Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

John Smallwood: Plenty of planning under way for new MLS franchise

WILMINGTON - Two years is a long time, and even the people running the Major League Soccer expansion franchise granted to the Philadelphia region are thankful for the timeline given to get things going.

WILMINGTON - Two years is a long time, and even the people running the Major League Soccer expansion franchise granted to the Philadelphia region are thankful for the timeline given to get things going.

Still, when you are creating a professional sports franchise from scratch, including the building of a state-of-the-art stadium that could serve as the linchpin of a $500 million development project, time becomes a relative concept.

Months can feel like weeks and weeks can feel like days.

"Weeks are literally flying by," said Nick Sakiewicz, CEO and operating partner of Keystone Sports and Entertainment, LLC, the ownership team in charge of the MLS franchise that will begin play in 2010 in Chester. "It seems like it was just yesterday that we announced the team and now we're almost 3 months into it.

"For the fans, it may seem like a long way away, but for us in here it is flying by. Opening Day is going to be here before we know."

On Tuesday, in the temporary offices of MLS Philadelphia, Sakiewicz, Dave Mosca (senior vice president of corporate partnerships) and Tom Veit (president of a marketing consulting firm) were holding down the fort.

Between meetings and conference calls, plus conference calls and meetings, things are moving rapidly.

"We are where we expected to be in stadium development," Sakiewicz said. "Clearly that is a priority, but the development of the organization is a priority, too. That is not a back-seater.

"The third priority is brand development of the team itself - the name, the team colors, brand identity, if you will."

Sakiewicz said there is a timeline leading into April 2010, but adds that things are fluid.

The plan is for groundbreaking on the stadium in the fall.

Toward the end of the year, MLS Philadelphia would like to have a name, colors and logo.

The beginning of next year will be for filling out the front-office staff. A team technical director will be hired and the summer will bring the interviewing and hiring of a coach.

"The expansion draft is in November '09," Sakiewicz said. "The MLS SuperDraft is in January 2010. We begin signing players and then in February we have our first preseason.

"That's a macro view, but in between there are a lot of other things to fill in."

To get ready to run in 2010, most deadlines will be much tighter than 24 months.

Building a stadium from the ground up speaks for itself, but lots of things require planning.

When you consider that it will take nearly a year from concept to unveiling for Adidas to produce the team's uniform, the deadline for a team name, colors and logo is approaching quickly.

Serving the needs of fans is not something that can simply wait until later.

The team already has deposits for more than 4,000 season tickets.

With a membership of more than 2,500, the Sons of Ben, the independent fan club created in 2007 in anticipation of Philly getting a MLS franchise, gets high consideration.

"They've become so relevant that we have had to step back and design an entire section of the stadium for them, including their own entrance," Mosca said. "Based on the number of tickets we already have in-house, it has to be about fan development. To me, that means it is more important to be a service company than a sales company."

To keep fan interest going while they wait for 2010, MLS Philadelphia said it plans to sponsor a series of events, such as trips to see the U.S. National Team playing Argentina next month in Giants Stadium, road trips to Washington and New York when the Los Angeles Galaxy and David Beckham are on the East Coast, or even the MLS All-Star Game in Toronto.

" 'We love our fans' and 'We listen to our fans' might be the most overused words in sports," Veit said. "With our 2-year window, we honestly can do that. The fans will take you where they want to go. You just have to be willing to let them do it."

Yes, a lot of this sounds like the things the defunct North American Soccer League said during the 1970s and '80s, when it was boasting about becoming the next great American sports league.

But there is a difference.

In the 21st century, those millions of soccer-playing kids that the NASL kept pointing to as its future are now in their 30s and 40s.

When MLS teams go into the offices of corporations, they are meeting with executives who played soccer and retain a passion for the game.

"When we started MLS we had to sell them on it because there was a different decision-maker in the corporate suite," Sakiewicz said. "Today, what we are finding is there are lot of people who played the game, some at a high level, who are making decisions in the corporate suite.

"They know soccer is a great thing to buy because the person sitting in that decision-making role is a fan or a player or has been exposed to the game. We see it everywhere in corporate America.

"There is more and more soccer-themed advertising and programming."

There are now millions of Americans from all economic levels who have grown up with the game and are willing to use their entertainment dollars on a professional domestic soccer league.

"It's not rocket science when you study the dynamics," Veit said. "What we're seeing is that the majority of our season ticketholders will not be season ticketholders to any other sports team in the city. They might go to a game here or there, but they are devoted to soccer. The soccer community really is a unique group."

The founders of MLS in 1993 - and Sakiewicz was one of the original executives - understood that, which allowed them to withstand the early growing pains and wait for soccer fans to go from young adults to mature adults with established careers and lives.

"It's almost becoming the perfect storm of positives for us," Veit said. "You've got all those kids who have grown up with the league and playing soccer.

"We've got them in boardrooms and we'll have them in our stadium. We already know this will work, as long as we don't mess it up."

And that's why having 2 years will not be taken for granted.

"We've always wanted to just do it right," Sakiewicz said. "We have the time and the venue now to do it right.

"We just want to make sure everything we do going forward is along that vein. Are we going to make mistakes? Of course we are, because everybody makes mistakes. But we have the time to correct them and hopefully we won't make any big mistakes." *

Send e-mail to

For recent columns, go to