By Kevin Kinkead
They carried a blue and gold coffin with the hashtag "We Deserve Better" painted on the side.
It was marched from the far end of Seaport Drive to the gates of PPL Park, a metaphoric "futbol" funeral procession with Union supporters operating as makeshift pallbearers.
The symbolism was obvious, and in a final gesture the casket was lowered to ground, where fans lifted the lid to reveal the image of CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz. The words "Serial Franchise Killer" were placed underneath in spooky, Halloween-styled font.
This was the spearhead of the procession, a vocal outburst attended by about 125 Sons of Ben members. Unhappy with front office operations, a cumulative feeling of discontent finally manifested itself as the first organized protest in franchise history.
"This has been a long, long, decision in the making," said Sons of Ben Vice President Ami Rivera, following the demonstration. "We have received feedback from the end of last year during the U.S. Open Cup, during the end of the season, and through the beginning of this season. Our membership has been continually unhappy with the performance of the Union. The board has spent countless hours debating what has been going on. What message do we send? Do we send a message at all? How should that be delivered? The overwhelming feeling from our membership is that there is discontent, and we are obligated to represent our people. In doing so, we have decided to send a message that Union fans deserve better."
— Kevin Kinkead (@KevinKCBS3) May 17, 2015
Inside the stadium, you'd never know a protest had taken place.
The coffin and the banners were left outside, but the voices weren't.
SOB capos lead the raucous cheers, as a depleted Union squad ended a four-game losing streak with a deserved, 1-0 win against D.C. United on national television.
From jeering to cheering, there was certainly an about-face from supporters, but that was always part of the plan.
That juxtaposition is a point of contention among SOB members, many of whom feel the protests should take place inside the stadium to maximize impact and effectiveness.
But leadership has drawn clear boundaries, stating that the group will support the players and coaches during the course of a match.
"Our goal is, inside the stadium, (we're there) for the players," explained SOB President Kenny Hanson. "Regardless of what people say, our goal is to make sure that inside, we support our team. That's what we were founded on and that's what we're going to continue to do. For people who think that maybe this wasn't a high-impact (demonstration), or not enough, we got substantial national coverage on this. It will be talked about, for anyone who watched the game, that's something that (Fox Sports color commentator) Alexi Lalas talked about. It's not fair to our players and it's not fair to our coach to take our frustrations out on them. We know they're frustrated. We're frustrated too, and we're going to be there for them and we're going to support them in their time of need."
The criticism is directed at the front office, namely Sakiewicz.
Maybe it's fair, and maybe it's not.
After all, Sakiewicz is a part-owner and the face of the franchise. He oversees front office operations and answers only to majority owner Jay Sugarman, who generally stays out of the public spotlight.
Sakiewicz was the topic of tifo that were displayed in the River End last season. The crests of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and New York/New Jersey MetroStars were placed on tombstones, not dissimilar to the coffin demonstration from the weekend.
It's hard to say how much of those franchise's failures can be blamed on Sakiewicz. He was named MLS Executive of the Year in 1999 and no longer worked for the Mutiny when they folded a few years later. Did he have a role in that decline?
The Metros failed to live up to expectations on the field, though the business side of things was relatively stable. Hardcore Metro fans clashed with Sakiewicz, who eventually completed the sale of the franchise and got Red Bull Arena approved after a lengthy and convoluted process.
"We wholeheartedly agree with the Sons of Ben, that we all deserve more from all the commitment and hard work put into the Philadelphia Union over the last five years," Sakiewicz told CBS Philly on Monday, the day after the protest. "We're a very young club but expect a lot more and our great fans deserve it. At this moment, it's most important to support and assist the players, Jim, his staff, and the organization, and not point fingers at me or any one individual that is part of our organization. We are a team, and will continue to work hard at getting better each and every time we play."
Fans don't seem to be focused on one specific issue. There's a blanket malaise that touches on both financial disparity and lack of on-field results.
Sugarman simply does not have the money to out-spend teams like Los Angeles, Toronto, and Seattle. The Union will not be signing seven-figure designated players. That was bluntly stated in the November press conference that redefined front office roles and also announced the hiring of Rene Meulensteen as a special consultant.
The club will soon part ways with Meulensteen, but still wants to add a "Head of Soccer Operations", which was probably the prime caveat from that press conference.
Sakiewicz wrote an open letter to the fanbase on Monday, explaining that the search for that executive is ongoing.
Here's a passage:
As we stated firmly back in November, we remain committed to hiring the right person to oversee these operations including first team, reserves, technical staff, scouting, Union Academy including all youth soccer programming and our overall strategy. We have several ongoing conversations at the present time and we are working to get that person in place once we agree upon who we believe the best candidate is to help us achieve our goals.
Finally, and of most importance, we want to again extend our deepest gratitude to our supporters as we both understand and appreciate your frustrations. All of us here are committed to winning on the field. Our ultimate goal is to bring a championship to you, the very best fans in Major League Soccer. We will continue to work tirelessly to achieve that goal and will never give up that top priority to get there. Never!
Manager Jim Curtin seems to be in a good spot.
He's not the target of the SOB message, but he's in a great position to make it go away. Philadelphia sports fans generally have short memories, and winning is the best way to patch up a problem.
Curtin hasn't had much to work with this season. He's made some tough decisions with the goalkeeping situation and dealt with some difficult disciplinary situations. He sets the lineup but can't be realistically blamed for some of the poor individual performances and other lengthy slumps.
He is, however, the manager of the team, and accepts responsibility in the same, default way as the front office does.
"I would say first and foremost, that (fans) are entitled to displeasure when the team has only won one time coming into this game," Curtin said in his post-game press conference. "I look at myself in the mirror first. Again, we've had injuries, we've had different things, we've had call ups, we've had off the field issues, we've had a lot to go through this year and it's been very challenging. If you're a fan of this team, you're entitled to be pissed off at how this year is going. I'm pissed off at how this year is going. It's not gone the way we wanted. I share their sentiment. I feel the same way. To know that they still support us on the field is excellent. It was special. It was electric in here, and you leave again remembering that this is a place where teams hate coming."
A sense of fan "entitlement" seems to be another cause for conflict. Do fans "deserve" anything at all? Some would say no. Others would argue that they are paying customers, and that the customer is always right.
It's no secret that fan opinion is sharply divided. The Sons of Ben is comprised of some 5,000+ people with strong voices and different opinions. That makes it difficult for the leadership to put together a plan that satisfies everyone. It's modern democracy on a much smaller scale.
Kelly Christine Delaney is the SOB travel director and longest serving board member.
"I understand people's frustrations," Delaney told CBS. "But until there's a solution that we actually know will work, I don't believe in demanding anybody's head, or any of that. I think (it's about) expressing to the team or the front office that we're not happy. We're not getting the results that we want obviously, but we also don't think we're getting the effort that we deserve, hence the hashtag, 'we deserve better'."
The Sons of Ben are a vocal but rather small portion of the fanbase. Remove the River End from PPL Park and you'll still have about 14,000 people remaining in a max-capacity stadium. Most are casual fans and suburban soccer families. They don't necessarily affect the sphere of influence, but they make up a larger slice of the financial pie. They pay more for season tickets and generally buy more merchandise and spend more money at the concession stands. Front office finances would be jeopardized more with apathy from the casual fan rather than the River End. That's not meant as a slight; it's just a broader look at the economics of PPL Park.
One truth that can't be denied is that the Sons of Ben predates Keystone Sports and Entertainment. The SOBs also predate the contemporary suburban fanbase and the local media corps, even though some founding members like Bryan James have stepped out of the spotlight in recent years. In a sense, the SOBs have always been the "spiritual leaders" of the franchise, with a unique presence in the Union community.
"We're gonna support the team when they need us the most, because it would be easy to turn our backs," Hanson said. "It would be easy to coordinate some march out (of the stadium), or something like that. We're there to support the players. We're going to be loud and we're going to cheer for 90 minutes, we're gonna stand. Like I said, I know there are a lot of people that believe we need to take it (inside the stadium). We certainly don't believe that that is a possibility as of yet. I honestly don't know at what level that it would be a possibility.
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