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?

Not coincidentally, Rendell first endorsed the deal after an August 2007 press conference at the School District of Philadelphia, with Nevels in attendance. Four days earlier, Nevels had announced he’d resign as chairman of the SRC. Both sides denied a quid pro quo, but a source close to Nevels believes that’s exactly what happened. It makes sense — Rendell helps Nevels with a potentially lucrative business opportunity, while Nevels, who was never a Rendell ally, steps aside so the Governor can appoint his own SRC chief.

In January 2008, Rendell pledged $47 million in state aid to clean up the site, build the stadium, and improve the riverwalk; conveniently, that money was tucked into various cracks in the budget that didn’t require votes for approval. The county and the city chipped in $30 million; the DRPA ponied up another $10 million. 

That’s a load of largely taxpayer-funded cash moving from one powerful hand to the next, with no messy public referendum to get in the way of some muckety-muck’s vision of Chester’s future. What began as a sports-business deal had evolved into an economic development plan with soccer as its centerpiece, and it seemed like a win-win for all parties — with the possible exception of Chester itself.

alike largely dismiss the notion that a stadium can lift a depressed community up out of the mire. Villanova professor Rick Eckstein, co-author of Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle Over Building Sports Stadiums, calls the $1.7 billion the stadium complex is projected to generate for Chester and the region “a fantasy figure.”

“The formula used to create that number is filled with assumptions regarding the economic benefits that will come,” Eckstein says. “That’s all speculative. If they were basing it on stadiums in other cities, I can’t think of a single case where the economic benefits live up to the projections and the cost of the stadiums.”

A 2004 report by the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, took Eckstein’s harsh assessment even further. Not only do stadiums contribute little to the local economy; they can negatively impact both jobs and wages. “Our conclusion,” said the study’s authors, “and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy.” In December, the New York Times detailed the “train wreck” in Cincinnati, where new publicly funded stadiums for the Bengals and the Reds have failed to pay for public schools or revitalize the waterfront. Eckstein admits that of the 40 stadium and arena deals he’s studied, only one was for an MLS team. But he’s confident the results will be the same: “The idea that this project is going on is completely untenable.”