next to the home supporters? Is that not just putting oil and water together?
In fairness, it’s probably only twice or three times a year where you’ve got a situation that a Red Bull fan base, or a NYCFC, or D.C., you’ve got a situation like that.
As a result, we talk about it and decide what is the best thing to do. Is it to relocate? The challenge of relocating those visiting supporters is, at some level, keeping everybody in that area of the stadium together. If you’re not the type of person that wants to sing or chant or dance or whatever, it’s confined. And from a security standpoint, it’s also confined.
When you start displacing the fan base, you start getting into a situation where if the visiting team sits somewhere else, you might have some home fans, Union fans, that specifically bought tickets in a separate part of the stadium because they didn’t want to sit next to visiting team supporters. So we’re always trying to balance that out.
This is one that I go back and forth on, and I can probably make cases for or against where they currently sit.
Might the case for changing things involve going to those Union season-ticket holders and saying, “We need to do this, and you guys need to move”?
Yeah. You know, look. I always put my season-ticket holders first. So if they don’t want to move, and that creates a really negative situation in their eyes, those are our customers and that’s not what I want to do. That’s not what they had signed up for. But that being said, we also have a responsibility to ensure that our stadium is always a secure stadium and a safe stadium.
So if I felt that because of the visiting-team supporters and their location, if I felt that was getting into a situation that was no longer safe, then we would take measures to adjust that, 100 percent.
We actually did some of that last year, which not everybody loved us for doing, but at certain times of the year we’d get rid of drink bottles and we’d pour into cups. While not everybody loves that, it’s because I wanted to ensure that there is safety for everyone in the stadium.
It used to be that for some big games with many traveling fans, the away fan section would be moved one section over. That allowed the security staff to be on both aisles. And you knew if you bought season tickets in that section that it was part of your deal. Is that something you would consider going back to?
It’s an interesting idea. I’m not so sure moving over one section is any different than having a huge gap between them. I don’t think 20 extra feet is the solution.