Horrible Timing: $115M Soccer Stadium, No ESPN

If Philadelphia fans were having a bad day dealing with the aftermath of yet another Eagles collapse, it’s probably getting even worse for Delaware County, the suburban Philadelphia site of the city’s new MLS team. According to the DELCO DAILY TIMES, the Delaware County Council finally approved the sale of $28.6 million in bonds — an investment that will cost the county $1.77 million annually in interest — to help fund its half of F.C. Philadelphia’s new stadium. The entire stadium will cost $115 million, but that’s a whole different issue of over-the-top spending. Normally, the approval of the bonds would be good news, but given the fact that we also learned this afternoon that ESPN is pulling out of its weekly Thursday night television deal with the league, that $28.6 million+ investment might be worth a lot less sooner rather than later.

ben franklin scarf
(Ben Franklin loves soccer, but we think he would have admonished this deal.)

So what does that mean for the league? It means that its franchises are being downgraded by ESPN, which can only hurt their relative sale-on value. Add to that the league’s crippling salary cap, anemic attendance figures in all but four or five cities, and a general creeping feeling that its quality is abysmal on the global market, and the MLS is looking more and more like a dead-on-arrival league.

Let’s recap: Suburban Philadelphia residents just spent some $30 million, plus $1.7 million annually, to build a hulking stadium for a club that may hardly have a viable league by the time the stadium is done. Oh, and the park is miles from the city, without public transportation. Talk about a bad idea.

SPORTS BUSINESS JOURNAL broke the story about ESPN leaving its relatively new TV deal after just two years, with the Worldwide Leader citing horrendous ratings despite a consistent weekly slot as the motivation for dumping soccer from its Thursday night lineup. Instead, the league is going have its televised games jumbled around as randomly as its games in general, alternating between Thursdays, Saturdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Philadelphia fans may brave that kind of sporadic schedule, but something tells us the soccer backers in Kansas City might not be so patient. And fans in Houston are definitely not going to brave the heat when they can’t even plan on when they’ll need to do so. That’s not good; Houston is the best-run franchise in the league.

Maybe we’re overreacting here, but it seems like Philadelphia might be greenlighting this MLS project a bit more on general Philly sports euphoria than it is on cold, hard logic. Sure, they have a built in group of fanatical supporters, and they’ll have a soccer-specific stadium to play in. That’s half the battle.

It’s the other half that’s the problem, and it’s awful hard to justify millions upon millions of dollars in funding if the league you’re shelling out to join can’t even keep up the business investments it’s worked hard to pick up.