Jerome led me onto the field and there I saw a young Dick Vermeil on the sideline talking with a slender, well-dressed man smoking a cigarette. The two were having a light-hearted conversation, about what, I couldn’t quite hear. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to. The slender man took a puff, said something, laughed and smacked Coach Vermeil on the shoulder. Vermeil laughed just as heartily. The two were obviously friends. Jerome’s big frame stepped in front of me, blocking my view. He said, “Mr. Tose just told Coach a story about how crazy Eagles fans are. He loves it.”
Jeffrey Lurie has a chance to start anew. He and the Philadelphia Eagles front office have often been criticized for placing profit ahead of talent, arguably at the expense of fan satisfaction (or rather, while taking fan passion for granted). When Joe Banner was team President and resident capologist, the Eagles seemed to take more pride in maximizing the team’s level of competitiveness while also maximizing cap space. For a while it worked but the results were short lived. As teams with higher payrolls and talent levels continued to win Super Bowls, Lurie’s business model changed. His annual payroll rose to luxury tax limits this time while sacrificing team character and chemistry… and again, arguably, at the expense of fan satisfaction. There are many contributing factors here: Andy Reid’s coaching, his (mis)management style, and Jim Johnson’s unfortunate death, to name a few. However, as Joe Banner left for Cleveland and the Reid era comes to an end, Lurie has an opportunity to start fresh, to re-brand, to tap the great potential of his team’s passionate fan base. He doesn’t need to look far for inspiration… In fact, on one particularly hot July evening, he only needed to look down from his luxury suite onto Lincoln Financial Field.
On July 23, 2011 fans 57,000 strong filled Lincoln Financial Field to see an international football game, Philadelphia’s Union against Real Madrid. The match was quite an accomplishment in and of itself, pitting a two year-old toddler franchise against one of the most storied franchises in the world. The Union fought hard but ultimately fell to the better team, 2-1. For a night though, the loss brought Philadelphia to soccer’s center stage. If Lurie paid close enough attention he would have recognized a thriving partnership between a franchise and its fans. The Philadelphia Union have as rabid a fan base (if not as large) as the Eagles, a fan base that includes, but is not limited to, the influential Sons of Ben, who are credited with bringing the expansion Union club to the area. The Union and its ownership group seem to make most decisions with their fans in mind (see also, Le Toux!). Consider the carefully crafted uniforms. The colors, blue and gold, highlight Philadelphia civic pride and pay homage to the colors utilized by the Sons of Ben. Recalling Benjamin Franklin’s famous revolutionary cartoon, the Union crest includes a snake and the motto jungite aut perite, Latin for “join or die.” Similarly, the fanatical Sons of Ben employ a meaningful Ben Franklin-inspired logo of their own, with a motto that could easily apply to any Philadelphia team’s fan base (but especially the Eagles), ad finem fidelis, “faithful to the end.”
However, these would merely be superficial connections without action providing context to meaning. Perhaps the most meaningful is what occurs a short drive down I-95 at PPL Park. Each year members of the Union front office, including members of the ownership group (and in 2012, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr.), participate in an exhibition soccer game, for charity, against representatives from the Sons of Ben. Proceeds go to the Union’s charitable foundation, whose mission is to provide “opportunities for children through the power of relationships to offer transformational change in the areas of education, community, health and recreation.” The Philadelphia Eagles do quite a lot for the Philadelphia community, and are recognized nationally for doing so, but can you imagine Jeffrey Lurie hosting and playing in a flag football game for charity, against fans, at Lincoln Financial Field?
As Lurie watched the Union play Real Madrid that hot Saturday night, he could not have known then the predicament facing him now. But he is currently presented with a city of fans desperate for change and it would serve him well to keep the context of that game in mind. Considering how many Philadelphia Union fans are also diehard Eagles fans, a coaching change is a good start, but not necessarily enough. Lurie may soon realize there is indeed an end to fan faithfulness under his ownership. More action is needed.
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