The Sons of Ben took their name recognition to a new level Thursday night with the official unveiling of a merchandise line created with renowned Philadelphia sports apparel retailer Mitchell & Ness.
About six months ago, Major League Soccer and Mitchell & Ness came to Sons of Ben president Ami Rivera with a proposal for a partnership. Rivera took the proposal to the Sons of Ben board, whose members approved. After that, discussions for apparel designs began.
"This is not an opportunity that has ever come along before," Rivera told me at the unveiling party Thursday night. "It's not a company that we thought would ever really reach out to the soccer community - it's not something they've been ingrained in until very recently, with their partnership with MLS. To highlight us and recognize our importance in the soccer world and in supporters' group culture is a cool venture."
The merchandise line includes t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and scarves that play off tifo displays you've seen at Talen Energy Stadium. Among the themes are a 50-50 split of the Union and Sons of Ben logos, and the famed "Join or Die" dissected snake motif created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754.
"We thought that this was a really cool opportunity to highlight what we do, highlight the team and get a really cool collection online," Rivera said. "Mitchell & Ness is such a staple within sports, and it's so iconically recognized, that to bring in something so important to the sports world, [and] bring in a supporters' group that's been so integral in the formation of the team, and to bring in the team itself in a season where we're seeing so many positives happen, I just think it all came together so well."
Danny Finocchio did the design work on Mitchell & Ness' end. The company's top executive, Jonathan Yuska, was thrilled with the idea and the result.
"Anything that's friends and family and hometown teams, we want to be involved with," Yuska said. "What we want to do is create something new and different and limited. ... It's more about celebration than revenue."
Yuska's use of "limited" was literal. The Sons of Ben line will be available only at the Talen Energy Stadium store and at Mitchell & Ness' flagship store at 12th and Chestnut Streets.
Even so, the merchandise still helps with one of the Union's most important problems on the business side of things: getting more recognition from Philadelphia sports fans.
One of the easiest ways to prove that you have a fan base is for your fans to be seen wearing team gear. But when your gear isn't as easy to come by as it is for the city's four biggest sports teams, the odds of that happening drop considerably.
Union chief business officer Tim McDermott has become well aware of that in his six months in the job.
"The more, the better," he told me. "Any time people can be walking around with Union merchandise, it's a walking billboard."
A lack of widely available merchandise has also been a problem for MLS as a whole. Just ask anyone who has rushed to buy a new jersey when it's released, only to find supplies already sold out.
MLS senior vice president of consumer products Maribeth Towers said league headquarters is paying attention, especially when it comes to marquee partner adidas' official apparel.
"We are looking to expand our base," she said. "Adidas is a tremendously important partner of ours, so we respect that, but we do need to branch out in all sorts of directions. We've only started to scratch the surface. I feel that that way as much the fans do. We want to see way more product out there."
Mitchell & Ness has had a relationship with Major League Soccer for a while. You've seen the retailer's Union gear at the team store at Talen Energy Stadium, and you've probably seen other teams' gear for sale online.
It is safe to say that for a long time, the two groups' primary demographics did not necessarily overlap all that much. That has changed.
"We have an office full of big soccer fans," Yuska said.
Mitchell & Ness primarily focuses on nostalgia and throwback logos. That's not easy to do with a league that's just 20 years old. But Yuska's company is a lifestyle brand as much as it is a sports brand. It didn't take long for the smart people in the room to figure something out.
Yuska used the phrase "trend-relevant silhouettes, kind of inspired by authenticity and 'retro,' but more trend-driven and fashion-focused."
In plainer English, that means things that look old-school for teams that aren't. Snapback hats, for example.
MLS headquarters is thrilled, of course, to associate a sport known for being a lifestyle with a clothing brand known for being a lifestyle.
"They're a label that we've wanted to work with for a long time because of their reputation in the marketplace," Towers said. "They see this as an opportunity to move into a space that is new for them, and an audience that is very different. There is not a lot of crossover in our audience with other sports, so I think they've been very excited about the partnership."
This particular kind of marriage of brands hasn't seen before in Major League Soccer.
Plenty of other supporters' clubs have created their own gear before - most famously Portland's Timbers Army, which sells its stuff out of a truck parked down the street from Providence Park.
There have also been plenty of times when MLS teams have partnered with local retailers on specialty gear, including in Columbus, Los Angeles, Montreal and Toronto.
But this is the first time an MLS supporters' club has teamed up with a clothing company of Mitchell & Ness' renown - and just as importantly, the first time a supporters' club logo has been co-branded with a team logo on officially licensed apparel.
That a supporters' club is working directly with a team and MLS headquarters on a commercial initiative will likely cause consternation among some segments of the MLS fan base. Many supporters' clubs across the league make a vocal point of wanting to be as independent as possible from the teams they support, and bristle whenever their support gets used for commercial gain that isn't theirs.
The most famous example of that came in 2013, when MLS headquarters tried to trademark the phrase "Cascadia Cup." The move unleashed a furor among hardcore fans in the Pacific Northwest who built up the trophy's importance when the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps were in lower leagues. For some of those fans, scars still linger to this day.
I asked Rivera to clarify how much independence the Sons of Ben have in the merchandise deal.
"Even though we're using the team logo, this isn't anything more than the Sons of Ben and the team we support," she said. "In the end, that's what's important to us - it's what we do best. All the nonsense aside, you can make it into a big deal or you can call it exactly what it is: It's our group and Major League Soccer that decided to do a collection with a great retailer. I think the designs are representative of us equally with the team, and this is who we're here to support, so I don't see a problem with it."
Towers said the league is "totally supportive" of the Sons of Ben's initiative.
"They do great merchandise with their own marks, and it is absolutely their right to do that," she said. "What we are excited about is for the first time ever being able to marry up those marks in merchandise, and we think - we hope - that is going to resonate with the fans. ... The fact that this is the first time we've been able to put those two logos together is very exciting, but we completely respect what the supporters' groups are able to do on their own."