Philadelphia Union's business challenges include SEPTA, broadcasts, and ticket sales

Union chief business officer Tim McDermott’s roots in the Philadelphia region run deep. He grew up here, and still believes deeply in what he calls the “blue-collar, tough-as-nails passion” of local sports fans. He doesn’t hesitate to cast his city and his team as underdogs.

McDermott also knows that Major League Soccer has built its core fan base on creative-class young professionals who revel in soccer’s standing as the global game.

How does McDermott square those two views of the landscape?

“It’s really interesting what has happened because you are seeing a movement here, and there is a new Philadelphia here,” he said. “In this town, I think people appreciate and revel in the fact that we bring our lunch pail to work, and that’s who we are. At the same time, there is a new foundation of young millennials coming that bring an unconventional nature. …  I don’t think it’s either/or. I think it’s a combination of both.”

McDermott speaks of wanting his staff to “look and act like young, fearless challengers.” He concedes that “we’re not always going to get it right.”

At this moment, some things aren’t right.

The team’s average home attendance was the worst in its seven-year history: 16,812 per game. That’s nearly 2,000 fans short of Talen Energy Stadium’s capacity, and ranks 19th out of MLS’ 22 teams. In 2011, the team’s first full year in Chester, the average crowd was 18,259.

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Crowds would grow if the team starts winning, or if it signs better and more recognizable players. But McDermott’s job is to sell the experience of a soccer game in Chester no matter who’s on the field. That’s why the Union’s ticket sales staff has doubled since he took the job in January 2016. The sponsorship sales and marketing staffs have increased, too.

McDermott said those efforts resulted in the team’s highest ticket-sales revenue since 2013, and the first year-over-year increase since 2011. He also said there was around a 20 percent difference between tickets sold and tickets actually torn at the gate. That figure was “not too different than what it’s ever been.”

The team’s season-ticket base is around 9,500. McDermott wants to grow it to 12,000.

One way to do that would be improving public transit access to the stadium. Many soccer fans who pack bars in Center City to watch European games on Saturday mornings don’t want to trek to the suburbs on Saturday nights.

McDermott has been studying a program run by the Chicago Fire that uses bars in the city as departure points for buses to their stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., southwest of Midway International Airport. Fans buy tickets for those bus trips in addition to their game tickets.

The Union run a free shuttle bus from SEPTA’s Chester Transportation Center regional rail station to the stadium. McDermott has looked at using the AT&T station on the Broad Street Line as the pick-up and drop-off point instead.

“That is along the lines of what we are considering,” he said. He didn’t want to guarantee the change will happen, but he called it “a fair concept.”

Other tasks this winter include negotiating a new TV deal with NBC Sports Philadelphia, as the current deal expires this year.

“We have enjoyed our partnership with the team, and look forward to covering them next season and beyond,” the network said in a statement.

McDermott wants to add radio broadcasts for Union games, though they might be online instead of over the air.

“Given where today’s society is, and technology, I think that’s not a stretch at all,” he said, adding that it’s “something that we’re zeroing in on for next year.”

He also wants Spanish-language simulcasts of TV games, and perhaps a radio deal, to reach what he calls “an audience that’s growing fast” in the region.