It’s a lot easier to say a team is doing well when the team is, in fact, doing well. The Union hadn’t been able to say it with a straight face for a while, but after this year’s historically successful season, they can say it and be believed.
That includes principal owner Jay Sugarman, who spoke a few days ago in a lengthy interview about this year and what’s to come.
The Union’s drive to their first playoff win was led by sporting director Ernst Tanner, who started a dramatic overhaul of the roster in his first year in charge. That overhaul isn’t done yet, but its first steps bore a bumper crop of fruit: team records for wins, points and goals scored, and that long-awaited postseason triumph.
“Coming into the year, a new sporting director, new players, a new style of play, we could have looked at this as a transition year,” Sugarman said. “Credit to [manager Jim Curtin] and the players. What they accomplished with that transition, I thought, was fantastic. And they delivered an exciting season, our best season, and real success to build on.”
“I think we brought Ernst in to take the professionalism that Earnie [Stewart, Tanner’s predecessor] had brought to us, and really start to weaponize the competitive strength we wanted to build,” Sugarman said. “Ernst is not afraid to make moves, and he’s very clear in his mind in how we’re going to become a top team in the league. We the [team] owners, and in particular my goal, is to give him a funding pool of money at the beginning of every year and let him make the moves that he thinks give us the greatest chance of success.”
Sugarman asserted that the Union “spend the most money on our academy, USL and our supplemental roster” of any team in MLS. That’s hard to prove, but the team told Sports Illustrated in June that in 2018 it spent $3.5 million on the academy and $2.1 million on the USL team. The consensus around MLS is that the academy figure is indeed among the league’s best, though as the league grows, other teams are spending big, too.
The value of star power
“I think for the last two years, this team has generated the most points per dollar spent on our first team,” Sugarman said. “[Tanner] is very smart about how he allocates capital for the near term and for the long term. And if he can generate success with that pool of capital that gives us a sustainable advantage on the development side, and a strong Cup-contending team on the first-team side, then we’re never going to second-guess that.”
The points-per-dollar figure isn’t easy to prove, either, but it has some substance. Add up combined points over the last two seasons and Philadelphia is tied for No. 6 with fellow low-spender FC Dallas. Four of the top five have big-spending pedigrees: Los Angeles FC, Atlanta, New York City FC and Seattle. The other is the New York Red Bulls, the team the Union beat in this year’s playoffs.
Sugarman opened his wallet in a big way this year, signing Fabián for a team-record $2 million salary. That record will have to be broken repeatedly — as will the team’s $1 million transfer-fee record — if the Union are to win championships.
Fabián also brought star power that the Union never had before, which helped on and off the field.
“We want players in our locker room who know how to win, know how to succeed, and can help elevate everybody around them with their skill sets and their leadership,” Sugarman said. “Marco was a real bonus, and I wish he had been able to compete at his highest levels because I think it would have brought a lot of attention. He still garnered a lot of attention, but I know probably he and we think he had more to give.”
The business side
On the business side of things, the Union entered the offseason having to strike new deals for a jersey sponsor and a broadcast home. They settled the first by re-upping with longtime partner Bimbo Bakeries through 2023, and now must settle the second. The team’s games have aired on PHL17 and 6ABC for the last two years, which gave wide TV distribution, but games weren’t available online in the market. That drew frequent criticism from fans.
Sugarman has taken a keen interest in what happens next. He said the team has been “approached by over-the-top broadcasters” seeking deals to air games only online, but turned them down.
“We don’t think that’s the best way for us to build our fan base at this point in our life cycle as a club,” Sugarman said. “We decided putting a paywall up for our fans made no sense, and other teams have tried that. We thought just being in a cable package; we had tried that in the past; we wanted to try something different.”
Major League Soccer’s out-of-market streaming deal with ESPN requires teams to buy back in-market rights from the league for a sum understood to be $100,000 per year. In March, Union chief business officer Tim McDermott insisted to The Inquirer that the purchase price isn’t an issue. In the interview for this story, Sugarman said the same, though he gave no indication that a solution is imminent.
“We’re investing tens of millions of dollars a year in this club, so $100,000 is not the decision point,” he said. “It’s really how do we get the best product into the most right places in a way that our partners are all comfortable with? There are considerations at the league level, there are considerations with your local partners, and all that goes into the calculus that Tim is trying to manage, and figure out what is the best architecture today.”
For all the Union’s ups and (mostly) downs in their 10-year history, one thing has remained the same: Winning will do more than anything to bring attention to a team that still badly needs it. The team has real momentum for the first time since 2011, and Sugarman knows his organization must capitalize on it.
“I think you’re going to see more progress in this offseason again,” Sugarman said. “I can’t say that it’s always been the way the club has been run, but in the last four to five seasons, that’s the mentality we have: ‘Great, here’s what we did well, here’s what we didn’t do well, and how can we do things that matter better?’ And that should be the front-office view, it should be the technical staff’s view, and the ownership’s view.”
Though the Union still have yet to win a trophy or sell an academy product abroad, there seems to be more urgency than there’s been in the past.
“I know it felt slow, certainly to fans and to us and probably to players who wish we’d do it all at once,” Sugarman said. “Brick by brick, we’ve been building the foundation of a club that we think people, and our fans certainly, can admire and other clubs will admire. It’s going to take more time and more effort and more money, but I think we’ve got the best pieces in place that we’ve had."