Any discussion of the New England Revolution’s place in either the local sports or national soccer scenes inevitably turns to the fact that the team still plays at Gillette Stadium. The massive home of the Patriots, way out in Foxborough, stands in stark contrast to the urban soccer-specific stadiums seating between 20,000 and 25,000 that have popped up across Major League Soccer in the last 10 years.
Soccer-specific stadiums are considered crucial for MLS teams because they allow for a more intimate atmosphere than cavernous National Football League venues, which drown out rambunctious soccer crowds. It’s also important to the league that the stadiums are located in urban areas, which appeal to the young adult demographic the league thinks it stands to capture, since young adults are far more familiar with professional soccer than previous generations. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has told me that the number of soccer-specific stadiums in America and Canada is considered a key performance indicator by the league.
(The team with the best attendance in the league, the Seattle Sounders, plays in a football stadium, too. But with more than 40,000 fans at each game the Sounders at least have the demand to justify it, and that stadium is located in Seattle as opposed to the suburbs.)
Earlier this week, I met with Revolution President Brian Bilello to talk about the growth of the league and its relationship to the World Cup. But I couldn’t let him go without asking about the stadium prospects. Here’s what he said:
Nothing real specific. Just that it's something we will get done. We really are actively trying to get done around Boston. We recognize it's something that's important for the growth of the Revolution and for soccer in the city. We feel strongly it needs to be in an urban environment and having a suburban soccer stadium won't have the kind of impact we want for the sport. But we're very confident that it will be a great growth driver and I hope we'll get it done soon.
Bilello’s a good interview, but this is more or less the common refrain to that question. Fans generally grant the financial crisis as fair reason for slow news around the end of last decade, but a second phase of stadium rumors has flirted with news cycles pretty continuously since 2010 with little in the way of actual news. Earlier this year, Bilello acknowledged fan frustration fans might feel in a Boston Magazine article that was critical of the Krafts’ stewardship of the team.
It's absolutely understandable the frustration that our fans have. We're frustrated as well. Really, for most fans, they'll continue to be frustrated and continue to have doubts until they see a project with a shovel in the ground. And frankly I think that's very fair for them. And I wouldn't be committing to it on behalf of the organization, and the Krafts wouldn't be committing to it, if it wasn't something we wanted to do, and we're committed to doing it. And again, I know there are fans that won't believe it until they see it, but there's no value to us saying we want to do it if we're not really trying to do it.
Which sounds nice. But as Bilello gets at in that quote, simply acknowledging frustration doesn’t do away with it. Revolution fans want a stadium.
To that end, there have been a couple popular ideas in recent years for where a soccer stadium might ultimately be located. The City of Revere has very publicly campaigned to bring the team there. The possibility that Revere could win the right to build a casino this summer has fueled speculation that a stadium could be located there as well. The prospect of major development in that city, in addition to possible funding from a host community agreement with prospective developer Mohegan Sun, could provide a logical justification for why Revere would be an ideal location. In 2012, Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo said this was his plan, though little has been said about the notion since the city and Mohegan Sun struck their accord.
Somerville, with its ongoing development in Assembly Square, has also been frequently mentioned as a possible location for a stadium. Fans have pointed to the newly-built Revolution Drive, which is located in the development, as a hint. Somerville was speculated to be a possible stadium location as far back as the first batch of rumors in 2006, and the city has said it is only interested in a deal that makes financial sense. Activists in the city, meanwhile, have said they wouldn’t accept even that, arguing that even a privately-funded stadium wouldn’t do enough to boost the local economy.
The Kraft family is famously tight-lipped about their holdings, and that’s true for those who run those holdings as well. (Bill Belichick says hi, grouchily.) Bilello has said there are other cities that haven’t been reported that are also involved in these discussions, though he hasn’t offered specifics.
All of which leads us to an appearance by Jonathan Kraft yesterday on the uber-popular drivetime sports talk show, Felger & Massarotti on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Kraft, most often associated with the Patriots, was there to talk World Cup. And, because it’s inevitable to talk soccer in this region and not get to the stadium, he talked about that as well.
Interestingly, Kraft didn’t talk about Boston’s urban neighbors, Somerville and Revere. Instead, he spoke about Boston itself.
"We're working hard at doing it, but there aren't tracks of land just sitting there. We're a developed, older, more mature city and it's harder to make these things happen," Kraft said. "That being said, we are working hard on it. Unfortunately, I don't think this was something Mayor Menino saw the value in, and it didn't get a lot of attention.
"I think Mayor Walsh believes in the sport and understands the impact it could have on the city beyond just the sport but what you can do with the use of the city and cultural events. Hopefully we'll see if become a reality in the near future.
A couple things to take away from that. First, Kraft has at least publicly decided to put Boston in the spotlight. Maybe Boston was one of those cities Bilello said hadn’t seen much previous press. (Boston has previously been reported on as a potential site, but generally with the caveat that it was extremely unlikely.) It could also be that the Krafts, who are extremely astute businesspeople, are looking to leverage those other cities by suggesting Boston is the favorite.
The conversation also suggests fans might still be waiting a while. Again, the Krafts generally play things close to the vest about their business dealings, so even if a deal was imminent you probably wouldn’t hear much in the way of foreshadowing from their corner. But if the latest insight, shared during rush hour on one of the region’s leading sports programs, is that a new mayor might be more receptive to a stadium, it’s hard to believe any sort of stadium decision is very close at all.