The Philadelphia region has a new pro soccer club - but will it have enough paying fans to support the team?
The owners are confident, but success is no sure thing. In its 12 seasons, Major League Soccer has folded ailing teams in Miami and Tampa Bay and moved the original San Jose franchise to Houston.
Sure, the new team will draw the fanatics, like the region's Sons of Ben. The SOBs would turn out to watch a soccer game at midnight - in a parking lot, while it's snowing, on Christmas Eve.
The question is whether the team can establish a solid following among the general fan base - people with some interest in the sport who live within reasonable traveling distance and can afford tickets averaging $20 a seat.
The team faces one big, obvious challenge: Chester, site of the planned 20,000-seat stadium. People who know nothing else about Chester know it's somewhere they shouldn't go at night. Crime there rose 3.5 percent last year, with significant increases in serious offenses such as murder and aggravated assault.
"My mental impression is it's like Camden but without the glitter," said Gray Safford, 54, a Process Engineering manager who lives in Abington. He's taking "a wait-and-see attitude: What do I hear from other people who have gone [to games]? Because I don't want to be the first one to go down there with my kids."
And that's from somebody who loves soccer, who played while growing up in Northeast Philadelphia and as "a bad, second-string goal-tender" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and whose children played.
The $115 million stadium is to stand just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge, not far from the new Harrah's casino, and anchor a $500 million housing-and-retail development. Team officials expect the site to become an entertainment destination, with fans spending money at stores, bars and restaurants.
It may seem odd for a Philadelphia team to play in Chester. But MLS teams often play outside host cities, where land for stadiums is cheaper. And placing the complex in one of Pennsylvania's poorest cities allowed politicians to portray the government financing as a jobs-and-business project, not a tax-money giveaway.
Mayor Wendell N. Butler Jr. said Chester's unhappy reputation would not stop fans from flocking to games.
"They'll come," he said yesterday. "They come to Harrah's."
Team officials said Chester was a perfect location, at the heart of the regional soccer universe and easily reachable from South Jersey, Philadelphia, the western suburbs and northern Delaware.
The size of the fan base is unknown, but plainly in the millions. Pennsylvania and New Jersey rank among the top nine states in soccer participation. The Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association numbers 200,000 players, coaches and referees - and that's just one group. "This is going to be a fantastic market," said Richard Groff, 62, a former president of the association and a longtime soccer promoter and supporter.
He cited the turnout at games he helped stage here - 43,356 to watch the U.S. team play Dnepr of Ukraine in 1989 at Franklin Field, and 44,261 to see the United States play Sheffield Wednesday, an English club, in 1991 at Veterans Stadium. The first ticketed event at Lincoln Financial Field was a 2003 soccer sellout that pitted Manchester United against FC Barcelona.
But Groff agreed that drawing big crowds to one-time matches featuring famous clubs was different from securing fans for an unknown team through 15 home games. He would define success as:
"I haven't a problem going to Chester," said Anne Ewing, 70, who had season tickets to the old Philadelphia Charge women's team. "I have a problem with I-95, and driving, and coming out of a game with huge traffic jams. I want to be able to find some way to comfortably get there by public transportation."
For people who live in Philadelphia, like Ewing, that might not be hard. The stadium site is an eight-block walk from the Chester SEPTA rail station at Highland Avenue, and the team plans to run shuttle buses on game days.
Joshua Vincent has a suspicion of what will occur in Chester, because he saw it happen in Camden when he lived near Campbell's Field, home of minor-league baseball's Riversharks: Suburbanites drove through Camden and directly into the stadium parking lot. When the game ended, they got in their cars and drove directly out. A few small businesses sprouted near the baseball park, but they struggled. "Very few people felt safe enough to walk two blocks," said Vincent, director of the Henry George Foundation in Philadelphia. "I can't see how that would be different in Chester."
Vincent is a baseball fan but said he might go to a soccer game or two. Safford, the Abington dad, said he would definitely attend games - as long as he knew security would be sufficient and his car would be safe.
"If there's a team," he said before the announcement, "I'll give them a chance."