November 23, 2022
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WILMINGTON – The Philadelphia Union has grown from humble, fan-fed beginnings to one of its most successful Major League Soccer franchises in America, and the team’s success is due in part to the vision of Wilmington’s development leaders Buccini/Pollin group.
The multi-billion dollar company, founded by local brothers Rob and Chris Buccini and Rob’s college roommate Dave Pollin, has placed sport at the center of much of its development nationwide, increasing its visibility and the success of its projects Has. In Wilmington, BPG built the Chase Fieldhouse, home of the Delaware Blue Coats, and in Pittsburgh, it is working on a massive mixed-use facility that ties into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ PPG Paints Arena.
But in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania, just 15 miles north of Wilmington, is BPG’s greatest sporting success, where it built the Union’s Subaru Park home stadium under the Commodore Barry Bridge. And the three company founders, along with real estate financier Jay Sugarman, with whom they previously worked, became the founding investors of the professional football team.
Last month, Union lost the MLS Cup final to Los Angeles FC in a thrilling game dubbed “the biggest cup final‘ in league history. But it was a winning run for the Union, which ended 2021 with the best regular season record and set the record this season, even if the Buccinis have since been on the hunt for the first national sports championship for a Delaware owner Mr Zimmerman did so in 1980 with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Buccinis’ passion for sport began early, but not in football.
“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 a lot 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. Her personal football experience has been limited to preschool youth football or playing for the Brandywine YMCA, but sport has remained an important part of her life.
Rob Buccini noted that they still consider their Wilmington Friends high school coaches, such as Bob Tattersall and Lee Sibley, as friends to this day.
“Understanding the importance of sport and overcoming adversity – picking yourself back up when you’ve been knocked down – has been an essential resource in real estate, which is a very volatile business,” said Rob.
In 2008, just as the Great Recession was beginning, the Buccinis began talking to Sugarman, who had secured the rights to the Philadelphia MLS franchise through his investment group Keystone Sports & Entertainment.
“We had land in Chester and Jay liked our location for the same reason we bought the location: Chester is right in the middle of the Philadelphia MSA. So getting him to bring the Philadelphia Union to our location was a pretty easy conversation, and that’s how we originally got into it,” Chris recalled.
Interested in the team’s infrastructure development, the BPG founders also agreed to invest in the team’s startups. Union’s first offices were a small space on A Street in Wilmington owned by the firm and they later moved to the IM Pei building downtown before the Chester stadium and offices were completed.
Rob credited then-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell with making the stadium possible by providing $47 million in government funding for its construction, recognizing that it was a manpower project in time of need. The city southwest of Philadelphia was economically depressed long before the 18,500-seat stadium arrived, and its schedule of dozens of games over the summer months and hundreds of additional jobs was a welcome sight.
“We never really thought of Chester as a bad place to work because, for us as Delaware residents, it was so much closer to Delaware,” Chris recalled. “One of our missions over the past 18 years, since we really started to grow in Philly, has been to bring Philly and Wilmington together as one.”
Today, Union ownership has grown to include a number of other faces, including NBA Champion Kevin Durant. While the Buccinis couldn’t disclose the amount of their current stake, Rob described it as “substantial.”
BPG continues to invest in Chester, purchasing The Wharf at Rivertown, a 400,000 square foot office building near the stadium, and investing in upgrades to Subaru Parka and The Wharf.
“The Union was really the first kind of sports-anchored, mixed-use that we did,” Chris said. “Since then, we’ve probably got $250 million in additional development there because of that sport anchor.”
His plans are not ready yet, like BPG, Union and WSFS Bank plan to invest in a new sportsplex next to the stadium which will host all of the team’s youth programmes. The $55 million WSFS Bank Sportsplex will feature 170,000 square feet of indoor facilities and 32 acres of athletic fields.
“Union has the best football academy in the country and this will allow us to continue to develop and attract young players from around the world,” said Rob.
It has already produced homegrown talent such as Mark McKenzie and Brenden and Paxten Aaronson who are now playing in some of Europe’s top leagues and even at the World Cup now taking place in Qatar. Rob said he believes MLS is ready to get even closer qualitatively to rival European football leagues like Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and English Premier League.
“I think you will see after the World Cup that the gap between the top leagues and MLS is getting much smaller. The quality of Major League Soccer players today is very different than it was 12 years ago,” he added.
In many ways, the new Sportsplex is the culmination of BPG|Sports, the entity the company established to advance youth sports in the area and sponsor football, lacrosse and basketball teams that play at Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington.
“If you take the Chase Fieldhouse with the Kirkwood Soccer Facility and DE Turf, we’ve now, I would say, become one of the most important youth soccer locations in America. And it’s having a massive impact on this economy here,” Chris said.
Rob said their involvement in youth sports has also been an important part of the way they support their hometown community.
“I think sport is a great balance. No matter what your background, when you come onto the field you have to take care of yourself and be a great teammate… It gives young athletes something to do with their time,” he said.
Heartbreak in LA
However, the rare Delawareans who own a pro sports team bring with them the ups and downs of performing.
Last year Union were easily the best side in the league on paper and appeared destined for their 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 lost to New York City FC in the last two minutes.
“It was heartbreaking that we lost like that, but we knew we would come back and we knew we could beat them,” Rob said.
They were right, and Union would beat NYCFC for a trip to the Finals that year. After a back-and-forth game between the top two MLS teams that ended 2-2 in regular time, Union found a goal in extra time but gave up a goal of their own at the last second to Gareth Bale, an international, ab the great champions of soccer who have arrived in LA this year. The Union would lose on penalties after more than two hours of play.
“It was a feeling of disbelief [after the Bale goal]. That the pass was so amazing. That header was so incredible. And it just seemed surreal,” said Rob.
There was some rejoicing in the midst, too, when John McCarthy, the LAFC goaltender who came on in overtime for an injured starter, was named Finals MVP. McCarthy is a Philadelphia native who spent four seasons with the Union and still occasionally trains at Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington.
“He was incredibly emotional and happy for him to have this special day,” Rob recalled. “Those local things give you comfort; that you feel like you created this ecosystem of athletes coming together.