More than two hundred members of Philadelphia Union supporters group Sons of Ben were at PPL Park on Wednesday evening for the first annual Supporters Summit hosted by the club. Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber, Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz, Team Manager Peter Nowak, and players Sebastien Le Toux and Faryd Mondragon were among the members of the panel addressing the fans during this unique event.
Garber and Sakiewicz led much of the discussion as the agenda for the evening included the league schedule, game day experience, stadium expansion, ticketing, playoff structure, single table alignment and more. Additional topics were introduced by members of the Sons of Ben, Philadelphia Union's supporters group, who were the only invitees for the Summit.
Throughout the Supporters Summit, various fans in attendance took advantage of the opportunity to take the microphone and direct questions to all members of the panel. Initial questions were submitted in advance by fans asked by Comcast SportsNet personality Amy Fadool, who moderated the event.
The first topic for discussion was the expansion of PPL Park to accommodate additional fans as the club continues to sell out many of its home matches.
"First and foremost, we need to set the record straight that this is a soccer stadium and will always be a soccer stadium," Sakiewicz proclaimed due to an announcement earlier in the year that Villanova University would be playing its football at PPL Park in the fall.
"As a business we have to evolve and we have had great success here," Sakiewicz continued, "In order for us to grow, we have to look and start thinking today about what our expansion is going to be down the line. It is not going to happen this year. It is probably not going to happen the following year. We have three phases in this building. It was designed from the beginning to expand to almost 30,000 seats."
The team's CEO explained the three phases that could take place in expanding PPL Park, which would see various parts of the park expanded to suit the growing needs of the club.
The discussion soon changed to the challenge of a nineteenth team in the league in 2012 as Montreal is set to become the latest expansion club in Major League Soccer. The challenge is specifically due to having an odd number of teams. Garber additionally considered the possibility of expanding Major League Soccer beyond twenty clubs, as far as twenty-two teams.
"More than likely you won't see a balanced schedule going forward," Garber said. "Balance versus unbalanced is still a process to be resolved, but unlikely. The real question is whether we have a competition that is conference based, which means you're playing against your conference more, or is it rivalry based, which would work well for television, but might be less balanced in terms of the fairness of the competition."
Nowak fielded many of the questions about the team's style of play, the challenge for referees and additional questions related to the team's performance on the field. Mondragon and Le Toux were responsible for discussing the game day atmosphere that is produced by the supporters. "It's a boost to have such great fans behind us. It would be worse to have it against us," Mondragon said about playing in front of the Sons of Ben in the River End of PPL Park.
The question of referee quality was directed towards the MLS Commissioner. "We are doing as much as we can with a process that is not managed by us," he said. Garber conveyed the point that Major League Soccer does not control its referees in the same way that other sports league such as the National Basketball Association does. Even as Commissioner of the MLS, he is not able to control their schedules and assignments in the same way as David Stern.
Much of the remaining time allotted was used to discuss the current broadcasting deals with Major League Soccer and season ticket policies being enforced by the Philadelphia Union. In light of several recent events, most noticeably an incident during the match versus the Colorado Rapids, Sakiewicz discussed the sale of supporters section tickets on sites such as StubHub who are not able to control who those tickets are ultimately sold to.
"Somethings we control and something we don't. It is not illegal in this country to form a third market for tickets or secondary market. It is not illegal to do that. We cannot prevent it. We cannot forbid it. Unfortunately that is the reality of the situation," Sakiewicz expressed. "What we can do though is we can police our stands for people who do purchase those tickets on StubHub and make the owner of those tickets, the season ticket holder, responsible for that. A good example of that was the Colorado game where we had a fight that broke out that was started by some people that bought the tickets."
As the microphone was handed over to the fans for their turn to ask questions, many focused on follow up questions to the topics previously discussed. Fans were most concerned about the quality of referees, safety within PPL Park, travel times exiting the stadium, and the All-Star game selection process and match format.
When asked what would define a successful season, "I think we already have had a successful season. We celebrated our tenth sellout last Saturday. Our team plays with spirit every game," Sakiewicz explained, "For me that is success."
Christopher Savino is a columnist for Goal.com. His feature, "Business Off The Pitch" appears every Monday. Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments and concerns or follow him on Twitter @chrissavino.