Soccer team is bringing the world to Philadelphia

David Beckham in a game in Los Angeles. The Galaxy will play the Union on Thursday. "I know about Philadelphia fans," he said.
David Beckham in a game in Los Angeles. The Galaxy will play the Union on Thursday. "I know about Philadelphia fans," he said.
Posted: October 07, 2010

Fans long believed that a big benefit of landing a pro expansion team was that it would put Philadelphia on the world soccer map.

But something else has happened this year: The map has come to Philadelphia.

Manchester United from England, Celtic FC from Scotland, Chivas de Guadalajara from Mexico - some of the biggest and best-known teams in the world have journeyed here during the inaugural season of the Philadelphia Union.

The region has played host to more big soccer games and stars in the last six months than in the last 10 years.

A capper comes Thursday night, when the most popular player on Earth, David Beckham, arrives with the L.A. Galaxy for a regular-season game against the Union.

"I know about Philadelphia fans and how passionate they are not just about soccer but every other sport," Beckham said in an interview with The Inquirer. "I'm looking forward to the game."

With Beckham comes American teammate Landon Donovan. Nine days later, on Oct. 16, another star in the soccer constellation appears when French striker Thierry Henry lines up for the New York Red Bulls.

Both the Los Angeles and New York games are sold out at 18,500-seat PPL Park in Chester.

The U.S. men's national team plays there against Colombia on Tuesday, a follow-up to the women's match against China Wednesday night.

Union officials say more is on the way.

"When Manchester United trains here for 10 days and has a great time, the rest of the world listens," said Union chief executive officer Nick Sakiewicz. "A lot of teams want to come here."

For years, Philadelphia wandered in soccer wilderness, unable to put together a deal to land a Major League Soccer team. Having no team made it hard to sustain interest, turning even big games - like the 2003 match between Manchester United and FC Barcelona that drew 68,396 to Lincoln Financial Field - into one-time events. Now that's changed, with the first-year Union luring legendary teams here for "friendly" matches.

"I think a lot of it is the great soccer market that is Philadelphia," Sakiewicz said. "As much as I'd like to take the credit for a lot of the work we've done, it really proves that people want to be in Philadelphia, soccer people want to be here, and we've got a lot to sell with a great city and a great fan base."

Sakiewicz estimates that by season's end, more than 430,000 soccer tickets will have been sold in the marketplace. That figure includes the 55,407 who attended the May 29 match at Lincoln Financial Field, where the U.S. men's team defeated Turkey, 2-1.

At a conservative average ticket price of $40, that's more than $17 million in sales.

More is generated by sales of hot dogs, beer, and T-shirts, and from hotel rooms rented by visiting teams and fans.

Next year the MLS schedule grows from 30 to 34 games, the home portion from 15 to 17. That could make it harder to fit international games, but Sakiewicz said the team will "keep on building what was built this year - more of the same and some new stuff."

"We set the tone with some international clubs, and word gets out pretty quickly they had a great experience here," he said.

On July 14 at PPL Park, 17,183 fans ignored heavy rain to see the Union defeat Celtic, 1-0, in a game nearly called off because of flooding.

On July 21, Manchester United beat the Union, 1-0, at the Linc in front of 44,213. Many were United fans who came here from across the East Coast.

On Sept. 1, it was Chivas de Guadalajara at PPL Park for one of the year's most exciting games, won by the Union, 1-0. That game drew 17,504.

"I love that the national team is coming," said Neal Simpkins, 46, a Union season-ticket holder who lives in Tredyffrin Township. "I like the fact that we're playing different teams that aren't part of the MLS."

What's the gain, beyond the excitement of fans? Does international soccer boost Philadelphia's reputation or coffers?

"Hosting these international matches is a benefit, both in terms of economic impact and in terms of raising Philadelphia's sports profile," said Larry Needle, executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress, a division of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There's no question success breeds success. . . . At the end of the day, it all adds to the burgeoning profile and soccer market that we have in Philadelphia."

Curt Hamakawa, director of the Center for International Sport Business at Western New England College, said there's scant evidence that hosting international sports events helps a city financially. The benefit of bidding for crown jewels like the Olympics or World Cup is more psychic. Towns such as Philadelphia can build their reputation, though, by hosting competitions between well-known clubs.

"In order for a city to maintain its bona fides as an international city, it must regularly burnish that reputation by continuing to lure a steady stream of foreign 'attractions,' " he said.

That's what the Union is planning.

Before last summer, people in Glasgow, Scotland, may never have heard of Philadelphia. Or the Union. But you can bet they know now, after seeing their much-favored side lose to the locals.

"It's been great," said Phillip Duonnolo, 25, a Union season-ticket holder from Philadelphia who attended the Celtic and Chivas games. "It's a great thing for the city, even though it's not really in the city. . . . It would be nice to have a couple more of those."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Marc Narducci contributed to this article.

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