Culture / Opinion

The case against soccer-specific stadiums

Photo by Daniel Studio

MLS 1.0 was played on football fields with soccer lines. Short on cash, the league rented its way into existence, relying on soccer moms, profitable NFL owners, and lots of debt to make its start.

Venues included RFK Stadium for D.C. United, Gillette Stadium for the New England Revolution, Giants Stadium for the NY/NJ MetroStars, and even the Orange Bowl for the Miami Fusion. All were big football stadiums where soccer was a sideshow.

MLS 2.0 was built on soccer stadiums. Still short on cash but high on potential, the league welcomed supporter’s groups and accepted even more debt as it truly grew roots.

Columbus (now Mapfre) Stadium in Ohio, the Home Depot (now StubHub) Center in Carson, CA, Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX, and, of course, PPL (now Talen Energy) Stadium in Chester, PA. All are small soccer-specific stadiums, built on cheap land away from downtown.

MLS 3.0 is being built on a combination of both 1.0 and 2.0. The goal is a downtown stadium where soccer is the only ticket in town. Though some teams stretch those rules (Seattle, New York City FC, and Atlanta all come to mind), this is the template — a full stadium and a focus on the product on the field.

As Earnie Stewart said about Talen Energy Stadium after having his team’s turf damaged by a non-soccer event, “As far as I know this is a soccer organization. Otherwise it should have been an entertainment company or something.”

Agree to disagree

Here’s the problem with that mindset: Sports is entertainment.

Sports is the best soap opera ever written, the most visceral drama ever performed, and the most naked display of theatrical humanity most Americans ever get to see. Every coach, every player, every practice, every game, every jersey design, every licensing agreement, every decision that every single person involved in every sports organization makes is for the purpose of entertainment.

All one needs to do it ask an owner — perhaps famous Dallas Cowboys protagonist, Jerry Jones.

His $1.15 Billion stadium in Arlington, TX is a palace of entertainment that also happens to host 8 professional football games a year. Designed to watch America’s game, of course, all levels of football rent some time on this field, including youth, high school, and college. There are obvious stadium standbys, too, including parking, pubs, a pro shop, and TVs around every corner (more than 3,000 of them, to be exact).

Each of these characteristics are standard stadium revenue generators. The Union have them at Talen Energy Stadium, however nascent. However, because Jones has committed to entertainment under all circumstances, they are merely minor details in a much more grand scheme.

At AT&T Stadium, there are also enormous lounges where weddings and divorce celebrations, proms and LAN parties, nights out or nights in can all be held. In fact, there are enough separate, fully functional, indoor spaces, enough parking, and enough overall acreage that all of these things could be happening at the same time and no participant would know any other group was there.

There are small museums paying homage to legends of the past and walls covered with fascinating things to look at — just the art collection is worth the price of admission ($32 for a VIP tour, another way to generate revenue).

The field is where the largest, highest revenue producing events happen, though. The Cowboy Classic and the Cotton Bowl, Manny Pacquiao and professional bull riding, a memorial service for American Sniper Chris Kyle and a night to honor Navy Seals (with a stage, tables, and a bar on the field, no less), WrestleMania and the evangelical gathering Harvest America, MonsterJam, SuperCross, a Spartan Race, two international assemblies of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, and Ed Sheeran.

Next year, AT&T Stadium will host the NFL Draft.

It’s not a football stadium. It’s a place where people go to be entertained.

The case for versatility

This isn’t an argument for bigger stadiums, though — Atlanta and Seattle are just the first examples of how both big and small soccer stadiums can work in MLS. It’s not an argument for the NFL or the Cowboys either — too many other franchises all over America understand this concept and execute it every day. This isn’t an argument for downtown stadiums, either — location is important, but AT&T Stadium is almost the exact same distance from downtown Dallas as PPL Park is from downtown Philadelphia.

This is an argument that entertainment groups come to grips with who they are, create diversified streams of income through the infrastructure in which they’ve invested, and (in the case of the Union) reinvest that money toward one higher purpose: making the soccer team better.

It’s not about big, small, football, soccer, NFL, or MLS. It’s about realizing what you are.

17 Comments

  1. I Am Citizen Insane says:

    Stone dead argument. Bullseye.
    .
    The chance for that waterfront area to become a destination with outside the box thinking is right there…with a whole lot of money.
    .
    Course I’ll be dead, burned and floating out to the Pacific through a Colombia River estuary by then.

  2. Matt McClain says:

    Talen Energy formerly PPL was built using public funds. Has to be a facility that hosts multiple events for revenue streams. It will never be soccer specific.

  3. Location is more important than you give it credit, but certainly in regards to the product on the field (a large portion of the “entertainment factor”).
    Lowest attendance numbers, distance from city center (season rank):
    22. Dallas – 28 miles (13/22)
    21. Colorado – 9.5 miles (20/22)
    20. Columbus – 5 miles (5/22)
    19. Philadelphia – 18.3 miles (16/22)
    18. Chicago – 15 miles (3/22)
    Notice a correlation?
    ——-
    To relate that to your point, if the entertainment factor is not there, location matters a whole lot. Chicago was very good in the standings but their location is awful – so was the environment entertaining? The Union have been disappointing for years, so the drive to and through Chester does not always seem worth it for busy family, especially mid-week with the traffic. On the other hand, during the 76ers tank they routinely averaged between 10,000 & 12,000, which is pretty great for a team that won 10 games. The arena is much more accessible than Talen and the game ATMOSPHERE was entertaining, even if the product was not.
    ——
    Going one step further, if the freakin’ Union could freakin’ win something that would probably help their attendance.

    • I understand what you are saying, but I’m not sure the correlation is there like you think it is. Attendance numbers do not take in to account stadium size, for example. It would be more accurate to your point to correlate distance from City Center to percentage of stadium occupancy. Face it, the Union will always have less people attending than Atlanta based upon pure capacity; even if they put the stadium at Love Park.
      .
      Just a thought.

    • Berks County Native says:

      Please explain how TES is any less accessible than Wells Fargo Center is? You have a freaking off ramp that delivers you right to the stadium from I-95. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

      Traffic sucks going to and from any one of the Philly sports venue every day of the week. The Schuylkill Expressway sucks, the Blue Route sucks, I-95 sucks.

      If this team was competitive and challenging for a playoff spot every season, TES would be packed. Full stop.

      Union will never be near the top in attendance as long as TES has a capacity of 18,500. Had the team sold out every match this season, we would have only been 16th in the league.

      • I can take the Broad Street Line from Center City and be outside the Linc in 15 minutes. Trains run frequently and there are even Express trains before and after games with limited stops.
        .
        If I want to take mass transit from Center City to TES, I have to ride the Regional Rail which only runs hourly, and then walk over a mile through Chester to the stadium or transfer to a shuttle bus. If the train times aren’t synced with the games, I either have leave the game early or wait around Chester at night for 45 minutes after the game.

      • You’re still driving to the stadium. What if there’s a wreck on the ramp, or bridge, or 95? I live in Delco, Talen Energy Stadium is 3 miles closer to my house yet it takes me 10 minutes longer to get to than Wells Fargo – and I don’t have to deal with 476 or 95 either way. You can also get to WFC from places like Norristown or Bensalem via Septa. I’m not referencing suburbanites that drive from north and west of the city or NJ, which to be fair is most of the Union’s fan base right now.
        ——
        As for attendance, those were listed by % capacity, NOT actual number, although those are similarly sized stadiums so both lists are similar. I don’t care that Atlanta gets 48,000 compared to our 16,000, but here’s the issue – if we can’t fill up a stadium with 18,500 seats, then there’s no way we’re fillinf up a stadium with 25,000 seats. So the number isn’t the story, but how come they can fill that many seats but we only get 16,000? Winning is important, but isn’t location a factor in that as well?
        The attendance if they played at the Linc would almost certainly be higher. I have no scientific proof to support this, but through observation and general experience I’d venture there’s somewhere between 2,000 & 5,000 fans that are not willing to drive from the city to TES but would take Septa to the Linc. It may be simple preference – “I hate 95” or something like that, but still, that’s an extra 5,000. Location makes a difference, one way or the other, especially to the casual fan who may be deterred by travel.

  4. Enjoyable informative read. Thanks.

  5. Nice read Chris. We head over from south Jersey for games. And park in the grass lots a block away. Its a 35 to 40 min. ride. It would be nice to see the area built up. There is plenty of land and the people who take care of the lot are very nice. I have to believe that the community would welcome any improvement. I also feel like the state and local transportation agencys have dropped the ball!

  6. John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

    I’m still puzzled by people who don’t take the train. The only problem I have with it is it runs hourly. Product on the field is the biggest reason for decline in attendance in my opinion.

    • In general, people take mass transit in lieu of driving for one of three reasons: cost, ability, or convenience. There are few locations in the greater Philly area from which it is more convenient to take mass transit compared to driving because of the timing of the trains and because most people don’t want to walk a mile through Chester each way between the Highland Avenue station and the stadium. Granted, some people probably also take mass transit for environmental reasons, but this is probably a small percentage.

    • Most games start at 7 pm, but we have had 8 pm starts in the past (Saturday and Sunday). A 7 pm start means the game ends around 9. The trains back to the city are at 8:58 and 9:57. Given that you are likely to be back at the station around 9:20 or so…that’s a long wait. It syncs up well for 7:30 games, but when do we ever have a weekend game at 7:30? As for 8:00 games that end around 10 pm, you have the aforementioned 9:57 train (so you have to leave the game early), or 11:52. I don’t know about you, but a 1.5 hour wait is not acceptable for me. And the 11:52 doesn’t run on Sundays, so an 8 pm game on a Sunday means you’re not taking the train back to the city.

      • A smart move by the Union would be to set their start times to match up well with Septa schedule for post match.

  7. The stadium should have been bigger. Perhaps that would incentivize cheap Jay Sugarman to spend money – to fill empty seats.

  8. Section 114 (former) says:

    Yes, the team was new, but there were a lot more butts in the seats at the Linc back in 2010. But the Eagles aren’t in the business of free rent, and Chester is.

  9. For a stadium NOT to be multi-purpose/functional these days is a huge waste in resource and creativity.
    A soccer-specific stadium is about as useful to the community as a yo-yo. I’m not arguing that is can’t be the main purpose, but MLS needs to join the trending “wisest-use of resources available.”

    • I completely agree. The field argument is silly, everyone deals with weather concerns and multiple events on stadium surfaces. Turf can be changed in 2 weeks with the proper preparation and practices. Temple wants to build a stadium, let’s use that tax-payer money and split a 25,000-seater with them down in the Navy Yard!

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