Photo: Nicolae Stoian
It’s too early to expand PPL Park.
Philadelphia Union isn’t ready to fill a 30,000-seat stadium, and Villanova University’s football program is so not ready for prime time (i.e. BCS) that the Big East’s latest lackluster attempt to imitate a top college football conference isn’t even funny.
Now that we got the obvious out of the way, let’s get down to the real issue here:
Because that’s what all this stadium expansion talk is about. In fact, it’s what the whole soccer-specific stadium idea was about in the first place. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, spinning, or omitting.
Yes, it’s nice to have the intimate feel of a packed, small stadium.
But the movement toward these stadiums was only partially about that atmosphere.
More importantly, Major League Soccer wants — needs — to control all stadium revenues. Otherwise, their ship is sunk.
It’s all about the green — cash, not grass
The Union control pretty much all revenue from PPL Park — ticket sales, concessions, naming rights, etc. They don’t own the stadium but rather lease it from Delaware County for $1 a year, paying payments in lieu of taxes alongside that.
When MLS began evaluating the Philadelphia area for an expansion franchise, this tenet was basically non-negotiable. MLS (through the local team) had to control all stadium revenues, or else no deal. As MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche told me for a 2007 story in The Press of Atlantic City, “It’s all about control. You control the revenues. You control the dates that you schedule.”
There’s good reason for wanting this. In the past, MLS clubs would pay rent to use pro football stadiums. It was a losing proposition, as they basically paid out more than they took in with scheduling that wasn’t optimal for big crowds. Considering how minimal TV revenue was, this was a dead-end path to collapse.
Today, the TV revenue situation still isn’t great for MLS. Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN televise the bare minimum that could be considered respectable, offering a weekly telecast and little more, and nobody’s getting rich off it. In comparison, the English Premier League and National Football League rose to their current lofty positions on the backs of TV revenue. With the EPL and other European leagues cutting into potential MLS telecast time, prospects don’t look good for significantly better revenue streams from either channel in the near future.
Creative stadium uses = revenue
So MLS clubs have to find other creative means of raising revenue if they want to grow, and miscellaneous stadium uses are a great way of doing that.
From day one, Union officials said PPL Park would host other events, and this is basically part of the plan for every MLS-controlled stadium. Hosting the collegiate rugby championship this June and the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament next year are great moves. So too would be concerts, if the team ever gets that far. With their great soccer atmospheres and optional alternative revenue streams, stadiums are the best assets that MLS has — if used well.
The problem, of course, is that PPL Park is in Chester, which isn’t exactly a favored tourist destination. The real estate crash and the subsequent difficulties developers have had securing credit have slowed down the multi-use development planned for around the stadium. (That’s a positive spin, by the way. Let’s be honest: There may never be any development around that stadium.) So PPL Park is a destination without any collateral locales that outsiders are likely to want to visit, casinos aside.
Villanova’s delusions of grandeur, Big East football’s delusions of legitimacy
Then along comes Villanova, with delusions of grandeur after some success in the second tier of college football, to offer a prospective new revenue stream.
And let’s be honest: They’re totally delusional on this one. The school has just 6,394 full-time undergrads, which would make it one of the smallest in college football’s top division, along with Wake Forest, Duke, and Tulsa — yes, all powerhouses [/sarcasm]. Villanova’s football team averaged just 8,573 in home attendance last year, while their road games drew 12,421 fans per game.
To make matters worse, Villanova sits in a market with professional teams in all five major sports, a situation in which college football teams rarely draw major crowds unless they’re a top 20 team. A move up to the top division would put Villanova football in the same spot that Duke and Wake Forest occupy in the ACC — perennial doormat — except it’d be worse for Villanova, because it has to compete for attention with five pro sports teams, unlike those other small schools located in areas that have zero major league clubs (Rice excepted). Sorry, but a few good seasons and Brian Westbrook don’t make you a major football program.
The Big East was initially happy to take Villanova football in only because the football conference has been floundering ever since Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College took off in 2004 and 2005. The conference’s football side has never been consistently strong or stable and spent the last seven years constantly trying to replace departing members to stay in good standing for the racket better known as the BCS. That’s why you get a Texas team (TCU) joining the Big East as a ninth football team. Geography and logic don’t matter in the BCS shell game.
Now other universities are getting cold feet because they realize the obvious: Villanova isn’t ready for top-tier football. Spin it however you like, but that’s a reality that’s important to remember when considering stadium expansion.
Expanding PPL Park only makes sense if …
PPL Park was designed to be expanded to 30,000 seats (see the 2010 video above), and sooner or later, it should happen. The River End looks like it’s missing a tier, and fans opposite the river have no big screen they can see for replays. (And now that Stefani Miglioranzi became the first to kick a ball over the River End and out of the stadium, it’s surely time to panic!) Had the Union not run out of money, they surely would have built the stadium to seat 20,000 or more at the outset.
But expanding to 30,000 will leave a lot of empty seats for soccer matches. The Seattle anomaly, with the Sounders averaging over 35,000 fans a game, is not the rule. It’s the exception.
A better parallel would be the Los Angeles Galaxy, who despite being a marquee MLS club, averaged 21,437 fans per game last year in a stadium that seats 27,000. The turnout is actually good, but those empty seats deflate the atmosphere. Last year, while in LA to report a magazine story, I went to a Galaxy game against the Columbus Crew. The announced attendance that night was 19,482, but the atmosphere wasn’t even close to as good as PPL Park.
An expansion to 22,000 or 25,000 seats at PPL Park seems smarter and more appropriate for soccer purposes.
For money purposes, expanding so Villanova can play at PPL Park only makes sense if a long-term — i.e. 15-25 years — predetermined revenue guarantee comes with it. I’m not so worried about three or four football games scheduled during the soccer season devastating the pitch, and the Union went on record last year saying that football lines wouldn’t mar the grass during soccer matches. The cost of adjusting to the addition of football might be outweighed by the fact that Big East football revenues could finance a stadium expansion the Union desire and will also eventually need. Likewise, it could dump more money into the team for player salaries as the team and league continue to improve.
Of course, that’s under the theory that Villanova football is ready for prime time, which it’s not and probably never will be.
But the idea of hosting football and other sporting events at PPL Park shouldn’t be off the table. It just has to be done in a smart and sustainable way that brings benefits guaranteed to exceed the cost.
Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing my first tractor pull there.