Union hosts “Beyond Soccer” summit on sports for social change

Photo: Casey Pladus

It’s January in 2009 and, at 25 years old, you have just been let go from a job that paid $5 an hour. Now without funds, you’re forced to schedule your job search around the soup kitchen’s open hours. Then seven days after being let go, the inevitable happens: you are forced to relocate to an intake housing center and are suddenly made a roommate of 1,000 strangers. You are jobless, homeless, and overcome with uncertainties.

This is the story of Chris Lodgson, the keynote speaker at the “Beyond Soccer” summit held at PPL Park in Philadelphia on Sunday. The event, sponsored by Beyond Sport and Street Football World and backed by Major League Soccer, The Premier League, and Barclays, brought together professionals in the sports industry from six continents to discuss how soccer can be used as a tool for social change.

The beginning of Lodgson’s story was not much different from the stories of over half a million other Americans that faced unemployment in January during the Great Recession. His story, however, took a much different course after accidentally walking into a local soccer match and meeting Lawrence Cann, founder of Street Soccer USA, an organization that uses the power of soccer to help homeless women and men transform their lives. With no sneakers, shorts, or prior soccer experience, Cann provided Lodgson with the necessary gear and invited him to play with the group, whose players also happened to be homeless.

“It was refreshing…for the first time, I forgot where I was and forgot who I was. The rest, as they say, is history,” Lodgson said.

Just after a month with the team, Lodgson moved out of the shelter and enrolled in community college to pursue a degree in accounting.

“The program staff…endowed me with a rich abundance of positive social and cultural capital which I used and used well as a springboard to propel myself forward. Seemingly overnight the resources of football became my resources. The networks of football became my networks. The power of football became my power,” Lodgson said. “Day after day, practice after practice, I began to heal.”

The fans are the community

His story mirrors thousands across the world whose lives have been dramatically changed through the beautiful game. Because soccer is the highest grossing global sport, earning approximately $28 billion annually as of 2011, professionals in the sports industry are hoping to tap into its rich financial and cultural resources to change the world one community at a time.

And that is why over a hundred registrants from across the world convened in Philadelphia to “network, learn, and be inspired.”

“This event has the ability to shape what they are going to do and what they are going to focus on so that they can make a bigger impact,” said Alexandra Chalat, Executive Director of Beyond Sport.

Chalat herself is familiar with the Philly soccer scene having graduated from University of Pennsylvania in 2005 before relocating to London. According to Chalat, it’s the fans of local sport teams that can make a huge difference in the communities they inhabit.

“The fans themselves are the community. Especially with the Union being in Chester and it being a sport a lot of inner city people are interested in, fans should care because a healthy community means a healthy business. The more the Union gives back to the community, the healthier the community will be…and the team will be healthier financially and physically. That’s shared value…you are the community.”

Union fans already making a difference

While the Philadelphia Union Foundation is still young, Rick Jacobs, Union Vice President of Business Development and Executive Director of the Philadelphia Union Foundation, believes the fans have already begun to make a difference.

“Our new 50/50 raffle allows fans to potentially walk away with 50 percent of the net proceeds of the raffle that runs in stadium each game and the other 50 percent minus some costs goes to the foundation so our fans are participating in helping us raise money every time they are in the stadium,” Jacobs said.

The fans, however, aren’t alone in their efforts to make a difference in Chester. The players, coaches, front office and even the ownership of the Union have all been on board to make a difference in the community.

Once the ownership decided on Chester as the location of the team, “part of the vision moving forward was to be a big stakeholder in the community,” Jacobs said.

It’s no surprise that the impassioned Sons of Ben, the supporters group for the Union, have also been working tirelessly to improve the conditions in Chester.

“The Sons of Ben started in 2007 to help bring a MLS team to Philadelphia,” said SoB vice president Corey Furlan. “That was the original goal and…we realized that when this was going to start happening, we wanted to make a difference in the community as well, especially given the circumstances surrounding Chester.”

According to Furlan, banding together to make a difference in the communities comes natural to soccer fans.

“We as soccer fans are really passionate people. This is what we care about. We’ve always had to be passionate because not everybody in the States cared about soccer, so we had to show them through our passion that this is what it’s about and it’s about more than just coming down here and supporting the Union. [The Union] is why we come here but that’s not what it’s all about.”

The Union and Sons of Ben will join forces on Oct. 6 during the annual River Cup game that pits the Union’s front office and technical staff against Sons of Ben’s best players. The proceeds from the game will go to the Union’s foundation to continue to support those in Chester.

At this moment in Chester, someone is facing a situation similar to that which Chris Lodgson found himself in. With a community that provides a safety net for its people, that person, like Lodgson, might find the support and encouragement needed to start over. And that help might come in the form of a little round ball.

“Bring football and its power to the huddled masses…bring football and its power to the homeless and to the hopeless…lift up the light of the world’s game. Give them not rest but resurgence. Give them what was given unto me,” Lodgson said.

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