November 23, 2022
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© 2022 Delaware Business Times
WILMINGTON – The Philadelphia Union have risen from humble, fan-fed beginnings to become one of the most successful Major League Soccer franchises in America, and the team’s success is due in part to the vision of Wilmington development leaders Buccini/Pollin Group.
The multi-billion-dollar firm, founded by local brothers Rob and Chris Buccini and Rob’s college roommate Dave Pollin, has put sports near the center of much of its development nationwide, which has increased its visibility and its projects’ success. In Wilmington, BPG built the Chase Fieldhouse that is home to the Delaware Blue Coats and in Pittsburgh, it is working on an enormous mixed-use development that ties into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ PPG Paints Arena.
But in nearby Chester, Pa., just 15 miles north of Wilmington, is BPG’s biggest sports’ success, where it built the Union’s Subaru Park home stadium under the Commodore Barry Bridge. And the firm’s three founders became the founding investors in the professional soccer team along with real estate financier Jay Sugarman, who they had worked with previously.
Last month, the Union lost the MLS Cup Final to Los Angeles FC in a nail-biting game that has been called “the greatest Cup Final” in league history. But it’s been a successful run for the Union, which finished with the best regular season record in 2021 and tied for the record this season, even if the Buccinis are still in search of the first national sports championship for a Delawarean owner since Ruly Carpenter did so with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980.
The passion for sports began early for the Buccinis, albeit not in soccer.
“We didn’t grow up in a sports family, but it was a big, big part of our lives. We all played college football, some much better than others,” Chris Buccini recalled with a laugh.
He played at Princeton University, while his older brother Rob and Pollin played at Cornell University. Their personal soccer experience is limited to kindergarten youth soccer or playing for the Brandywine YMCA, but nonetheless, sports has remained an important part of their lives.
Rob Buccini noted that they consider their Wilmington Friends high school coaches like Bob Tattersall and Lee Sibley as friends to this day.
“Understanding the importance of sports and overcoming adversity – picking yourself up when you’ve been kicked down – has been an essential resource in the real estate business, which is a very volatile business,” Rob said.
In 2008, right around the start of the Great Recession, the Buccinis began talking with Sugarman, who had secured the rights to the Philadelphia MLS franchise by way of his investment group Keystone Sports & Entertainment.
“We had land in Chester and Jay liked our site for the same reason we bought the site: Chester is right smack dab in the middle of the Philadelphia MSA. So, it was a pretty easy conversation about getting him to bring the Philadelphia Union to our site, which is how we originally got involved,” Chris recalled.
With interest in the team’s infrastructure development, the BPG founders also agreed to invest in the team’s startups. The Union’s first offices were a small space on A Street in Wilmington owned by the firm, and they later moved to the I.M. Pei building downtown before the stadium and offices in Chester were completed.
Rob credited then-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell with making the stadium possible by shepherding $47 million in state funding to the construction with eyes on it being a workforce project during a time of need. The city just southwest of Philadelphia had long been economically depressed before the 18,500-seat stadium arrived, and its schedule of dozens of games through the summer months and hundreds of jobs added were a welcome sight.
“We never really thought of Chester as being a bad place to work because for us, as Delaware people, it was that much closer to Delaware,” Chris recalled. “One of our missions in the last 18 years, since we started really growing in Philly was to connect Philly and Wilmington as one.”
Today, ownership of the Union has grown to include a number of other faces, including NBA champion Kevin Durant. While the Buccinis couldn’t disclose the size of their current stake, Rob described it as “material.”
BPG has continued to invest in Chester, buying The Wharf at Rivertown, a 400,000-square-foot office building near the stadium, and investing in upgrades to both Subaru Parka and The Wharf.
“The Union was really the first sort of sports-anchored, mixed-use that we did,” Chris said. “Since then, we’ve probably $250 million of additional development there because of that sports anchor.”
Developing the future
Its plans aren’t done yet, as BPG, the Union and WSFS Bank plan to invest in a new sportsplex adjacent to the stadium that will house all of the team’s youth programs. The $55 million WSFS Bank Sportsplex will feature 170,000 square feet of indoor facilities and 32 acres of athletic fields.
“The Union has the best soccer academy in the country, and this will allow us to continue to elevate and attract young players from all over the world,” Rob said.
It’s already produced homegrown talent like Mark McKenzie and Brenden and Paxten Aaronson, who are now playing in some of Europe’s top leagues and even in the World Cup occurring right now in Qatar. Rob said he believes MLS is poised to draw even closer in quality to its rival European soccer leagues like Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, and England’s Premier League.
“I think you’ll see after the World Cup, the gap between the top leagues and MLS will get that much closer. The quality of the Major League Soccer player is totally different today than 12 years ago,” he added.
In many ways, the new sportsplex is the culmination of BPG|Sports, the entity that the firm founded to advance youth sports in the region, sponsoring soccer, lacrosse and basketball teams that play at the Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington.
“When you take the Chase Fieldhouse with Kirkwood Soccer Facility and DE Turf, we’ve now become, I would argue, one of the most important youth soccer locations in America. And it has a massive effect on this economy here,” Chris said.
Rob said their commitment to youth sports has also been an important part of how they are supporting their hometown community.
“I think sports is a great equalizer. No matter what your background is, when you get on the field you have to worry about yourself and being a great teammate … It gives young athletes something to do with their time,” he said.
Heartbreak in LA
Being the rare Delawareans to own a pro sports team comes with the ups-and-downs of the gig though.
Last year, the Union were by far the best team in the league on paper and seemed destined for its first trip to the Cup Final, when 11 players, including many starters, tested positive for COVID just before the game and were forced to sit-out. Despite a spirited effort, the Union would end up losing in the last two minutes to the New York City FC.
“It was heartbreaking that we lost like that, but we knew we would be back, and we knew we could beat them,” Rob said.
They were right, and the Union would beat NYCFC for a trip to the final this year. After a back-and-forth game between MLS’ two best teams ended 2-2 in regular time, the Union would find a goal in overtime, but would give up a last-second goal of their own to Gareth Bale, one of international soccer’s great champions who arrived in LA this year. The Union would lose in a penalty shootout after more than two hours of playing time.
“There was a sense of disbelief [after the Bale goal]. That the pass was that incredible. That header was that incredible. And it just seemed surreal,” Rob said.
Even in the misery there was some joy, as John McCarthy, the goalkeeper for LAFC who came in during overtime to replace an injured starter, was named MVP of the final. McCarthy is a native Philadelphian who spent four seasons with the Union and still occasionally trains at the Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington.
“He was beyond emotional, and you felt happy for him that he had that special day,” Rob recalled. “These local things are what makes you feel comforted; that you feel that you created this ecosystem of athletes that come together.”