Thursday, July 17, 2008

Can Professional Outdoor Soccer Make It In Philly?

I actually wrote this about 5 months ago, but since we have a hole in what is already a dry sports schedule, now might be a good time to talk about the MLS in Philly. Others writers, either more plugged in or more eloquent, may have already given their take on this topic, but this is my opinion.

Personally, I would not consider myself a soccer fan per se. I do enthusiastically watch the World Cup when that comes around, but I have never seen an MLS game. Part of the reason for my ambivalence about soccer has to do with the fact that I did not exactly grow up with the sport. During the time and place I grew up in, soccer was simply looked down upon as an inferior sport played by vaguely effeminate emo-types, who also possibly enjoyed skateboarding. Needless to say, I didn't know a ton of well-respected soccer players growing up. There was also the school of thought that said that since there was no (credible) professional soccer team in the US, how big of a deal could soccer be?

Fast forward to 2008. The MLS is actually a viable major league sport in just about every large market in the US. In my hometown, there are actually soccer leagues that kids actually willingly sign up to play in. Where I live today in South Jersey, soccer (and the various leagues and travel teams) is a huge deal. The town I live in seemingly has soccer fields strewn from one end of town to the other.

Knowing what I see with my own eyes, with respect to soccer's foothold in youth sports today, I have no doubt that MLS soccer can make it in Philadelphia. For the sake of the 18,000 seat soccer-specific stadium they are putting in Chester, it had better make it.

The reasons for optimism?

1.) You cannot underestimate the aforementioned explosion of youth soccer in the past 20 years. This has been said before, but this time I think the experts are going to be right. Every soccer league in the tri-state area will have some sort of bus trip to a game at the new soccer stadium in Chester.

2.) The internet has allowed those folks that are soccer fans to talk up their sport and follow their favorite players despite never having seen them play. The local example of this? The Sons of Ben, a local, well-organized fan club that has been pining for a local MLS affiliate for more than a couple of year. There are many other of these fan groups in other MLS cities: The Screaming Eagles (D.C.) and Section 8 Chicago are two such examples. Having a virtual (leading to an actual) place to talk about soccer and build up it's buzz will only help MLS popularity in the area; specifically amongst internet saavy youth.

3.) Do you know how much it costs to go to a hockey game? A lower level seat has a face value of $85. That's per seat! How about Eagles tickets? I've been on the waiting list for season tickets at least since the new stadium opened. God only knows when that waiting list will get to me. Phillies tickets are still the best bargain in town, but let's face it, you can blow a mortgage payment taking a family of four to a Phils game. The Sixers? The worst lower level seats (behind each respective awful view) goes for $50 bucks.

The new MLS team can immediately undercut "The Big 4" sports teams price-wise and in availability. I know there are minor league teams in town that can service the cost-conscious sports consumer, but this is different. The MLS not minor league (at least not anymore); it's the best outdoor professional soccer league the U.S. has to offer.

And let's face it; the Philadelphia sports market is not just Philly. It's South Jersey, the surrounding Philadelphia suburbs, and Delaware. Some might even argue that the Philly sports market reaches into the Lehigh Valley. Based on this cross-section, I have to believe that there are folks out there, whose kids play soccer, who would be willing to take the family to an outdoor game if the possibility presented itself.

4.) The indoor soccer team in town, the Philadelphia Kixx, have had a loyal following for 13 years. From some of the Kixx game stories I scanned, they are drawing between 5000 and 8000 for a game (indoor soccer) that was meant to be played outside on a "pitch"; not in a hockey arena. I'm sure these die hards will be anxious to see professional soccer on a real soccer pitch in a real soccer stadium. Furthermore, with the Spectrum closing it's doors soon, who knows what will become of the Kixx? The new Philadelphia MSL entrant would obviously be able to scoop up these people already going to Kixx games.

I'm sure all of these points were made in the past with respect to soccer's popularity, and ultimately, I (and lots of people way smarter than me) could be wrong about how the outdoor game would play here, locally. But I do think the time and circumstances are right for soccer to be re-introduced into Philadelphia. Hopefully, it's around long enough for me to take my son.

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