On August 17, over 200 members of the Sons of Ben gathered at PPL Park for the first-ever Philadelphia Union Supporters Summit, an open forum with the leaders of the Union and MLS.
Present to answer questions during the event were Union CEO & Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz, Team Manager Peter Nowak, captain Faryd Mondragón, Sébastien Le Toux and MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
This event was a precursor to a series of season ticket holder town hall meetings the Union will host. Season ticket holders in all sections will have the opportunity to sit down with several members of the Union's senior management to discuss any topics they desire. More details on the next town hall meeting will be made available to season ticket holders once a date is confirmed.
The following is a transcript of the majority of the Summit:
On the plans for possible stadium expansion
Sakiewicz: That’s a top question these days. First and foremost we need to set the record straight that this is a soccer stadium and will always be a soccer stadium. Those Union letters [on the seats] aren’t going away anytime soon. It’s important for everyone to know. But, as a business, we must evolve.
We’ve had great success here and we’ve just been doing it — it’s hard to believe — for only 14, 15 months. You folks are a big reason why we’re having so much success here. We can’t sell any more season tickets and we’re sold out for the capacity size. In order for us to grow we have to look and start thinking today about what our expansion is going to be down the line. It’s not going to happen this year and it’s not going to happen, probably, the following year, but we have three phases in this building, which was designed from the beginning to expand to almost 30,000 seats.
There are three phases that we have. Phase One is in the Northeast and Northwest corners. There’s an upper deck which can be basically bolted on to the existing structure. That allows us 2,500 [additional] seats. The second phase is behind me [above the suites bridge side] where the signs are. There’s about ten rows of seating that would go along the length of the concourse there. Then, the third phase, which is down the road a bit, would add almost 7,500 seats — it’s either above that section there [gestures to River End], which you are all very familiar. We’re also studying possibly doing it above the club, which is much more expensive because it is a higher structure.
We’re looking at all of that and we’re studying it, trying to understand the costs. We’re talking to a lot of you, as we always do, before we make big decisions. We engage our fans and that’s what tonight’s all about: it’s about inclusiveness. There are eight words that you see wrapped around this stadium and one of them is inclusiveness. We involve our fans all the time in a lot of the decisions that we make. We don’t always make the popular decision but we try to make the right decision for our family of fans, which you are obviously a big part of. That entire section of seating [the River End] came from some late-night discussions with the Sons of Ben about how we were going to make sure that the game experience was the best that it could be for the fan group.
We originally designed this stadium as a singular bowl; all these seats and everything looked the same. As our fans and supporters groups got larger, we decided to build an own section. We’re doing the same thing with expansion, being very careful about how we’re trying it and we’re trying to be very thoughtful with how it affects you as a supporters group and also how it affects everyone in the stadium.
On a balanced or unbalanced schedule in 2012 with the addition of the Montreal Impact
Garber: Well it’s going to be tough to balance when you have an odd number of teams, so more than likely you won’t see a balanced schedule going forward. That doesn’t mean it’s not balanced ever, but it’s almost mathematically impossible when you have an odd number of teams. The question is when we have 20 teams or 22 teams, can we have 42 games? Is that too much to have players play? Balanced or unbalanced is still a process to be resolved.
The real question is whether we should move to a more conference-based schedule where teams would play more against other clubs in their conference or a rivalry-based one that would work well for television but might be less balanced in terms of the fairness of competition. Tomorrow we have a Competition Committee call where six ownership groups are represented as members of our board. We are presenting them with three schedule formats: one that is conference oriented, one that is rivalry oriented and one that is television oriented. We’re going to try to figure out the best model so that the competition is the most fair and exciting.
On the Union’s increasingly defensive style of play in 2011 compared to 2010
Nowak: I think it is to win the games. We played a very attacking style [last year] but we were leaking a lot of goals. At the end of the year we had to ask ourselves how we could improve the defensive part and we got the right pieces with Faryd [Mondragon], Carlos Valdes and Brian Carroll to make sure that we’re going to stay compact and we’re going to stay not too much on the defensive side of the ball but it’s going to be a very good group to play against. I’m liking the concept of getting as many points as we can in the first half of the season and playing the attacking style, which we have improved a lot lately.
On the affect that the Sons of Ben have on the games at PPL Park
Mondragon: I think for the players it is a privilege and is a big, big boost of motivation to know that we have the fans behind us. It would be worse to have it against us, which I’ve already experienced once. I came here with the Colombian National Team to play against the USA in this stadium and it was not nice, especially when we came out of the locker room and through the tunnel with all the noise, fireworks and things. Myself and the guys are real happy that we have such a great 12th player [in the fans] that makes a difference because everyone knows that when they come to play here the Sons of Ben are going to make it difficult. I think it is unique with this style of fans and they make it feel like a real home ground.
Le Toux: I just want to reiterate what Faryd said: I’ve been here two years now at this stadium and the Sons of Ben do a great job at the games. We can feel from them all the intensity. It’s not just one section, it’s everyone. Thank you to them, and we hope that they continue to do such a great job.
On what MLS is doing to increase the quality of officiating
Garber: Let me start off by saying that we’ve been doing as much as we can with a process that isn’t managed by us. For all of you that are fans of other leagues in this country, the referees or officials are employees of the league. So if [NBA Commissioner] David Stern doesn’t like the way an official worked an NBA game, he can fire him. Or if he believes that the process that the officials are going through, in terms of how they’re thinking about the traveling rule, he decides to change it with his employees, he changes it. Soccer, as you all know, has officials sent down by the federation. The challenge for us is where you look to me, the League, or the Union to solve that issue with officials we don’t control.
What the Premier League has done — and what we hope to be able to do — is to give the League more control and have more full-time officials to have things that we call “points of emphasis,” meaning what’s the style of play that we want? You’ve seen us come down on diving. I’d rather our officials do that than us have to do it on the next day in New York. If we’re trying to protect our players more we can tell the federation’s officials there needs to be kinds and styles of play that we’re limiting and if we don’t, we can suspend players after the fact.
We’re evolving from a level of participation in the process to trying to have more control, pushing that as far as we can like the Premier League has while still having the support. Tomorrow, a gentleman that has been working with the Premier League and quietly working with us, our Competition group, is meeting with the federation to talk through some of the things that we’d like to see happen in 2012. The best thing I can say is we’re going to do everything we can to get more control within these guidelines.
The second aspect of this is that we need to develop better referees. The players are getting better, the game is getting faster; it’s probably evolving, in my opinion, faster than the officials have evolved. We still have to get down to the levels and ensure that we’re developing better officials. We also need to have guys in the League, whether it’s the coaches or the players, to make the job easier for the officials.
Does anyone here in the audience officiate on any level? [Several hands are raised] It’s a tough job. When you’re a little kid you’ve got some Mom or Dad on the sidelines yelling at you, telling you you’re an idiot, screaming at you. That elevates all the way up to our League and we have an issue with it. I don’t know why anybody would want to be an official. We need to change that. We need to pay them more money, we need to make them more respected at the grassroots level and we need to make sure that we don’t have our players surrounding officials when they don’t like the call. We also can’t have coaches — even though we know their jobs are on the line — harassing the officials, whether it’s the fourth official or the head official out on the field.
That was a very long way of saying there are some things we can control and some things we cannot control. We’re trying to push it as far as we can and recognize that we have an issue and make it a lot better.
We get it more than you do. We’re watching every single game in the command center in New York. Paul Tamberino — who is arguably the best official in U.S. Soccer history — is sitting in that room with someone from U.S. Soccer and Nelson Rodriguez, the head of our Competition, watching every game and grading the officials. We take our grades and the federation takes their grades and ultimately they share that with the official and try to tell him “here’s where we think you got it right” and “here’s where we think you got it wrong.” Each official has a coach — that’s a new thing we’re doing this year — who doesn’t work for us and doesn’t work for the federation, but is someone that volunteers. After every game he says to them “why did you miss that red card?” or “why did you miss that penalty kick?” or “why did you call that this when we thought it was that?” They sit down and evaluate it in great detail, with the whole part of the process trying to get them smarter so we can get better.
On how the Union front office can control River End ticket selling on secondary marketplaces like StubHub
Sakiewicz: That’s another issue where the answer is some things we control and some things we don’t. It’s not illegal in this country to form a secondary market for tickets. We can’t forbid it and we can’t prevent it; it’s a business. It’s actually quite a big business. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of the situation. What we can do, though, is we can police our stands for people who do purchase those tickets on StubHub and make the owner of those tickets — the season ticket holder — responsible for that. A good example of that was the Colorado game. We had a fight that broke out that was started by some people that bought those tickets from a season ticket holder on StubHub. There were eight ejections that night and the season ticket holder who sold those seats got his tickets revoked.
We learned a little bit that night and I think what we’re going to do even more now is start publicizing the fact that you as a season ticket holder are responsible for whose hands those tickets end up in. You are liable and if something happens you can lose your privilege. The good news is that we have no shortage of people on the waiting list for season tickets. We want good people sitting in those seats, so if you put them out there on a secondary marketplace and someone buys them and disrespects those seats, you can lose your tickets.
We also have a less egregious avenue, which is our own marketplace for tickets. We’re continuing to promote to season ticket holders that if you can’t use your tickets for a game, put them up on the marketplace and we can place them or get them sold to somebody that we know. We’re going to be promoting that more.
I think it was a great example that was set at the Colorado game and that individual who owned those seats put up a big fight, making all sorts of threats and we said “Sorry, you’re liable for that. We can come back and revisit it next year, but you’re out.” That’s the best we can do.
On kick off times
Sakiewicz: One of the things we did do in correcting ourselves is that we played more night games this year. With the heat, we heard you loud and clear. We’re not perfect; we don’t have all the answers. That’s why we talk to you guys a lot and get your feedback. We heard you loud and clear last year: no summer day games. That’s why we’re playing more games at night this year.
On whether stadium expansion would threaten PPL Park's intimacy
We’re very mindful of the intimacy. People ask me all the time what’s my favorite part of this stadium and I tell them “It’s not the bricks and mortar, it’s the people that come and sit here…that’s the best part of the stadium.”
On how you would define a successful 2011 season for the Union
Sakiewicz: I think we’ve already had a successful season. We celebrated our tenth [game with attendance over 18,000, including seven sellouts] last Saturday, our team plays with spirit every game. To me — I’m a hardcore soccer guy so I’m a bit of a soccer snob — but the team that plays with spirit and purpose no matter what the result is is success. These guys give it up every game and I couldn’t be more proud of that. To me, that’s success.
Whether we’re lifting trophies or making it to the playoffs, no matter what, to me, I gauge our success in that. We’ve already been successful this year. We’re doing well, a little bit better than expected in year two according to what Peter and I had planned, a long-term plan. We’re filling the house, we’re playing good football; I already feel like we’ve been successful. That doesn’t mean we stop. We want more. Peter and I are very alike: if we’re ever fortunate enough to win one [championship], we’ll celebrate that night and the next day we’ll want to win another one. That’s just our mentality. I think we’ve already been successful. That’s in large part to you guys [gestures to supporters].
On how MLS can attract the casual fan through the new NBC deal
Garber: The fact that ESPN believes is a step in the right direction. You’d be surprised by how many folks at ESPN deeply love the game. The man who runs ESPN is an avid, avid soccer fan. These guys love the game. And they’re traveling around to our games, going over to Europe, spending a lot of time reading and one person has been influencing positive change at ESPN.
Early on we used to go in and meet with ESPN reporters for SportsCenter and we used to say how badly they were missing MLS highlights and here’s why you should cover us on SportsCenter. They’d bring out a sheet of paper that would have research they do every single day. The thing about television is that research is real time, they know about it by showing the television ratings and by having field statistics on all of their viewers. What we found was that on SportsCenter they don’t want to see soccer [highlights] as much as they want to see basketball or baseball highlights.
Philadelphia is a good example of that. Their core fan base is the Phillies, Flyers and Eagles yet there is still a legitimate soccer audience. The only way we are going to get more SportsCenter highlights is to encourage a broader fan base and that’s a bit of a tricky idea because we have to do it on our own.
We are fortunate to have NBC as another network. [There is] the highlight show that will be hopefully something we can announce on the NBC Sports network sometime in the next year. At the end of the day we have enough quality players so that it can be done. Cutting highlights, sending that highlight up [to ESPN], then the video goes up on the internet. Our players are better, our highlights are better. So I think it’s moving in the right direction.
Frankly I’m not worried about the casual fan. I’m worried about the EPL fan. There were three or four million people watching every single World Cup match and we have three or four hundred thousand watching [some] MLS matches. That’s a big jump.
On the level of transparency in MLS and what will be done to improve it
Sakiewicz: Listen, it’s a balance of what we are able to be transparent with and what you need to do to protect your business. As a general rule some of our practices are very transparent. ... There are some things that are very important that we keep close to the vest because we are competing with 17 other teams, next year 18 other teams. MLS is getting very competitive so we have to protect those [potential player acquisitions] that are out there on our rader. As Peter will tell you, some things we can share and some things we can’t share.
Garber: There’s no desire, no nefarious or evil motive to do things behind a curtain. The difference with our leagues and other leagues is 16 years [versus] 100 years; the rules and regulations and unique way we operate is a function of the fact that we are constantly evolving. Just yesterday we made a change in the Designated Player rule so clubs can get younger [foreign] players. What other league has to think about that? It’s a very simple process, but it’s also a closed market; we are competing with leagues and teams around the world. It’s a dynamic that is a complicating one that forces us to have a unique function.
Nowak: Baseball, American football and basketball, you have the best players in the world here.; there is no other market outside. We are part of a global market, which means every team in the U.S. has to use their own resources, their own scouts. We have to go with the league through the whole process so that we can sign our guy. So, before the process starts we can’t tell [the fans] ‘hey guys, we are going to sign John Smith from England and it’s going to cost five million dollars. If you are going to sign someone you can’t just do it because you want to; you have to go through the process. If we can sign other players we will, if we can grow them [through the] youth system, we will do that too.
On promotion/relegation in MLS
Garber: Promotion/relegation is not happening any time soon. I hope we are able to work to have a better relationship with division two soccer and I hope that at some point soon there is a division two that MLS is deeply engaged with.
On market-to-market variance in quality of TV coverage
Garber: There are minimum standards [for talent/analysts], but there’s also not a requirement that goes beyond the minimum standards. Why? Because every one of those local games in every other sport is a key business opportunity [for the networks]. Here [in MLS] teams are still trying to cut deals to get on television. There is just so much that we can force them to do to enhance the quality.
On whether a skills competition could return for future MLS All-Star games
Garber: We had a skills competition in the early days of the league, and ESPN actually televised that, so it is something we are talking about with future broadcast partners. Many of our general managers think we should not have an All Star game at all because it’s in the middle of the season. We have to balance that with [a match] that gave us our highest ratings, a lot of promotion and a lot of money to be made.
On any plans to upgrade technology at PPL Park (mostly for phone usage)
Sakiewicz: We are having a lot of WiFi issues in the building ... we have our staff looking into it.
On playing rivalry matches on weeknights
Sakiewicz: We have been selling games out whether they are midweek or weekend. We understand the tough travel time during the week. The New York game was sold out weeks in advance. We will work on it [with the league]. Those are hot games; New York and D.C. are really good games to go to. We will discuss it with those teams as well.
On when the on/off ramps construction will be completed
Sakiewicz: They are done, they just are not open. They are laying sewer pipe now, so we were told [by PennDOT] that by the end of this month the ramps should be [ready for use].
On 2012 preseason
Sakiewicz: As part of our jersey deal with Bimbo, we agreed to go to Orlando every year for a training session. We are going back there this year; we are in the planning stage to get the dates. We are going to put the information out there and some of the front office staff are currently trying to put together a fan package for you guys to come down, spend some time in Orlando, stay in a hotel, go to some amusement parks and watch the Union. So stay tuned for more updates on that.
On stadium expansion and parking
Sakiewicz: Of course if we expand the stadium, we are going to have to build additional parking. Right now, the last car on a full sellout gets out of here about an hour after [the final whistle]. We are not happy; we are continuing to work on reducing that time. We think the ramps being open is going to be a huge help getting everyone out of here. We are looking into things for next year to have some things in the plaza after the game so you can hang out and relax. We are coming up with some ideas. We know the parking isn’t ideal. Last season, it took two hours for the last car to get out of the Seattle game, and we have got it down to 45-50 minutes before the last car leaves the lot. We are working on opening some other roads that are currently closed down. We are working with CONRAIL to get those roads opened up. We want to get it down to a half hour.
On the possibility of the Union having a Designated Player
Nowak: We are in the process of making this happen for next year.
On the possibility of MLS moving to a European schedule
Garber: Think about what a game in Philadelphia would be like in December. Philly, Kansas City, Toronto or Salt Lake, there could be eight feet of snow during the winter. To let you know how deeply we think about it, in order to make a European schedule happen we need to have a shorter offseason. To have a shorter offseason we need a longer season. You can play a game in Seattle in the middle of winter and the fans would probably come. That’s most likely true for here as well. But some of our teams do not have mature enough fan bases to be able to manage that.
We have to continue to struggle. We have to continue to play games on Wednesday and Thursday night because we have to concentrate 32 or 34 games into a narrow window. When we have 20 teams, where are those games going to go? It is physically and mathematically impossible to manage unless we change the schedule, but we just don’t think the fans are ready for that.
Most memorable moment at PPL Park
Le Toux: Every game is memorable. It was the first game here against Seattle, my ex team. I did not know what to expect. It was 100 degrees but people showed up anyway. It was a great game and we were losing 1-0 and because of you we came back and won that game. I hope we make many more great memories this year.
Mondragon: The most memorable thing is just for me to come [to play for the Union]. I dream of the day when we are lifting the Cup, qualifying for the final. I hope that is what will happen this season.
On the family approach taken by the Union
Sakiewicz: It was always our view to have a family club. My main job is I’m the family police. I make sure we never ever lose that mentality and that culture. If any new or existing person comes into this family that doesn’t act like a good family member, it’s my job to police that. I take that job very seriously. It was my dream to create a club like this. We have something really special going here.
On Le Toux following Nowak's example and creating a Twitter account
Sakiewicz: How do you say tweet in French?
Le Toux: Tweet. I promise next week I will create twitter, OK? [Sure enough, Le Toux created a Twitter account, @SebastienLeToux]
On the chant shouted by some supporters after goal kicks
Garber: We don’t like the YSA chant. It’s just not cool. We understand it’s fun, we understand it is part of some team’s identities. It’s not about Don, it’s not about a bunch of suits in New York. We have to find a way to change. ... We need your help to get rid of this, and do it in an internal way. When you have thousands of fans, it’s more difficult than a smaller fan base, so we are going to ask the clubs to get rid of this in their own way. Come up with a cool, fun thing to chant. It doesn’t have to be vulgar, please.
On an earlier schedule release for the 2012 season
Garber: The reason our schedule was so late in 2011 was because we were trying to figure out the deal with Fox. But now that we have the new deal with NBC, we promised the clubs and the fans that the schedule would be out much earlier this year.
***The following questions were submitted by fans prior to the Summit but were not asked due to time constraints. CEO & Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz took the time to answer them afterwards.
Why are we not able to get in earlier than an hour before game time? Last year, we were able to get in up to 90 minutes before game time.
We track entry data and last year we only had a couple hundred fans in the building more than 60 minutes before kickoff. The gates are now open 60 minutes beforehand, which still gives fans time to come in, get food and drink, and get to their seats before warm-ups start.
As a supporter of the Union we hear a lot of rumors and speculation regarding the chants we do and how they affect the club and attendance
While fan engagement encourages our players and creates a great buzz during matches, chants with profanity affect the team in a negative way. Vulgar chants deter people from coming to games and raise concerns with television partners. Whether it be a youth soccer group, a family, a suite holder or a sponsor, we get direct feedback that indicates vulgar chants negatively impact support for the team. Additionally, when we lose a sponsor or suite holder, that lost money is no longer available to potentially use on player acquisitions, stadium improvements, etc.
As a growing team and sport, we need to encourage fans to experience PPL Park, not give them reasons to stay away. Peter mentioned it last night: we all have families attending the games and those chants are not something that the front office, the coaches, or the players enjoy having their family hear. Let’s be better than that and come up with something that’s our own. We love the vast majority of chants and songs and appreciate the enthusiastic support, but at the same time hope that fans understand the consequences a few bad words can have on the club.
Can season ticket holders get discounts on parking?
We do offer a season-long parking pass at a discount to season ticket holders. By purchasing the season long pass you pay $13.05 per game, a 35% discount.
How can I help better support the team?
The best way to show support is to become a season ticket holder if finances allow and keep spreading the good word. Keep getting other people to come experience what we have going on at PPL Park.
How does the front office view the Sons of Ben in light of what happened at the Colorado game, and what can we do to prevent it from happening again?
We view the Sons of Ben the same way we have since day one: the best supporters in the league. The actions of one individual do not reflect the entire group and we realize that.
Why is the rule in place that we have to bring flags into the stadium two hours before kick off?
For security purposes. Once all gates are open we have to stick to the stadium rules. We have to make sure that people don’t come in the supporters gate with flags and try to go into other sections and take away from other fans' viewing experience. We have two check in times: the first is three hours before the match when all of the larger flags, banners and drums are set up. The second is 90 minutes before the match when any smaller items can be brought in. All of these items are checked in by the Sons of Ben tifo crew, so you can bring your items to them at their tailgate and they will check them in with our staff at the designated times.
Are non-SOB's still allowed to purchase tickets in the supporters section?
They never were allowed. This was part of the agreement between us and the Sons of Ben to ensure that a non-SoB doesn’t come into the section, do something stupid, and give the group a bad reputation. Those seats are not open to the general public online or over the phone. Only registered members can purchase tickets in the supporters section, either by calling our office for full or half season plans, or by going online and using the promo code that is distributed by the Sons of Ben to purchase single game tickets.
Can we have access to our actual seats when non-Union events occur at PPL Park?
Unfortunately that’s not something we can guarantee. When an outside promoter brings an event to the stadium they usually control the ticket manifest, so promising your same seats isn’t possible. What we always do for our season ticket holders is promise that we will get you access to a pre-sale for any event we host at PPL Park.