Union Busting: Is There More To Nowak’s Sacking Than It Seems?
I hate Liverpool. I hate them so much I decided one day when starting a new FIFA 12 season, that I would choose them as my team and then proceeded to release and transfer all of their players and replace the entire team with the worst rated goalkeepers I could find in order to get Liverpool relegated. I simmed every game, and ended up with a 3-3-20 record before I got sacked.
So of course my first thoughts about this season for Philadelphia Union had to be “Is Nowak doing the same thing in real life?” How else can you explain his getting rid of incredibly popular as well as vital players such as Sebastien Le Toux, Jordan Harvey, Danny Califf and most recently Danny Mwanga, for nothing more than allocation money and a couple of less expensive players? It certainly hasn’t benefitted the team in any other way judging by their abysmal 2-7-2 record. The only team worse than Philadelphia is Toronto, whose sole win they picked up from defeating the Union. Neighboring USL Pro team, the Harrisburg City Islanders has fared better than the Union has against MLS teams. In fact, just prior to Nowak’s sacking, the City Islanders beat the Union 3-2 in a friendly at Hershey Park Stadium.
It is easy to attribute the decision to sack fire dismiss change leadership from Nowak to assistant coach John Hackworth to the poor performance of the Union as well as the seemingly insane transfers has made. One of the reasons that has been attributed to the decision for the “change” as it is politely being called is the rumor that Nowak applied in secret for the vacant manager position at Scottish Premier League side Hearts, and that did not sit well with the Union front office.
By all accounts, Nowak had effectively alienated the fan base, and quite possibly the players and the F.O. through his actions, so combined with the poor record it makes total sense. That’s why when news of his dismissal happened it was easy to start letting the jokes fly. “Nowak has been linked with a move to Hearts, but given what he has done at Philadelphia it seems that he would be more suited for a move to Rangers instead.” But when you really look at and examine the situation, it begins to make less and less sense.
Nick Sakiewicz, the Union’s CEO who made the announcement that Nowak would no longer be with the club has been very adamant that this change (he refuses to say he fired Nowak or even use the term dismissal) has nothing to do with the team having 2 wins in 11 matches, but rather that it came down to a “philosophical difference.” One has to imagine that this had been some time coming, but if the philosophical difference was so great, and it had nothing to do with the team’s record, why allow Nowak to broker a huge trade that sent Mwanga to the Portland Timbers just a week before giving him the axe? Or was that the signal that Peter Nowak was truly descending into Andre Villas-Boas “Heart of Darkness” levels of madness?
Maybe there is something more to Nowak’s dismissal than what anyone is letting on. Maybe there was quite a bit of method to his madness. Even though Sakiewicz says that the transfer decisions made were completely Nowak’s, it does seem like a stretch for the F.O. to not question any of the decisions. Nowak would have had to sold them, either with the promise of long term team building, or possibly a long term plan combined with a more immediate benefit which would be reducing payroll. And maybe, just maybe, Sakiewicz is being completely honest when he says that the dismissal has nothing to do with the team’s record because he is more concerned with being able to keep the team afloat and operating financially. Maybe he gave some direction to Nowak to try to cut costs wherever possible, and unloading some of the team’s high priced stars for cash would be a good way to do that.
There are two big reasons I think this is the case, and the “philosophical difference” that caused Nowak’s dismissal was less about his ability as a manager and more about Nowak wanting to leave a sinking ship before it caused irreparable damage to his career.
First off, why would Nowak do these things, these things that from the outside looking in appear to be completely insane. Until this point, he had not done anything that would indicate that he was a bad manager. I think Philadelphia’s run at the end of last season to make the playoffs when nobody was expecting them to says the opposite of that. The Union has been Nowak’s team. Plus, why would he apply for the manager’s job at Hearts – a step up from the Union and MLS – with such a terrible record at Philadelphia and questionable transfers and expect to have a chance at getting it? This guy would have had a better shot one would imagine. Nowak would have to be able to have something to defend this season, and that defense could very well be his orders handed down from the Front Office.
Why would the Front Office do such a thing? This brings me to the second reason I believe that Nowak’s dismissal has everything to do with the financial trouble the Union is in. This article does a very interesting job of illustrating the challenges that the Union faces, as well as the cost to communities whenever a new stadium is built. Posted on June 11, 2012, I think this provides far more insight into the decisions Nowak has made this season as well as the decision to let him go than any sort of performance issues. It also paints a frankly terrifying picture of a club that could quite possibly be on the brink.
When PPL Park was conceived and built, it was supposed to be part of a massive redevelopment that would help change the face of Chester, PA from something horrible and ugly into something positive that could actually attract people to the town. It was very similar to The Waterfront project in Homewood, a run-down neighborhood of Pittsburgh that thanks to development has been improving only with a soccer stadium. However, when the economy tanked, plans for Chester’s riverfront development went with it, leaving only a beautiful soccer specific stadium and unpaved parking lots in a town that is becoming increasingly resentful of the stadium and the 18,500 people that travel to Chester week in and week out to fill it as the crime rates in Chester continue to remain high.
Residents of Chester don’t feel like they have benefitted enough from PPL Park. All of the police go to protecting the people who travel into Chester to go to the games on game day while nothing else changes. Which is why Chester’s mayor has proposed new taxes in order for the city to try to reap the benefits of having an MLS presence and little else going for it.
These taxes seem designed to do nothing more than punish the Philadelphia Union and the not-from-Chester fans who passionately support them. Sakiewicz has stated that if the proposed taxes come to pass, it would cost the Union nearly 10% of its gross revenue and would “effectively put us out of business.” Sakiewicz also stated that because of this tax proposal, the club has had to put plans for building new practice facilities and an office building on hold.
So just how much would these catastrophic taxes cost the team? About $2 million per year.
It doesn’t seem like $2 million would be that much to a professional sports team, considering what we are used to hearing players, teams and leagues make. What we have to remember though is the MLS is not the NFL, and while it is gaining in popularity, the money the teams make is nowhere on par with other professional sports. For a team like Philadelphia Union, who is supposed to pay the city $500,000 a year in lieu of property taxes but has fallen behind by $750,000 and still hasn’t made their 2010 payment of $500,000, with another $500,000 for 2012 due at the end of June, you really have to wonder about their current financial state.
When you start to look at it taking those numbers into perspective, suddenly Nowak’s insane trades start to make a lot more sense, and he doesn’t seem like nearly as much of a liability as a manager as his record and actions would lead you to believe.
Professional sports are not about playing games. They are all about doing business. Owners can tolerate a lot of poor performances as long as it doesn’t overly hurt “the brand.” The MLS, being a young and small league with a lot of obstacles to overcome trying to make soccer a mainstream sport in the US has done a lot right in order to ensure they have a successful business model that will not suddenly see a flood of spending and speculation that would bring the entire league down like what happened in the NASL of old. Even with that, the league has gone through a retraction of teams and since then has been very careful about when and where it expands to. They have done what they can to create a successful and profitable business model, much to the immediate frustration of supporters everywhere, but for the greater good. Which has to make you wonder exactly what kind of trouble their ownership group and by extension the club might be in.