New England Soccer Today

A View from the Fort: Can Viewing From The Fort Be Viable For The Long Term?

The Fort at Gillette Stadium. (Photo: Tony Biscaia/

The Fort at Gillette Stadium. (Photo: Tony Biscaia/

Can Viewing From The Fort Be Viable For The Long Term?


In a recent article in New England Soccer Today my colleague Brian O’Connell opined that, “short of the near impossible, the Revolution will be playing at Gillette Stadium for years to come. And maybe, it’s simply time to accept that.”

Despite having attended matches at the former Home Depot Center and Red Bull Arena, two of the very best soccer specific stadiums in MLS and having a penchant for dreaming it pains me to agree with him. Put in penultimate but realistic terms the question boils down to this; would you prefer to watch the Revolution in a stadium of their own but on TV from another city or to somehow make your way across the suburban sprawl to see live proper first division football in the current setup?

From where I stand (fifteen rows back in the Fort) there is no option: if it is Gillette Stadium or the highway, I’ll take Route 1 (in my case also Routes 2 and 95 and about 45 minutes) to grill in the parking lot and watch the team in less than ideal surroundings.

Of course some time, some day, someplace a deal may get done, the measurements get made, the shovels in the ground, etc, etc, etc, but until then the New England Revolution will groundshare with the New England Patriots, the University of Massachusetts Minutemen, assorted musical overproductions, NCAA lacrosse and whatever else puts bums in the seats and feet strolling through Patriot Place.

Despite all the complaints of foot dragging in many ways the current situation is fair enough, given the extreme difficulty of getting any major project built within the metropolitan Boston area. But to make O’Connell’s statement even more painful to contemplate, two of the three best home atmospheres in the league are in stadiums that are shared with the same sport that the Revs do, gridiron football. Even worse, Jeld-Wen Field in Portland where the Timbers and Portland State Vikings play and Century Link Field in Seattle, home to the NFL Seahawks and MLS Sounders both have the much loathed Field Turf, and in the case of the latter the quality of the surface makes Foxborough look like Wimbledon before Wimbledon starts. And, while Jeld-Wen has a cozy 20,438 capacity, Century Link holds 68,000 for gridiron games, 756 less than Gillette but an NFL monster nonetheless.

Granted, these particular Cascadia venues are smack in the middle of downtown in two of the most user friendly cities for the demographic that MLS covets – youngish folks with no particular allegiance to the big four sports. If spectator soccer is mainstream in most of the world, in the U.S.A. it is an amalgam of alternative rock, at once straight edge and edgy with both hipster and suburban values informing the culture. But little by little, little Chad, Muffy and the orange slices crowd have become
superfluous to requirements in those stadiums. Could this happen in New England?

After 10 home games the Revolution are averaging 13,745 fans despite a Wednesday night match in May that drew 8,040 hardy souls and two crowds of 10K in crap weather. If those attendance figures are seen as outliers of circumstance as in day of the week and climactic nastiness, the remaining seven dates average 15,487, not great, not even the MLS average (now about 18K) but respectable given the slough of indifference that the Revolution are battling to rectify.

Last season, with a far less attractive team the average attendance ended up at two souls over 14,000. Unless there is a complete crash 2013 should certainly improve on that figure. And, if such is the case if the team draws mere one hundred more folks on average they will have exceeded the eleven year standard (14,102) in the house that Belichik, Brady and a whole lot of paper pulp helped to build.

In some ways that really isn’t much of a standard at all. As of this writing the Revs lie tied for 10th with the Dynamo in the overall league table on the pitch while attendance-wise they are tied for 16th on average with Chicago. To give perspective, that puts them between Bristol City (#20 – 13,348) and Watford (#19 – 13,454) in last year’s Coca-Cola Championship. And unless New England has a huge attendance spike over the final seven home dates last season’s Premiership bottom dwellers, QPR at 17,779 would outdraw the Revs by over 3,500 fans per match.

The comparison to QPR is relevant in that the Revs compete with the supposed Big Four (Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox) in a metropolitan area of about 4.5 million. Of course their seasons do not totally overlap but what with playoffs and preseason the Revs are always in direct competition with at least one other major league team, to say nothing of the multiple lower division baseball and hockey sides from Pawtucket to Nashua.

QPR is located in far west London, which has a metro population of at least 9 million, twice the size of the catchment area for the Revs. The Big Four football teams in London are Arsenal (60,079), Chelsea (41,462), Tottenham (36,065) and West Ham (34,719) along with Brentford (6,302), Charlton (18,499), Crystal Palace (17,280), Dagenham & Redbridge (1,903), Fulham (24,848), Millwall (10,559), Orient (4,001), Watford (13,454) and Wimbledon (4,060). All of these clubs have seasons that overlap QPR, so in that sense they compete although allegiances in London are far more tribal thus immutable so there is little overlap. Likely QPR’s average will go down in the Championship but a good promotion battle would offset that. The only major competing spectator sport in the UK would be rugby but even there few fans attend both sports while members of Bruins/Celtics/ Patriot or Red Sox Nation(s) often hold multiple passports, so to speak.

Beyond financial limitations and distance (and they absolutely come into play) there really aren’t solid reasons why local sports fans can’t support baseball, basketball, football, hockey (choose one, or more) AND soccer. Certainly there are more than enough people within sixty miles of Foxborough who like soccer to pack Gillette’s soccer configuration to the rafters if they chose to come out. And while the centrality of the Garden and Fenway are certainly advantages getting in and out of Boston can take every bit as much time as driving to Foxborough and with free parking?

Frankly, if the Revs can’t match QPR in attendance, even in Foxborough, why should they try to build in town? It is a hiding to nowhere. Suppose for the sake of argument that an in town stadium increased the average attendance from 14,000 to 18,000, not a bad guesstimate. If the average price per ticket is around $25, which with discounts, give-aways and other fiddles is likely about the case, then the move would net $1.7 million additional revenue annually. Not really an incentive there, given the costs involved to obtain land and build a stadium unless there is a sweetheart deal.

So, if O’Connell’s sage plea for acceptance of the current location is the case, what, in the spirit of a half full glass and a full stadium, is to be done?

The first, and most important response would be to acknowledge that any and all answers are reciprocal, both the fans and the management/ownership have skin in the game. If folks are going to spend money to come to Foxborough, ownership needs to do the same in ways that are both substantive and demonstrative. On the other hand, folks have to want to journey out to the stadium or at least be willing to be persuaded to do so.

So, in the spirit of pentagonal analysis here are five things that might be done to make a Revolution match at Gillette Stadium a destination of choice. And suppose, just suppose that someone in Revs marketing drew that 4,000 figure on the office white board and the ownership agreed to add $1.7 million to the annual operating budget…. As I often do, let’s dream.

1.) An attractive team: It has been suggested that Jay Heaps is evolving into one of the more innovative coaches in MLS, specifically through his use of the 1-4-1-4-1 formation, a kind of contemporary version of the 1970’s Dutch whirl, or “carousel” style of interchangeability that came to be called “total football” and set the benchmark, even for Barcelona.

This is not to compare Nguyen with Cruijff, Caldwell with Neeskens or Dimitry Imbongo with Johnny Rep, but the fact is that few, if any, other teams in MLS play the way the Revs are presently trying to emulate. And watching them try is part of the fun, as things morph and change every week. While the side has to figure out the balance between playing the beautiful game beautifully and dealing with the ninety-minute muggings that constitute many MLS matches, the number of skill players on view, plus interesting personalities makes for a very marketable group.

We have Diego going to his prom, Andrew Farrell growing up in Peru, Stephen McCarthy at 6’ 5” with a spiking volleyball mom just to name three. Truth be told, if the team can continue to improve on the pitch their back-stories are such that pretty much any person in the metro area who is interested in soccer can identify with any number of the players. Not unlike the Red Sox “band of idiots” of 2004 or the “lunch pail” Bruins of 2010/11 the 2013 Revolution are an attractive team that could be sold to folks both for style and stories.

It is important to note that the last time (and only) that the Revs had an interesting and good team intersected with when the management/ownership were in the midst of their post-contraction cutbacks. For four years New England had some of the best players in the league who played a highly watchable brand of football but there was little or no effort put into giving the team a presence in the public eye. Things have changed, at least to a degree and hopefully will continue to improve as the current side does.

2.) Get rid of the turf: Here is the major expense and maybe some rocket science. In the wisdom of the architects who designed then CMGI Field, there doesn’t seem to be enough direct sunlight to grow grass. In truth, I find this hard to believe in 2013. On the other hand, I can easily imagine that it costs money, maybe a lot of it and since NFL football is basically a track event involving hyper-large people who specialize in quick sprints the current rug suits the Patriots to a T.

But soccer players are quite another matter and most of them view the surface at Gillette as both an aesthetic and health hazard. To go back to real grass would send multiple positive messages both to fans and players both current and prospective. Think about the high profile MLS performers who skip appearances at Gillette; Barros-Schelotto, Henry, Keane and many others to say nothing of players who might have played for the hometown team but looked at the surface and skedaddled. And then there are the friendlies. Would ManU, Brasil, Portugal, Mexico and others have come here had they had to play on the artificial surface? Why was AC Milan pissed off last year when they discovered they had to play on a rug?

I have interviewed perhaps 40 Revolution players over the years and only one, Benny Fielhaber the ultimate contrarian, said that he liked playing on turf and even in his case it was a question of his feeling that his ability to adjust to the surface gave him an advantage, it wasn’t that he liked it. Everyone knows it is crap. Why not send the message that for the quality of the game the ownership is willing to spend both time and money?

The estimated cost is about $200,000 to lay a full grass playing surface, plus a good chunk of change to maintain. The recent World Cup qualifier in Seattle was estimated at $80 to $100K and that was a pretty poor job so it is safe to assume a higher cost for better results.

3.) Make the house a home: Both players and fans mention feeling that they are guests in the Patriots house and while the slight isn’t intentional, it is there and like the playing surface could be rectified by a combination of imagination and expenditure.

For example, why not cover the tarps that cover the empty seats with Revs insignias? Maybe even a monster banner, Dortmund style, hanging from the upper deck? How about a Hall of Fame at the end of the pitch opposite the Fort, images of past Rev greats in the style of the images of current players that are depicted along the sidelines. What about some banners celebrating the various championships B’s/C’s style, despite not winning the big one? The 2004/07 Revolution were awfully good, so celebrate it. Truth be told in MLS New England have as much competitive tradition as anyone, milk it! Pack all the parts of the lower deck that are devoid of people with imaginative graphics. The compacting of certain sections has definitely made the game atmosphere better, perhaps some barriers could be placed to help amplify the crowd sound; something even the Pats players have noticed.

In the last couple of seasons the Gillette ground crew have done a better job of eradicating most of the gridiron graphics that spoil the look of the pitch for soccer. But one touch that every soccer fan would notice would be the introduction of real goal posts instead of the Qwick Goals currently in use. Most of the new MLS stadiums use them and while the posts pop out as readily as the goals slide they exude a look of permanence, as well as perform the “bulge old onion bag” in more spectacular fashion.

Employees at every level should be enthusiastic about soccer, or at least about being on duty. This is particularly true for people with whom the public interacts. Ground sharing takes place all over the world, from Milan to Melbourne and every person who enters the stadium for a Revolution match should feel that the team and the game are the raison d’être on the day just as a Rossoneri fan entering the San Siro doesn’t sense the presence of the Nerazzurri, unless it is derby day!

Finally, the sideline advertising should utilize the newer style l.e.d. electronic graphics displays. It is a truly postmodern conundrum that advertising sets atmosphere but there we are and every bit helps.

4.) Encourage broadening the demographic with transport to games: In 2010 the MBTA began a feasibility study to see if there could be regular service from South Station to Foxborough. While this has apparently been tabled due to perceived drawbacks like cost of upgrades, investment in new cars, strain on infrastructure, the idea of a direct link either by train or bus is an interesting one. The full, twelve-car trains that go to Pats games carry around 1,200 fans so, again, would the cost outweigh the benefit? Busses might be an interesting way of broadening the base, perhaps originating in particular neighborhoods and bars across the metropolitan area.

There seems to be an urban legend that putting a stadium in town, near a T stop will bring forth a significant number of fans that won’t or can’t drive out to Gillette. Is there proof positive that this is the case? When I attended the Open Cup match at Harvard two months ago most of the faces I saw were familiar but that is only anecdotal, offering low-priced, even free rides to and back from Revs games might start slowly and snowball, or fizzle. At this point no one knows but with the theoretical $1.7 million being saved it might be worth the expenditure to find out.

The team is always going to suffer from being located in the northeast. Early season games may be too cold, people leave town during the summer, there are those pesky Bruins and Red Sox who often have games at the same time, etc, etc. Attending anything from the opera to parent/teacher conferences requires prioritizing; the problem is making matches at Foxborough a priority. Earlier this season I received an e-mail from my ticket representative offering to meet at a Dunkin Donuts to talk about the team. I went and had a great time, along with two other hard cores and two Revs employees. We talked soccer non-stop for over an hour. The reach-out meant a lot, although I’m sure it took a lot of time and energy to traverse the area from coffee shop to coffee shop, talking to a smattering of folks. These are the kind of grinding grassroots efforts that may or may not pay off but are the stuff of which good public relations and relationships are built on; may they continue.

5.) Display ambition at every level: Items one through four would emphasize that, making it clear to critics, fans, players and press that the ownership really want the Revolution to succeed on their own terms and not as an ancillary investment. A maintenance business plan doesn’t account for all the inflationary factors that surround high profile professional sports; the cost of staying competitive rises every year and for fans to become attached to the team there needs to be stability coupled with a perception of moving forward.

On the playing side it makes sense to lock up some of the good, new players right now. Of course MLS will remain a selling league, at least for the next decade and it is actually a credit to its improvement that there are constant rumors of scouts sniffing around. At the same time, continuity is what allows a team to develop and for fans to become attached. To achieve this there has to be an overall perception on the part of the players that the team is going places and that salaries will be competitive and not nickeled and dimed. For example Dempsey and Parkhurst put in good shifts and helped the team succeed on the pitch before they departed, the same needs to be the case for the current crop and that may require opening the checkbook, likely soon.

While the multi-million dollar return of the Duce to MLS has made some Rev fans utterly crazy the last time I looked New England was two points (30 to 28) up on the Sounders with a game in hand. Will the addition of one the best U.S. outfield players ever make up that difference? Likely so, although being unwilling or unable to compete in signing the returning Dempsey is hardly damning, there is no way he would return to the Revolution, Seattle or Houston were his chosen destinations. However, if the local side fails to accomplish equally important personnel moves as in signing up the youthful core and bringing in some help before the transfer window closes in a couple of days time the message to players, supporters and would-be fans would certainly be.

Building and nurturing a significant base of support will take time and require a considerable investment of time and money to succeed. Of course the landmark move would be the building of a new stadium in the core metropolitan area but shy of that to stand pat (no pun intended) and not make visible moves to better the current venue would be an indication of atrophy. Some will see any attempt to upgrade the situation in Gillette as a cynical application of lipstick to a pig. In the glass half-full spirit I would see it as a manifestation of ambition and would raise a half-full glass of spirits to the effort.