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To expand or not to expand?

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:

Money.

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.

17 Comments

  1. I have always said that I would love to see phish there!!! It would be a beautiful site for any concert.

      • The stadium was designed and built to host concerts. The center sections of TRE are a bleacher-type scaffolding structure that can be easily dismantled as needed.

      • I can’t picture the inner ring/concession area being able to handle more than 20,000 people. It gets ridiculously crowded as it is during halftime. I think if 10,000 seats were to be added, someone is going to have to take a serious look at the speed at which the concession crews work. I have yet to engage in a timely food run with good service.

  2. Ed Farnsworth says:

    I welcome expansion of PPL Park according to the needs of the Union and a time line of their own choosing. There is absolutely no reason for the stadium to be expanded unless there are bodies to consistently fill the seats and, as anyone who has been to any of the “sellouts” of this season or last can attest to, empty seats remain in PPL even at its current capacity. That said, I have no doubt that capacity will need to be expanded in the next five years – how totally exciting that will be, too.

    I also understand the need to make money and so I understand the need for PPL to be used for additional events. Not that I am pleased about it. The pitch at the multi-use Wembley Arena, for example, has become a terrible joke.

    However, I never, ever want to see PPL Park used as an American football field. You may not be worried about the effects of three or four American football games being played at the end of the MLS season, but I am, and I suspect most Union fans share my concerns. One or two rainy football games and the pitch at PPL is screwed. DC United is worried about the scheduling of one Howard University game this September at RFK because the pitch there was so damaged from a single football game in December that it was difficult to repair in time for the start of the MLS season in March. Anyone who has been at PPL Park has observed that the pitch seems insufficiently recovered from the end of last season with no events in the interim, as not inconsiderable areas of the pitch seem to consist of not of grass but sand that has been painted green.

    And lest anyone forget, the dimensions of an American football field are smaller than a soccer field when it comes to width. PPL Park’s dimensions are 120 yards x 75 yards. The standard dimensions of an American football field are 120 yards x 53 1/3 yards. In terms of width alone, that means the outside 10 or so yards on each side of the soccer pitch will have 50 or 60 people on both sides tramping back and forth during the three plus hours it takes to play an American football game. I know the Union don’t have much in the way of wide play at the moment, but, c’mon.

    • Good find on the RFK piece. It does make me reconsider a bit. Not a ton though, largely because I don’t realistically think the Nova thing will happen. And even then, such a deal should have an escape clause allowing the Union to kill the deal if the field damage can’t be minimized.

  3. Great piece Dan. At 30,000 seats, PPL would still be way to small for top-tier college football and ‘Nova would not be able to make enough money to survive the jump, if they could even fill it. From day one they’d be looking for a larger future venue.

    This whole proposition just doesn’t make sense.

  4. “However, I never, ever want to see PPL Park used as an American football field. You may not be worried about the effects of two or three American football games being played at the end of the MLS season, but I am, and I suspect most Union fans share my concerns.”

    Color me concerned.

    I remember my high school days when the football team would practice on our pitch. All it took was one session with those cleats to completely destroy the surface. I never, ever want that to happen to PPL.

    I think the field looks amazing right now. I was watching RSL last night and Rio Tinto in Sandy looks awful…

  5. The whole idea of football at PPL just marginalizes what the Union have accomplished so far. I’m good with other events but please no football.

  6. OhioSteeler says:

    Soccer and American football do not mix. Why can’t nova use Franklin Field? I havent been there in almost 20 years but it is the correct size and it is designed for American football. Actually Villanova does not need a stadium seating over 18K. They will never draw that much unless they play the Fighting Irish. Let them play in Franklin.

  7. Freddy Shoop says:

    BIAS ALERT – Dan Walsh – Like Fox News – Fair & Biased. “From Linked-In” – Dan Walsh – Education •Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey-New Brunswick. BTW-Congrats on Rutgerfest – what a glorious night for Rutgers.

  8. Villanova “not ready for prime time” get a life Stupid statement!!. I am a 25 year season ticket holder of Villanova basketball and football and a UNION season ticket holder. Nova has been ranked in the last 4 season OVER Notre Dame, Rutgers, Pitt, Temple, even Alabama in the sagarin ratings for football. The team will have a pick in this years draft over any team in Northeast. I go to the games.i know. Also Villanova never does anything “cheap” or to “lose”. A small school has 20 National Championships in NCAA, 4 Final Fours, 78 NBA players, 89 NFL players, 57 Olympians and one every year since 1946, 68 individual NCAA track and field champions and 42 professional baseball players. Only Stanford has more championship per student then Villanva. Also while you are busy trashing Villanova you might want to consider many of us are soccer and Union fans (and season ticket holders like me) and the two people, Ed Rendell and Dominic Pileggi BOTH went to Villanova and made the PPL Park thing happen. My tax money helped pay fot the stadium. Nova’s not ready for prime time because we already are!!! More money is made and will be made by Villanova then the Union will ever make and furthermore once the Big East Football thing is done Nova will be on National TV over 23 times a year. PPL park not only wants Nova it needs Nova and the Union who I love can’t make it here in the long run without more paying customers. As far as the Big East total net revenue was close to 80 milion about 5 times MLS net. I would not as a soccer fan call the big east and Villanova anything but successful. The new TV contract being negotiated by the Big East will be greater than the entire MLS (180,000 million per year) If no one showed up for the games at PPL Park the share would make the team break even. See ya at the first tailgate…Nova of course.

    • then have your university build you a bigger stadium on the main line..you think nova kids want to go to chester? they wouldn’t be cheering the game they would be too worried about mommies benz getting messed with..

    • Dan Walsh says:

      OK, so I’m reading this late, but —

      Nova has a nice 1-AA team. (No, I’m not bothering with the stupid new names for college football divisions.) But it can’t even sell out its current 12,000-seat stadium. That means the football team isn’t ready for prime time. They’ll likely draw well for the Delaware game because of the rivalry and location, but that won’t tell us much.

  9. i love american football but it ruins soccer fields. you can’t play on them. It’s like gouging out golf greens with a golf clubs. the ball won’t roll properly. that’s not important in american football but how the ball rolls is key in soccer just like golf (or good ice in hockey). The game suffers and people can’t pass the way the game was supposed to be played. Those that don’t care and never played the game may not understand how important unchewed up grass is but those that are knowledgable know it matters.

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