Interview / Sons of Ben

Meet Matt Gendaszek, president of the Sons of Ben

Photo courtesy of Matt Gendaszek, taken by TeCe Hunt

Look around Talen Energy Stadium the next time you hear the Sons of Ben begin one of their songs or chants, particularly one that ventures into more… “indelicate” territory.

You won’t see parents covering their children’s ears. You won’t see many incensed faces.

Though the Sons of Ben may be shouting some otherwise censored words from the “River End,” there’s a certain charm about the supporters group that gives them a pass. They mean no offense by it (at least not to the Union and their fans).

They’re passionate. They’re real. They’re having a good time and helping everyone else to do the same.

Interviewing Matt Gendaszek is a similar experience. Sitting across from the newest president of the Sons of Ben for our interview at Silk City Diner, I got the sense that Gendaszek was talking to me the same way he talks to everyone. Gendaszek is liable to curse here or there, but he doesn’t come off as offensive. He has a clear sense of who he is, and he isn’t changing that for anyone. Now, Gendaszek wants to bring that sense of identity to the Sons of Ben.

The newest president

After becoming interim president in June, Gendaszek became the permanent president of the Sons of Ben this offseason, but the Deptford, N.J. native has been a part of the supporters group since the Union’s first season. He has has embodied the spirit of the “SOBs” ever since.

“My buddy wanted to get season tickets on the sidelines,” Gendaszek says. “And I go, ‘Dude, I don’t want to be the guy on the sidelines with the soccer moms, and I drop an F-bomb, and we’re the jackasses. Why don’t we go join the Sons of Ben and be in the River End where it’s all rowdy and fun?'”

After that, Gendaszek began to make a name for himself within the group. Gendaszek, a marketing manager by day, is largely responsible for linking the Sons of Ben up with Yard’s Brewing Company. That partnership resulted in the Sons of Ben getting their own beer, the Sons of Ben Rowdy Pale Ale. Since then, Gendaszek has taken positions of increasing leadership within the organization — joining the board, becoming interim president after Bill Gusler stepped down, and ultimately choosing to retain the presidency for the upcoming season.

“We needed to have a steady hand on the helm,” Gendaszek says. “There’s such a passion for this group, and I wanted to see it through.”

Now, Gendaszek wants to turn that passion into progress.

Addressing the issues

The Sons of Ben are not without their problems. Attendance at Union matches has been consistently dropping over the past several seasons, and that includes the Sons of Ben. Those who remember the early seasons of an unrelentingly loud, jam-packed River End at every game may be taken aback by the large patches of empty blue seats that now often permeate the section.

“We’re almost a victim of our success,” Gendaszek explains, referring to the group’s escalation once MLS granted Philadelphia an expansion team. “The group stared with three guys. For two years, there were 200, 300 guys, tops. Then the team comes and there are over 3,000 members. They were like the third largest independent supporters group…  The wheels were falling off.”

Gendaszek credits the late and much-respected Kenny Hanson for stabilizing things within the organization, but after the team on the field continued to underperform, the organization undeniably continued to lose members.  “I don’t think we knew what the identity was… we got too big too fast.”

That’s a big theme with Gendaszek. He wants to refine the Sons of Ben’s identity and mission. He believes they can focus on what matters by boiling their mission down to three simple pillars:

  1. Support the team (“The team on the field,” Gendaszek specifies. “Not the front office. The guys on the field.”).
  2. Grow the game of soccer in the Philadelphia area.
  3. Give back to the city of Chester.

It’s a bit of a Catch-22, however, and Gendaszek knows it. He believes they need to simplify their identity and their mission in order to strengthen their membership, but how do you support the team well without the strongest membership possible?

“We need to do what we do best, and we can’t focus on the performance of the team,” Gendaszek says.

What they do best

“What do we do well?” Gendaszek asks himself.

“Well, we run a great tailgate. We can do that. We’ve got Neshaminy Creek and Yard’s [Brewing Companies] as sponsors. Even at the worst it’s burgers and dogs. If you’re a member, it’s 10 dollars. You can’t even get a beer in the stadium for 10 dollars, but with us you can get your fill.”

“We can raise hell in the River End. We can do that.” Gendaszek continues. “I don’t care if there’s two people there or it’s filled, let’s bring the noise… If the teams sucks, we’ve still got the opposing team we can boo. We can still have fun in the River End no matter what the result, and it sure beats the hell out of sweating your ass off for eight hours [at a Phillies game] hoping Manny Machado comes into town.”

For Gendaszek, focusing on the things that many people think of when they think “Sons of Ben” is the group’s best shot at returning to their strong identity.

“We’re going to concentrate on what we can do. We’re not going to worry about what’s going on on the field or [whether or not Jay] Sugarman has money. I don’t give a s—. We’re going to do what we do best. That’s what we are going to focus on because that’s what we can control, and we’re going to hold ourselves accountable.”

Not a cult

Gendaszek also acknowledges another hurdle: “”People ask me, ‘how do I join the Sons of Ben?'” The answer is simple. “Uh, go on the website, get your credit card out. You’re a member. People think it’s a cult.”

Joining the group could likely seem intimidating to outside observers. In many ways, the Sons of Ben are diverse: Their board is majority women, and the group has a strong LGBTQ presence. But the supporters group is homogeneous in other ways that can seem tough to break into. A short glance at the River End on match day shows that the group is majority white. Gendaszek assures readers and fans that this is not intentional.

“Are there a lot of African Americans or Latinos in our group? No. But they are welcome. Everyone is. You need to do two things: If you give a s— about the Philadelphia Union and if you like the sport of soccer, you’re in.”

“We’re open-armed to everybody.” Gendaszek says. “I’m really proud of the board members. They’ve been really good about including any groups from Black Lives Matter to Blue Lives Matter to LGBT rights. We’ve always supported that. Do all people… think they can be part of the Sons of Ben? I don’t know. But they are welcome.”

The supporters group is also comprised of a lot of original members, which is a two-pronged problem. It contributes to the drop in attendance and to the “cult-like” facade.

“When our members joined they were 20, 30 years old. Single. Then they got married. They had kids. They don’t have time for this,” Gendaszek says.

Those that do have time might make the experience seem exclusive to older members who joined at the start. That’s why Gendaszek plans on starting initiatives to reach out to new college graduates and soccer clubs around the area.

Finally, Gendaszek thinks the Sons of Ben can seem serious for the casual supporter. Indeed, some die-hards may want to take their role more seriously than others, but for the organization’s newest president, match day isn’t about that.

“We drink beer, and we sing songs,” Gendaszek says. “It’s not that f—– serious.”

6 Comments

  1. wish him and the SoBs well.

    Q: is there an updated list of various supporters groups available?
    i’d be interested in the groups that aren’t SoBs and their membership.
    Ed did a piece awhile back:
    https://phillysoccerpage.net/2011/02/10/the-other-supporters-group-the-corner-creeps/

    would be nice, 10th anniversary and all, to know the Corner Creeps or the other pockets of support that have grown organically and endured this…organization.

    • @chris Having seats below them for 3 seasons now, I’d say they’ve dropped a lot as well. Team’s appearance of lack of interest in staying competitive with spending has turned a lot of people away across all the groups.

  2. Love this guy…

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    “….on the turning the way.”

  4. Some thoughts as a sort of newcomer:

    I live in the Baltimore area. The SOB’s caught my attention when the Super Draft was (for some reason I still don’t get) held in Baltimore. When the fans w/o a team gave it back to the NYRB fans by chanting “we don’t have a team and we have as many cups as you do” I said to my young son “DC may be closer, but if they ever get a team we’ll follow them”.

    Flash forward a few years and I take the boy up 95 to see some games. When he’s old enough in my mind I get tix in the Rivers End (“Ok kid, don’t tell mom we did this!”). I quickly realize the extra travel time and tolls combined with standing and chanting for 90 minutes are far more digestible and fun than driving to and sitting in Orioles Park trying to stay awake watching 9 innings, and I got home earlier.

    The only problem was for years I would talk to SOBs at the Union games who’d point me to the website for information about joining. Whenever I tried to engage through the website about making TIFO, road games, song suggestions, etc., I’d get crickets. Always. Totally lacked any sense of customer service. So I never joined. Until Jess finally responded to me last season about a game in DC; it blew me away b/c she ACTUALLY communicated to me more than once and friended me on FB. Total shock. At the DC game in August I brought 4 yard signs: No one likes us / No one likes us / No one likes us / We don’t care on the front; We’re from Philly / F’n Philly / No one likes us / We don’t care on the back. Spent $50 on those. We got lots of cheers going; but the folks who engaged us were all Union employees; no one came up and said “hey, are you an official SOB??”

    My take on the SOBs – poorly organized; they need to engage more, be more responsive, update their webpage more often. A couple of months ago I put out a question regarding possibly carpooling up from Maryland – again crickets. But I bit down and bought 2 season tickets and an SOB membership, and have committed to make some of the non-game events. Depending on how it all goes in 2019 we’ll see about 2020 and beyond.

  5. I am a founding member/season ticket holder and long-time SoB member – my seats are mid-field, where cheers are few. I often find myself at the Union Ale House, and think about standing with the Sons. Will I be able to gain access without a River End seat? It might be a good way to fill a few seats with some dedicated fans.

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