Fans' View

Fans’ view: A surprise meeting with Jay Sugarman

Photo: Earl Gardner

Thursday afternoon as I was sitting at my desk grading papers, my phone rang. It was Mark Evans, Director of Fan Services for the Philadelphia Union, calling to see if I was available on Friday at 11:30 am to join Jay Sugarman and a few fans for a roundtable discussion.

My heart leapt. And then I realized that there was no way I could go to the meeting and make my 2 pm flight to Denver.

Trust me, I thought about moving the flight. I’m flying out to hang out with my niece and take in a Rapids game. Yes, I’m hoping to see Zac.

So, it was with great sadness that I had to tell Mark that I couldn’t make the meeting.

Friday morning, as I was waiting for a friend to take me to the train station, Southwest emailed to say the flight had been delayed until 3 pm. After a quick check of time, I canceled the ride and hopped in my car to drive to PPL Park.

I got there just in time.

Meeting with Sugarman

It was a small group. Along with Jay Sugarman, chief revenue officer Dave Rowan, vice president of marketing and communications Ashley Dabb, and Mark Evans, were five Union fans, several of whom I recognized. I was the only female fan present – representing those soccer moms out there.

From the start, Sugarman was clear that this meeting was a frank discussion and nothing was off the table, not even the helicopter.

Having never met him before, I thought he would be very cold and detached. It didn’t bode well to me that he’d only spoken at one press conference in five years.

He is nothing like I had pictured in my mind.

Sugarman was actually very welcoming at the meeting and even hugged me afterwards as I left. It was quickly apparent he is a passionate man who loves this team and wants to win as much as we do. He was also very clear it’s not only important to him to find the right people — players, staff — to move the team forward, they must have the same love and passion for the team we do.

Listening to him talk about his vision for the Union, it became evident to me he is not an absentee owner. He watches everything – from the performance on the field, to how long the lines are at the concession stands. He pays attention to the details and wants to make things better.

It was clear to me that he is a methodical man who is willing to do what it takes to make this team great, but is only going to spend money if it makes sense to further the organization, whether that’s money spent on players, facility development, or the USL team.

As he mentioned in the email to the fans today, he feels that one of the top priorities is a Sporting Director. He has specific criteria in mind but what stood out to me was that the Sporting Director must be someone who is as passionate about the Union as we all are, someone who wants to be in Philadelphia.

Going out on a limb

In the spring, I went to the meeting Jim Curtin had with the Sons of Ben. I left that meeting optimistic and got a fair amount of flak for it.

Well, as I write this on a plane to Denver (thank goodness for in-flight wifi!), I’m going out on a limb again. I feel much better about the direction of the club after this meeting. I think the plans Sugarman has, coupled with Dave Rowan stepping in, are great steps toward “righting” the ship. And I am hopeful that we will have a Sporting Director by the end of the year. But, if we don’t, I know it will not be for lack of trying, or lack of resources, it will be because they haven’t found the right person.

He said during the meeting that, while he isn’t the kind of owner who will be front and center in terms of being the face of the club, he will work to be more public. I hope he continues to meet with fans, whether in small groups or in town hall style meetings, because it’s important for fans to understand he cares as much about the club’s success and failures as they do. We all want to understand his vision for the club, and it is good for fans, and for him, for that vision to be expressed personally and without filters.

I feel fortunate to have met Sugarman, I know not many fans have had the opportunity to do so. Hopefully today’s meeting means that’s about to change.

Ad Finem Fidelis.

35 Comments

  1. Good to hear and glad you had the opportunity to participate.
    I find it curious his passion hasn’t driven him to address this earlier. Honestly, too orient for my liking. The sporting director was a priority shelved for the right candidate. The length of that search was absurd.
    I’m cautiously optimistic.

    • The Little Fish says:

      Perhaps having Sak on the search committee made the search yield unsatisfactory candidates. Now that he’s been removed far better candidates will hopefully emerge.

  2. I don’t doubt Mr Sugarman is now very sincere about wanting to develop a winning a team (STH hold his feet to the fire this is the only way to get Sugarman et al to make any change). I feel better now knowing Jay watches to see how long the lines are at the concessions and I hope that the wait time gets to be much shorter as long as he is associated with the team.
    There is a lot more that the fans should be able to expect from a MLS organization in MLS 2.0, such as a star player or two (Mo Edu doesn’t count)like a Robbie Keane or Drogba. Also can he do something about the BIMBO jersey sponsorship. I will always associate this with Sakewitz. This team has a long way to go and I don’t see how Sugarman can improve on this, having mismanaged the team (and alienated the fans) for 6 plus years. Sugarman has to go a lot further than meeting with a few fans to turn this mess around. When I look at this roster there is nobody I would pick for a league XI team. I hope he or someone in the FO reads this.

  3. The Realist Brian says:

    Sak was the first step. Sugarman needs to sell the team. We are out until he is gone.

    • I disagree that we are out. I think he has earned a new chance with us as fans. What he does with it is up to him. Time will always tell, but right now, with Sak gone, we have a heck of chance to be better.

    • Section 114 (former) says:

      I’m still out. But would consider coming back now if I saw something that means change. I don’t care whether (i) Sugarman was in on it and has learned, (ii) Sugarman made a mistake staying out of it and has learned, (iii) Sugarman has recovered economically and will now spend, or (iv) Whatever.
      .
      But I’m not coming back until, (i) we have a real GM or whatever they want to call it, (ii) spending happens, and in a smart way, and (iii) Peter Pappas takes a ride on The Fabinho Solar Rocket, off the Cliff of Union Dispair, or joins Andy Reid in KC (and JPD and the replacement get to go to road games).
      .
      I’m watching and you have a chance to get back my season ticket money. But I expect I will still have it, and if it doesn’t change this offseason, I will join Brian and accept the blame is on The Helicopter. If that happens, I won’t be back until a sale.

  4. Paul Costa says:

    Thanks for sharing, Staci. I’m looking forward, not backward, and feeling optimistic. Jay’s got a ton of work to do; I just hope he has the resolve to see it through.

  5. Atomic Spartan says:

    Mr. Sugarman’s criteria for a Sporting Director are sound, reflective of a good deal of informed thought. I do not doubt his passion and thank him for finally – FINALLY- pulling the trigger.
    .
    But the inordinate delays in firing Sak and finding a SD are indicative of a trait that could continue to hold this team back: he seems to take too damn long to make critical decisions.
    .
    If OZ is heading the SD short list, the list is too short. And the decision deadline is much too long. Wait till the end of the year to hire an SD and we will be in the same boat we were in this year – not enough time to get the right people in so they can be evaluated and given time to gel as a unit. That means a slow start, another hole dug in the standings, and fewer butts in the seats.
    .
    Mr. Sugarman, please expedite your decision. Time is limited, and giving an SD enough time to put the 2016 edition of the Union together is a critical success factor.

    • +1 . . . the SD decision actually needs to be made before NCAA players in our Academy can declare for the draft. We need someone to decide if they are worth signing to Homegrown contracts before they become fair game for everyone . . . (3 1/2 years since our last Homegrown signing by the way.) It appears Madison is heading this direction and will likely be a top 10~15 pick if we don’t make him an offer. We need an SD in place before the end of the year to determine if his off field issues outweigh his on field performance.

  6. DoopTilIDie says:

    I think teams in the MLS now are trying to get big names to get fans in the stadiums. Orlando City is spreading interest in Cristiano Ronaldo, linking him with Kaka for bait. This Union franchise is not going to go for a name to draw people. They are moving towards a solid foundation and long term (hopefully)success. It would be great to get a name here, but I think the league is still a few years away from drawing big names consistently. That being said, if they signed Ronaldo tomorrow…, at least they don’t dangle that in front of us and are clear that will not happen in order to sell tickets.

  7. The Little Fish says:

    Glass half full guys. Come on! Seriously. Now that Sak is gone the candidates for sporting director will definately improve. Think about it. Would you want to work under Sak? Or under Sugarman? We’re going to get somebody good. I just know it. Let’s don’t assume we’re screwed on a great day like today. This is the time to dream…

  8. The Oenophile says:

    What Mr Sugarman and colleagues need to do ASAP is interview STH like myself — a founding member and STH since 2010 — who have not renewed for next year, ask them why (in detail), and make an effort to get us back.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Staci – that’s the first time that I’ve heard about someone benefiting from a flight delay. What a great experience and thanks for sharing it wth is.

      +1 Oenophile. I’m in the same category. I like this reorg, but I’m still waiting to see what happens next.

    • I agree. I’m a Founding Member too, but I did re-up for the upcoming Season 7. He should 100% get a group of people who didn’t re-up and chat with them. That is where you find out some true info.

  9. el pachyderm says:
    April 26, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    .
    Here’s my suggestion.
    .
    REWRITE YOUR ENTIRE BUSINESS PLAN. Scratch the one you have- NOT working- – unless that is, your goal in this thing is to be A LAUGHINGSTOCK. If being A LAUGHINGSTOCK is the business plan, congratulations Mr. Sugarman and Mr. Sakiewicz,(well… not anymore) you are a resounding success.
    .
    If being a LAUGHINGSTOCK is not your business plan, book a plane ticket Mr. Sugarman and Mr. Sakiewicz, (well… not any more) hop on an airbus to Amsterdam, tour the city for a day or two, enjoy yourself then go directly to the Ajax Academy – find your future coach and assistant coach there. Hire an American GM familiar with MLS laws, bylaws, and dark corridors.
    .
    Invest in these 2 things for the next five to seven years. Hoist the MLS Cup, The Supporters Shield or the Lamar Hunt Cup or all three- go for it- win a treble. Allow your money to make more money for you as people from far and wide decide they want what you have- they want your youth players, they want your veterans, they want your brand.
    .
    Do the smartest thing you have ever done, hire someone from one of the greatest academies and clubs in the world. There is AJAX spawn all over the globe. Find him. Hire him. Give him the keys. Rejoice. Revel.
    .
    .
    .
    I rescind the overly ruthless view of this club being a laughingstock….though in truth… there are still many laughing I imagine…. and it is still clearly dysfunctional. I do aim to repeat this post from late April because nothing else has changed in my POV.
    .
    I appreciate your words Mr. Sugarman and now more than ever believe how we feel about you matters. I’m even half convinced you read these pages searching not for, ‘flamethrowers’ but honest inquiry and criticism as to how you can be better. In truth…the smartest thing you can do sir is read these pages as the very heartbeat of your sacred club resides here. This is Our Union too sir. Good luck and God Speed…Oh… and book that plane ticket — – Amsterdam awaits!

  10. The Realist Brian says:

    So I have been reflecting on this meeting, and the firing of Sak… The thing that I keep coming back to isn’t that fans were voicing their displeasure with Sak. My view is that many, many fans didn’t renew, through the offers of 7% off through last Thursday. That, my friends caused Sugarman to act to deflect the ultimate blame on himself. Has his MO changed???- NO. He continues with the shoestring budget mentality and stating that they have to be extremely effective with their money decisions. That is more of the same minus Sak-of-shit. It had to be the lack of renewals and that was hurting the bottom line.
    .
    So it is great he was attempting to listening to fans, but he has to open the wallet to reinforce the team, and not play small/money ball tactics. They haven’t worked, and it is damaging the franchise. My fear is that some of the potential HGP won’t want to sign here (rumor is Keegan Rosenberry doesn’t) because of this small club mentality.
    .
    We are the 4th largest media market in the country. If the league was smart, they would push for a major investor to buy the team and elevate the status of the Union.
    .
    We are out for our two seats next year until SIGNIFICANT changes are made by this non-Philadelphian. And we paid a pretty penny for those seats. #SugarmanOut.

    • +1, Thanks for stating more effectively what I tried to get across. This is a large media market and Sugarman ( or the next owner ) should have a player salary budget commensurate with this.

    • The Oenophile says:

      I am curious — how many STH did not renew by the deadline? Any way of finding out?

  11. Staci again thanks for the synopsis. I received the email about “Front Office Changes.” While I was ecstatic about SAK leaving, I’m still not satisfied with all things Union. Since the beginning I have driven from NYC to PPL Park to attend no less than 3 Union home games. I normally squeeze in 5 while attending Union games a Pink Cow Arena and this year I went to Yankee Stadium. This year however, I only attended 2 games at PPL Park. Why? Because it’s not worth it to me if the product on the pitch is shite(Barnetta was a great signing}. From the beginning starting with that logo defacing a beautiful kit, from Nowak to Curtin I attended games at PPL Park. I have weathered storm after storm. Now in spite of the way too over due dismissal of Sakiewicz I am still at my wits end with this organization. Sugarman is just as responsible for this train wreck as Sakiewicz. Typical of the Unions weak attempt at trying to placate the fans, they held a special invitation only meeting to a select few while not giving out any specifics about what really happened at the meeting. Sporting Director by the end of the year? I would like to see a Sports Director put into place immediately. Way too much time has passed since they “starting looking.” I also think that the culture and lack of transparency of this organization is off putting. I am hoping that someone at the Union will go into greater detail about what was discussed particularly from the fans in attendance point of view with regards to questions and answers. Time will tell. Again thank you Staci for your post. It is appreciated.

  12. If Sugarman writes this check… this, “we are going to find the right people, and hire them, and take this club in the right direction”… blah blah blah… check, and can’t cash it… he has to know that he will be burned beyond recognition by this fan base. We are forgiving as people. I try to live by the Spider-Man rule – Everybody gets one. This is / was his one. He has to know that. As I’ve said in just about every post I’ve made since this news broke… time will tell… but this is, no doubt, a step in the right direction. Let’s do this together Jay. Let’s get this right.
    .
    Excellent post. Thanks for the inside view. Wish I had got that call 🙂

  13. Old Soccer Coach says:

    1. So it was Sugarman I saw walking the concessions restrooms concourse earlier this year. Double the width of the restroom doors, please.
    .
    2. When I picked up the scarves before the USOC Final at the Fan Services table, the rep began to go after me about renewing before I had recovered from being surprised by his question, which was off-putting. As long as I can come up with the money and can see detail on the far side of the pitch, I will renew, all other things being equal. My eyes will probably be the limiting factor.

    3. I doubt Sugarman himself reads blogs and emails. However an intern may do so and provide summaries and digests.
    .
    4. The details revealed about Sakiewicz’s contract with ownership deserve further scrutiny, because discernible inferences tend to challenge the way the relationship had been portrayed in the media both by club and by journalists.
    .
    First, he was not part of voting ownership; he could have become so had certain performance goals been met, but they were not met and he has been relieved of duty. It is clear from both the SoB movie and journalistic descriptions of the creation of the club that Sakiewicz had ambition, vision, management experience of significant value, and lacked ownership-like capital but probably had a nest egg from the sale of the Metrostars to Red Bull of Austria.
    .
    Now is when I begin guessing. Sak goes to ownership-like capital that knows nothing about either starting a franchise or running it, but likes the idea of owning a team and tells that capital what he can do for them. Foremost, with full credibility when speaking to a real estate investment trust man based in New York, he can say he successfully built a soccer stadium in a challenging environment [note beckham’s troubles with that problem in Miami; note NYCFC’s similar troubles in greater NYC]. As a team owned stadium turns lease fee expenditure and concession/parking revenue shutout into concession/parking revenue stream and other uses fee generation, Sakiewicz’s demonstrated skill set has clear monetary value.
    .
    Furthermore, he has senior management experience running an MLS soccer team with two different organizations. The first fish went belly up, but the second was bought up by a larger fish, perhaps with a nice return for outgoing ownership.
    .
    Sak has a valuable skill and an identifiable opportunity for a business startup. Sugarman knows nothing of the soccer business or building their stadia, but sees an opportunity. [It is tempting to juxtapose the Swarthmore undergraduate diploma with Swarthmore’s well known long-standing concern for and interest in the city of Chester, but that is post hoc fallacy thinking only – no evidence.]. Sak says give me capital and I will build you a soccer team cum stadium that will be worth X after five years, if you cede me full operational control. If I succeed you turn my B non-voting shares of stock into A voting shares and a voting seat on your board of directors. Sugarman agrees. Sak gets a chance to jump from management to ownership. Sugarman gets a chance to learn while being publicly distanced from responsibility, and at the end of five years a functioning business that has tangible value, whether or not the value matches the investment put in.
    .
    The statement that not a dollar has been taken out not will one be so taken for a very long time says that the business model is that the club generates the revenues used to create further club growth. The stadium’s profitability is key. A declining season ticket holder base threatens that business model as el pachyderm and many others have effectively explained many times.
    .
    It would stand to reason that other segments of the overall organization associated with other minority owners probably in general follow the same pattern. The initial large capital investment creates something that generates revenue, that revenue in turn being reinvested to produce further growth. Rocket Sports’ reincarnation as YSC fits. I don’t know enough about the academy and its school to guess except to say that conventional education gobbles lots of money.
    .
    Sakiewicz did not meet the target for increasing the value of the initial investment. He’s out, and Jay Sugarman has learned by watching. How much he has learned and how well he will utilize his knowledge, we outsiders will discover only through the passage of time.

    • Old Soccer Coach–
      I enjoy reading your postings and this is further proof of your careful thoughtful analysis.
      That being said, while I agree that this change is necessary, I don’t delight in anyone like Sakiewicz losing his job.
      Say what you will, he clearly had passion, he was major catalyst to bring professional soccer again to this city, and that product is much more stable than previous entities.
      I wonder if he hadn’t been focus of such personal vitriol by certain fans, perhaps a less prominent role could have been found for him that moved him out of CEO decisions but still allowed him to maintain a connection to the team he helped to establish.
      And no, I don’t know him, never met him, and I am not a fan of stadium in Chester, the logo emblazoned on the jerseys, the goalie situation, and other matters, but I understand the logic and necessity behind those decisions.
      There is quite a bit we fans don’t see going on behind the scenes, as we are primarily interested in results. While M’Bolhi was in retrospect a horrible move, the idea of a “seasoned international veteran” to mentor Blake wasn’t a bad one…just poorly executed selection. I like MacMath (and Danny Cruz) but there may be an element we are not privy to that explains not only his loan but also his inexplicable riding the bench in Colorado, a team that clearly could use a change of face in between the posts.
      Look, guess my point being that we fans demand so much more from people involved with the union like Sakiewicz that we forget they are human, and that the team is human, not machines. EVERY sports team struggles with finding right mixture of players and tactics, something Sakiewicz did have some influence but not sole responsibility. And even when they find it, perfection isn’t guaranteed. Phillies found it in 2008, came close a year later, then had 102 wins, and to Sugarman’s point, packed the house every night because “winning does that”. Now they are not just worst team in baseball but suffering attendance numbers worse than the Union.
      Sports are cyclical. Chelsea and Barcelona can attest to that this year. And having the most expensive team(Yankees) or deemed “most talented” (Nationals)is definitely not a guarantee of success.
      So while every sports columnist worth his/her salt loves a headline like Sack Sakiewicz, I personally am uncomfortable at how this passionate fan became the sole target of so many commentators on this site. I personally don’t know the man, but I am pretty sure he isn’t the boogeyman nor monster some would have you believe.
      Which is why I appreciated your post, Old Soccer Coach. Fair and honest.
      Thank you.
      UnionGoal

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I appreciate this post – very much. I will skewer this club over and over when justified often times using language and analogy and metaphor and hyperbole as tools to convey meaning … but there is without question a humanistic aspect that must always be balanced and considered. I value when others highlight that as a means of keeping ‘us’ in check… it needs to be our covenant.
        .
        I’ve seen Mr. Sakiewicz smile personally. He is a person … strengths, weaknesses and flaws and all. I have no doubt this club matters deeply to him.
        .
        My offer to him remains unchanged: well wishes and good luck.
        .
        I’m also glad we are moving in a different direction. Let’s hope the trajectory is proper.

      • Uniongoal, you talk about cycles. And you are right there are cycles. The Union were stuck in one. One of promises, followed by hope, trailed by an inferior product on the field, leading to coaching change. Then the cycle would start all over.
        .
        Sak, I grudgingly will agree, deserves credit for his startup of this franchise. He also deserves responsibility for being unable to put a competitive product on the field. Yes, not all the player moves in the team’s history are his responsibility. But his hiring of the managers are. Add to that his lack of hiring a sporting director, and a search that still goes on.
        .
        Where he really started losing me was his inability to understand his fan base. What we love and appreciate in our area is honesty and hard work. Yeah we like wining. Who wouldn’t in a town where it comes so infrequently. Where the joy of champions has been snatched from our grasp time and time again. But we appreciate the honest effort more. We love the guy who tries hard just to make the cut. We also love the guy who admits when he screws up. The guy who takes responsibility. Contrition. It’s a key element to winning our hearts and minds.
        .
        This is where Sak failed. His inability to admit responsibility for M’bohli was extremely disappointing. His pushing the blame off on Chris and Jim, repeatedly, is appalling. He committed two cardinal sins. Lying and blaming others to cover up your mistakes is telling. It calls into question the legitimacy of every word coming out of his mouth. It calls into question one’s leadership ability. It makes me question the heart of the individual. Mistakes happen. We all make them. I probably more than most. I can live with mistakes. I can live with trying hard. I can live with failing for awhile. But eventually even that would need change. But I would still love and respect them. I can’t respect what Sak did. I can’t respect blaming others for your mistakes.
        .
        Sak is probably a good man. A good father, husband, friend. He is not a good leader. He is not a man I would trust. He hasn’t earned that here. I wish him and his family well. No mater how badly he did with the team, I don’t wish ill will on him and his. But I also wish to never see him again. I hope he gently rides off into the sunset, letting time soften bad memories.

      • The Oenophile says:

        Well said.

      • Old Soccer Coach, UnionGoal,
        Thank you both for your insightful posts. It was pleasure reading them.

        K2

    • Great comment. Sharp insights.

  14. Thank you, Staci.

    Question 1: Did he talk about the helicopter? What did he say?” nothing was off the table, not even the helicopter.”

    Question 2: What did you offer as changes? Or let me put it another way, if you were hired as his consultant, what would you offer as advice?

    Question 3: As sole woman in the room, did you at least bring up the logo emblazoned on the uniforms? Would love for that to change to another sponsor. Or at least use their “Bear” logo instead.

    Thanks again for posting your account of the meeting. Loved the part about seeing Zac MacMath–hope he plays keeper when you go later today.
    UnionGoal

    • Q3 – i thought of the NWSL FC KC and their Borden logo: be careful what you ask for http://365.worldsoccershop.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/KansasCity_FC.jpg

    • 1. Not much, but I got the impression he was aware that he was getting lampooned for it.
      2. I brought up making it affordable for families – perhaps allowing us to bring food in as you can at other stadiums. I also reiterated my comments from my Jim Curtin post earlier this year – I’m OK without having a big name, provided we have players that are given the tools to win.
      3. I am one who is not bothered by the logo on my jersey.
      4. Sadly, all I got was a hug from Zac, no playing time for him.

  15. Thanks for the article. But, for those of us who were not there, what was specifically discussed? What did you and the other fans bring up to the Union officials? My only take-away from the article was that you were impressed with Mr. Sugarman (because he seemed to care) and that he is looking to hire a Sporting Director (which we have all known for over 10 months).

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