Power: Can Soccer Save Chester?

After deals and political connections brought pro soccer to Pennsylvania, hopes are high for the Philadelphia Union. But how much can a sport really do?

Rendell and others say soccer, and this stadium, is that big thing. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence they’re right — little evidence that sports teams resuscitate flat-lining communities. Just look 14 miles up the Delaware, where another city in ruins thought a ballpark — and a state aquarium, and a concert amphitheater — would be its big thing. Everyone knows how that story turned out in Camden. The question now is, why does anyone think the same tale will end differently in Chester?

THE STORY OF how soccer came to Chester isn’t just — or even mostly — a story about soccer. Like so many things in Philadelphia, it’s a tale about politics (including a governor with a serious sports jones), money, insider connections, and the sorts of backroom deals that are fairly typical of how things get done in Pennsylvania.

The saga actually begins with the NFL, at a board meeting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame back in the early 2000s. Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt struck up a conversation with NFL Hall of Fame board member Jim Nevels, founder of the Swarthmore Group, a Philadelphia-area investment firm with roughly $1.5 billion in managed assets. In addition to chairing the city’s School Reform Commission, Nevels served on boards for Temple, Bucknell, Drexel, Penn Law, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, Hershey, and the Tasty Baking Co., plus a federal advisory committee by appointment of President George W. Bush. Nevels asked Hunt about owning sports franchises, and as it just so happened, Hunt had one to sell — the MLS Kansas City Wizards.

The following year, Hunt ended up in talks about bringing the Wizards to, of all places, Glassboro, New Jersey. But with a $5 billion budget deficit, New Jersey couldn’t pitch in to build a stadium. The deal, it seemed, was dead. That’s when the MLS commissioner quietly introduced two of the Glassboro investors to Nevels, a guy who had something they needed badly — friends with political capital. Nevels met with Jay Sugarman, CEO of iStar Financial and, with his wife Kelly, a fixture on the Manhattan social circuit (their house in the Hamptons was likened to the Getty Museum in Vanity Fair), and Nick Sakiewicz, a former MLS executive of the year who’d helped build a soccer stadium in Harrison, New Jersey, for global sports-and-music giant AEG.

At 49, Sakiewicz is a bit stockier than in his days as a goalkeeper for teams in the U.S. and Europe in the ’80s. Though soccer’s in his blood, the Union is more than a passion project — first and foremost, it’s a business. Philadelphia was the largest market without an MLS team, and a Wharton survey found that 59 percent of local residents consider themselves soccer fans. Before the team had a name, it had a fan club, the Sons of Ben, who quickly earned a reputation around the league for their zeal. Now half the seats are sold to season ticket-holders. “Philadelphia was a no-brainer,” Sakiewicz says. “We have a shot at making some money here.”