Culture / Front Office

Are college students the answer to Union attendance woes?

Photo: 215Pix

We’ve all seen or heard about the Philadelphia Union’s ongoing match attendance issues. This isn’t just a Union problem, the New York Red Bulls have had to tarp off sections of Red Bull Arena. The Chicago Fire are supposedly undergoing a rebrand and leaving Bridgeview for Soldier Field to increase attendance and interest. Union CBO Tim McDermott recently held a “social-media roundtable” where attendance was a main topic, with the idea of the Union playing a match at UPenn’s Franklin Field or Lincoln Financial Field in the near future. But would a match in Philadelphia, not Chester, even attract the casual sports or soccer fan who hasn’t made the trip down to Chester? There is one group that would go, and one the Union should target: College students. To learn more, and for an unbiased view, I conducted a small scale survey at my university, West Virginia (shoutout to Jack Elliott and Ray Gaddis).

Interest and Ticket Prices

The first, and most obvious, question is if there is actually interest in attending a sporting event, especially one where not many follow, like a MLS game. So, if a college student had the choice between watching at home or going to a sporting event (in this case, a Union match) the vast majority choose to go. Out of the 65 participants, 55 (85%) would go, compared to 10 (15%) that would watch from home. While this percentage is unsustainable in a larger population, it shows that if more college students are aware of the Union, they’ll make more of an effort to go to a match. Becoming more aware of the Union will also increase the interest, and use of the Union’s new “Student Rush” program. The program offers college students a free ride from the city on the “U-Ride” bus as well as a ticket to the match for $10, not including a $2.75 fee. Tickets can be bought for either the video-board endline as well as the River End. The thing that concerns me the most about the program now is that currently, there is no warning on the website that the River End is the supporters section and what is expected of fans in that section, such as standing and singing the entire match. With a student rush program, 63 (97%) said that they would make use of it.

Student Rush Program Results


The student rush program also helps in addressing the issue of ticket prices to a match. On the Union website, the cheapest tickets are available for $27, not including fees. Normally I pay around $18, again not including fees, for seats in section 117 on resale sites like SeatGeek and Stubhub. In the survey, there was more of a mix in answers to what a college student would pay for a ticket. With options of $10-20, $20-30 and rising to $50+ for a ticket, it should not be surprising that the cheaper options had the most selections. $10-20 and $20-30 both received 18 selections (28%), followed by $30-40 with 11 (17%), and then both $40-50 and $50+ with 9 (14%). With $10 tickets from the student rush program, as well as the Union’s ongoing buy a match get a match promotion for the month of May, the front office is actively trying to fill the stands.

Ticket Price Results

Clearly there is interest among college students for a program that offers cheap tickets and free transportation, why wouldn’t there be? But would a move into Philadelphia help increase attendance even more?

Location, location, location 

It’s no secret that MLS prefers its teams, current and expansion-candidates alike, to have a stadium located in a city center or downtown area. But does location really affect turn out that much? Do the benefits of a more accessible location via public transportation outweigh the cons of higher land costs and city council politics (David Beckham’s Miami), as well as additional space for training fields and parking. College students face this issue much differently than MLS obviously, but the majority still agree that a stadium should be located in the city. Conversely, when posed with a stadium 30 minutes outside of the city, much like the Union’s current situation, the vast majority would have no issue attending a match.

Downtown Location?

Stadium 30 minutes away

The specific problem that the Union struggle with in their location is the lack of public transportation available to and from matches. While the club has been making strides, the U-Ride program is a good start, there are still some issues with it. The U-Ride busses only pickup from 2 locations: Brauhaus Schmitz and Smith’s Restaurant & Bar, and the ride isn’t free, costing $15 for a round trip. That’s only $5 cheaper than parking at most lots at Talen Energy Stadium, some unofficial lots are even cheaper. With struggling attendance, the U-Ride program should be cheaper, or even free, not as another source of revenue. Fans should be spending money at the stadium or Union Shop (its free marketing), not spending it on getting to the stadium. Back in 2015 I went to a game at Red Bull Arena (with fellow PSP contributor Rob Simmons), taking the train up to Harrison. It’s quite a hike from the Harrison train station to RBA, so there were busses to transport fans who had a ticket, free of charge. The Union are now running an almost identical operation, with free shuttles picking up fans from Chester Transportation Center. To their credit, SEPTA has also added trains at 10pm and 10:30pm for fans to be able to take public transport after the game. While public transport is not much of an issue for college students, the U-Ride is free with the student rush program, students still agree that shuttle services should be offered, something the Union have only recently offered.

Shuttle Services 

Bottom Line

The Union have been struggling with attendance, but so have other teams in the league. But, the team is winning and currently sits in first place of the eastern conference in early May. Fans often complain about the lack of name recognition on the field, Marco Fabian should help with that, and we all saw the buzz the Mario Balotelli rumors created. The Union may never have a Zlatan or Nani wearing their shirt, which doesn’t seem to bother college students. For them its not about superstars or winning, its about having a good time. Stadium atmosphere is one of the things the Union have actually done very well, the pregame drumline and hearing the Sons of Ben make a Union match the most unique pro sports experience in the city, something they should be proud to boast about.

Why you go to a game

The Union have made good strides so far this season in attempting to solve attendance issues. Are college students the only solution to increased attendance? Absolutely not. But, the Union have the pieces, being a great atmosphere and great soccer, at a cheap price, that can turn college students into lifelong supporters. Only time will be able to tell if the Union’s efforts have truly paid off.


  1. College students? Sure. But look at where we live. Philly is a significant metropolitan area with a lot of ethnic diversity that hails from soccer-loving cultures. Why are we not hitting the African, Southeast Asia, AND Latino populations?

    Furthermore, you want to bring them in young? Look at Talen Energy stadium. If BHS are now playing in Chester, why not promote heavily in the local community and offer discounted tickets? Helping our USL side also grows the game. Just my $.02

    • Sean Griswold says:

      I agree with you that Steel attendance is abysmal right now. The Steel are actually offering discounted tickets through summer reading programs at Delco County and Southampton libraries. Kids up to 18 can get free Steel tickets and parents can buy discounted tickets to go with them. At least it’s a start

    • Steel tickets should be free.

  2. Great One says:

    These are all good points. In my opinion, The location being 20 miles from center city doesn’t hurt as much as the fact that it’s in Chester. Most people coming in are simply not going to (or don’t have options to) hang out before or after the game around the stadium. You have to specifically be going to the game and then leaving just after.
    If the stadium was say near Parx or neshaminy park, or Norristown or Fort Washington; I think the attendance would be better. Walkable distances from Septa, close proximity to 95, 276, 309, plus stores and restaurants and such nearby would all help. Also those areas have more population closer by.
    Ultimately winning is what will help, and growing general interest in the game. The stadium itself is awesome and beautiful, it’s just not the ideal spot to go.

  3. I don’t discount any potential source of attendance out of hand, but the Union has a college within easy access to Talen Energy Stadium, and I recall seeing very few Widener students at any games. It seems that, so far anyhow, there is little effort made to connect with those potential attendees. I like to see that there would be outreach to the Hispanic community, although it tends to minimize the diversity inherent in the term “hispanic”. (One of my best memories from the Fury days was attending the Cosmos game at the Vet, where the South American fans brought drums and a few horns, and were singing and chanting throughout the game. Brazilians celebrated Pele, and the rest of the crowd enjoyed and spread their joy to the rest of us in the crowd.)It strikes me that there could be league nights offered to the various high school soccer leagues in the area, bringing multiple teams and their parents to the games, possibly even at discounted prices. (Catholic League night, Public League night, PAC-10 night and Suburban One night, for example.) Make sure that you celebrate the leagues and their history, not the champions of that year, and celebrate the individual teams. If you do college outreach, you have limited time for the spring, due to the opening day for the season, multiple spring breaks and finals, but Alumni nights would likely work throughout the season. I don’t recall, despite holding season tickets, a Special Olympics night, but that could simply be my oversight. Do something to bring up the numbers. I sit there and, while I enjoy the games immensely, it worries me that the attendance is visibly shrinking.

    • Sean Griswold says:

      The timing of the student rush program puzzled me as well. It wasn’t announced till early-mid April, when most colleges are ending. I think it may be more designed for students that are home for the summer and looking for something to do

  4. SoccerDad says:

    Anyone know if it possible / been tried to run a boat from the Philly Waterfront down close to the stadium ?

    • This was my dream years ago. Now…? Ha. Imagine having a fan base that still cared and was growing AND willing to take a slow ride down the Delaware, post Duck boat accident.

  5. Good piece, Sean. The league/Union doesn’t need casual fans. It needs the more hard core fans who live in the city. These people will come to games for the atmosphere at a reasonable price. One could argue getting to chester isn’t that hard, but it is an inconvenience. For many millennials and others who live in the city and don’t drive, the team might as well be in Nova Scotia.

    College students would be a good market. And I think if the Union had built a stadium in University City, between the students, international students and thriving immigrant populations, they’d do great. In fact, I wonder how a stadium in the Northeast would work, one with a train station close by and near booming immigrant populations — lots of Brazilians moving into the city here, and the Union has Brazilians.

    It’s not rocket science. The league doesn’t want urban stadiums for nothing. It works better. Chester is a big problem for the club and that is not going to change.

    • Why do you think only the city has hard core fans? The population of the city (which honestly is at best 50% urban to 50% suburban) is dwarfed by the surrounding metro.

  6. Me: days from graduation
    Union:what if college students got discounts

  7. For me its better to attend talen stadium, if the team moved to the city i would stop being a season ticket holder. The answer to boost attendance is the promos as it was mentioned here, provide transportation that is free and go from there…..There is a big market for soccer most popular sport in the world, its a no brainer.

    • SoccerDad says:

      As a resident of the western suburbs, I would agree that I would most likely stop being a season ticket holder if I had to drive downtown to the games.

      • Likely for every one suburban loss there would be 2 to 5 urban fans. That’s fuzzy math but I anticipate numbers would grow and the fan base would align closer to most metro MLS teams and not cater to soccer moms and dads.

  8. The biggest seen I have seen with my friends is that they don’t care for MLS until I take them to a game. We are all in our late teens, almost early 20s and every time I bring my friends they have great time. They always ask when we are going to the next game. If the Union could just get people to attend one game and feel the atmosphere live, that and maybe some lower concession prices would be the best way to consistently boost attendance in my opinion.

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