Photo: Earl Gardner
Philadelphia Union have seen great change in its leadership in recent months with the departure of Nick Sakiewicz, the arrival of Earnie Stewart as Sporting Director, and more recently Tim McDermott as the new Chief Business Officer.
After Sunday’s home opener, PSP talked to Sons of Ben president Ami Rivera, who recently began her term as president of the supporters group, about her thoughts on the changes at the Union, as well as a variety of other topics.
On new leadership at the Union
The end of 2014 saw unofficial protests in the River End aimed at Nick Sakiewicz, with further protests being a part of the Sons of Ben’s march into the stadium in May of 2015.
Rivera spoke about the conflict at the time between wanting to support the team and the desire to give voice to reasonable concerns about the direction of the club
“By the end of last season, I think that everybody was just at the pinnacle of frustration,” Rivera recalled. “And when you have that many people involved, and the problem seems so clear that it’s at the top and trickling down, it was easy to point a finger. It was just hard to figure out how to deliver it, how to properly voice your frustration to feel like you’re representing everyone while still doing what we believe in so highly, which is to support the team. But, you know, it was never aimed at the players.”
Rivera described how the changes that came at the end of 2015 — the departure of Sakiewicz, the arrival Stewart and later McDermott — has resulted in a wide sense that things are improving.
“When Sakiewicz was out — and I don’t want to see anybody lose their job — there was this instant feeling of change,” Rivera said. “And then when Earnie came in, there was that other piece to the puzzle — you knew there was change.”
She explained further, “I got to talk to Earnie, as did a lot of members at whatever events he was present at, and he’s so honest, and so forthcoming, and so clear in what he was going to do, it was refreshing. For one, there weren’t promises, it was, ‘This is how I think it will work,’ and it made sense when he said it. And now, having met Tim [McDermott, the new CBO], and getting the season underway, we’ve had some opportunities to talk with the FO and things just seem a lot better. They seem lighter, more focused, energetic.”
Rivera spoke positively of the efforts McDermott has made to reach out to the Sons of Ben and other fans.
“Tim actually came out to the tailgate [before the home opener], wanted to see what we were doing, and wanted meet some people — he was very hands on about it,” Rivera related. “He’s asked for our feedback and wants to get to know the fan base. He even wanted to join the march. It’s that type of hands on delivery from him that I think is going to let him get to know his fans, which is another piece that I feel like has been missing for a little while.
“So, I think the feeling from us overall, from everybody I saw at the tailgate, is optimistic. Very positive at least to know change coming — and we’ve seen it already.”
The bottom line will be continued improvement on the field. As Rivera put it, “I’m hoping that we need a lot more money for smoke bombs.”
“I want you to be here for the right reasons”
2017 will mark the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Sons of Ben. And while the organization’s ultimate success lies in Philadelphia Union taking the field for the first time in 2010, the Sons of Ben themselves continue to evolve. But through that evolution, as new members join the group and new leaders emerge, knowledge and respect for the work put in by the group’s founding members is important to Rivera for through that the focus remains on the group’s mission — to support the team.
Rivera explained that evolution was at the heart of her address to members before the march into Talen Energy Stadium for Sunday’s home opener.
“Part of the conversations that have been going on for a few years now has been changes we’ve seen in the organization, and part of that is a natural progression and a natural evolution of the group,” Rivera said.
“Every year you’re going to get new members. Every year you’re going to get people who are just testing us out to see who we are and what we’re all about. And so there’s a reeducation that I think needs to happen on a regular basis so that the efforts of the people who started the Sons of Ben are fresh on everybody’s mind, and the mission of our group is fresh on everybody’s mind.”
Rivera continued, “You can be here, and have been here, from 2007 but, if you’re just showing up, you may not know who these people are and what they put in, and what we’re trying to do. So, part of it was really…You know, I started the whole speech by saying, ‘Let me take you back to 2007 and explain where we’ve come, and why we’re even here today.’ And I ended it by saying, ‘I want you to be here for the right reasons.’
“If you’re here for the cheap seats, this isn’t the place for you. And if you’re here for the shirt off of a player’s back instead of congratulating them for making a great save or goal, then it’s the wrong reason. I want you to be here for the right reasons, and I drilled that at the end: I want you to be here to give that team your all. We are a supporters group, and that’s what we’re here for. That’s our primary function, that’s our primary purpose. The Sons of Ben are here to support the Philadelphia Union every single day that that team is in existence, from first whistle to the very last. We are here to give them our all.”
Tifo infrastructure and lightning poles
When PSP spoke with then SoB president Kenny Hanson in 2014, he acknowledged the group’s message, as manifested in its tifo displays, “sometimes…is lost throughout the rest of the stadium.”
The reason is simple: It is not a question of artistic talent or will. Rather, the setup of the River End is such that the infrastructure is not in place to hoist the kind of spectacular displays produced in multi-level stadiums in Portland or Seattle, displays that easily capture the attention of the national media.
Hanson said at the time producing more spectacular tifo displays is “a priority,” and that the Union and the SoBs were exploring what could be done, although he added, “On the other side, it’s not cheap, either. So we have to evaluate those things as well.”
Needless to say, new rigging has not materialized.
Rivera told PSP, “What we ended up finding out was along the River End there are also lightning poles, and the guidelines are very stringent as to obstructions to that — where they need to be positioned, how high they need to be positioned — and to put any kind of rigging up to be able to do rigged overhangs is nearly impossible the way the stadium currently is — and if possible, insanely expensive. So, it is something that the Union actually looked into with us. We tried a couple of different designs, tried pricing them, and they all just seemed a little too intense for us to be able to do.”
For now, tifo displays will continue as they have in the past. “You saw the overhang [at the home opener], you saw them all last season. I honestly think they’re fun to get people to lower the overhangs themselves and kind of be a part of it. I don’t think it took anything away from us but it is frustrating that we couldn’t get it to happen.”
Looking ahead, Rivera said, “I’m sure it’s not off the table. I don’t know what they’re current plans are as far as the stadium and growing it, I think their focus is where it should be right now, which is on the quality of the team.”
She added with a laugh, “I’ll give up having rig poles if the team is great.”
Changes to the River Cup
Rivera told PSP that changes could be coming to the River Cup.
“When River Cup started it was between the Front Office and members of the board and Sons of Ben who were looking to kind of…I mean, almost like a grudge match. It started out and it was great, people were highly involved, they were excited to see it. It has since been evolved into kind of a charity event for the Philadelphia Union Foundation.”
Other events have since been held in conjunction with the game, including a beer fest last year but, Rivera said, “it just doesn’t seem to have the same draw of people that it used to.”
She explained, “So, we’re exploring more ideas as to how to get other people involved, maybe change the game completely. We’ve thought about different ways to not only support the charitable effort side but to have people come out and have a good time. We don’t necessarily want there to be just one SoB team. It would be nice for people to come out to be able to do things too, kind of like the Flyers’ Wives Carnival, where there are different types of events that people could pay to be a part of.”
At present, nothing is set in stone. “Right now, it’s just ideas on a table and we haven’t really set anything in stone,” Rivera said. “We just want to make it a fun event for everyone to come out to and be one of the few family events that maybe we do and have a part of.”
“It was weird there was no notice”
When it came time for the National Anthem at the home opener, many were surprised to see the Union use a featured singer. After all, as the announcement before the anthem has said for years, it is sung “by you, the fans, as is our tradition.”
Asked what she thought about the change from the crowd leading the singing, Rivera expressed the sense that perhaps it was a one-off “because they’ve approached the idea before at big games.”
For herself, Rivera said she prefers fans singing the anthem. “I think it’s always been so nice to have the fan base be part of it and I still think it would be nice,” adding, “So, maybe it was to kind of kick things off but I think it is important that the fans are involved. It’s something that we look forward to, it’s something that we’ve always been involved in, and I think it’s nice to get that input from the people. Although, she did a very nice job.”
On being the woman president of a supporters group
Rivera was recently included in an article from Howler Magazine looking at gender equality in MLS supporters’ culture. While not the first female president of a MLS supporters group, she is the first female president of the SoBs.
Rivera explained, “Howler reached out to me and asked a few questions about what’s it like to be a female president and have I experienced anything in regards to that, and women in sports in general. And to be honest, I think I’ve been around so long that people were familiar with me, so I haven’t really had anyone ask me why I’m not in the kitchen making a sandwich or something [laughs].”
Rivera continued, “I think people were, for the most part, were pretty receptive, or just happy when operations run the way they want them to run. We have always had a female presence in the Sons of Ben — I think a pretty strong female presence, actually. We’ve had, at least the four or five years I’ve been around, we’ve had a female, if not more than one, on the board. We’ve had Tina Eunson and Kelly Christine Delaney, we have Gerry Hendrix and myself, we have Karen Hill and Mollie Suitch. We’ve always kind of had that involvement so when they asked me what it was like, I said, ‘Honestly, it’s fine.’ It hasn’t really come up. I mean, they know I’m a girl, I know I’m a girl, but it hasn’t really affected anything.”
Rivera did say with being a woman president “there’s definitely a different perspective.” She explained, “When I gave my speech [at the home opener] it was nice to hear as many people as I had come up to me and say, ‘Thanks for saying that, that was spot on,’ or, ‘Really good points that you made.’ But I did have a lot of women, actually, come up to me and say, ‘It was really good to see you do that.’ Which was cool. Maybe it opens things up a little bit or makes the group seem more accessible, I don’t know.”