During my first season covering the New England Revolution, one of my initial observations was that the Kraft family would do well to move the club into a soccer specific facility in the near future.
That was back in 2001. A decade later, and the Revs continue to play in a football stadium. Anyone who has attended a match at Gillette Stadium will readily testify that the sight of 12-14 thousand fans rattling around the cavernous expanse of the Big Razor is slightly absurd, and not likely to inspire the players on the pitch all that much.
The idea to build the team a new home closer to Boston is not a new one. It has been something that has been in the works for several years now, but the major obstacle has been where exactly to put a new 20-25 thousand seat soccer specific facility in a city where viable tracts of land for such an undertaking are few and far between, and often carry prohibitive price tags.
Team owner Robert Kraft and his Kraft Group have their hearts set on moving closer to the city, as they believe a move into a more urban setting would put the team within easy reach of the teeming multitudes of immigrants, many of whom originated in ultra-passionate soccer nations. The plan would also provide an accessible entertainment option for the area’s large sports-mad college age population, while also being close enough to public transportation to still allow suburban fans easy access to home games.
The question has always been: Where to build?
Back in 2007, the Kraft family began exploring the possibility of constructing the Revs new home on a parcel of land located near Sullivan Square Station on the MBTA’s Orange Line, but squabbling over the land at the state and municipal levels appeared to jettison the idea before it really got off the ground.
In an industrial corner of East Somerville, tucked in behind railroad tracks, the elevated portion of Interstate 93 and a massive MBTA maintenance facility, lies the area known as The Inner Belt. Home to little more than warehouses at present, the state and the city have been arguing over this land for almost two years now, as they try and decide where to build an 11 acre, 24 hour maintenance facility needed to service trains that will run on the expanded Green Line, which is slated to begin serving Somerville and West Medford in 2015—a $1 billion expansion project.
The uncertainty over the project put plans for an Inner Belt stadium on hold.
The area, originally created in the 1950s to serve an interstate highway that never came to fruition, the purely hypothetical interstate 695, presents an opportunity for the city of Somerville to add housing, offices and retail space to a city where space is at a premium.
In May of 2010, events conspired to bring the Inner Belt area back into the fold for the Kraft Group, and may ultimately lead to the construction of a new stadium after all. A compromise between city and state officials to place the T facility on the eastern edge of the Inner Belt, as opposed to smack dab in the middle, has allowed Kraft and company to revisit the site as potential new home.
A brand new 20 thousand seat stadium, in an intimate urban setting, would also double as a concert venue.
The Case for Brickbottom
The Inner Belt area is adjacent to another barren neighborhood know as Brickbottom. With little to offer other than the odd artists’ loft and a plethora of warehouses and other industrial structures, the combined Inner Belt-Brickbottom area, all 200 acres, presents a tremendous potential for redevelopment. With the Green Line expansion project coming soon, it’s almost like a perfect storm of circumstances.
Financing, as anyone who recalls the on-time and under budget construction of Gillette Stadium just a few years ago, will not be an issue, according the statements made by Kraft.
Consider the appearance of more and more soccer-specific stadia in recent years. Red Bull Arena and PPL Park, home of Red Bull New York and the the Philadelphia Union respectively, each seat around 20 thousand fans and cost in excess of $100 million to construct. Each are located in proximity to rail links in urban settings. Both of those teams are among the league’s top draws, while the Revs languish squarely near the bottom of the list.
The Inner Belt area presents a golden opportunity for the team to cash in on teeming population full of passionate soccer fans, while not alienating suburban supporters in the process. The game of soccer, from a fan standpoint, is all about atmosphere. It’s tough to cultivate a proper atmosphere when you’re a mile away from the field and surrounded by the solid blue swathes of empty seats that inevitably dot the Gillette Stadium landscape on game day. That being said, Revs’ games are not without a certain ambience already, thanks largely to the vocal denizens of “The Fort,” as the sections where supporters’ groups are generally seated is known and the prospect of such a vocal and energetic bunch occupying prime seats in a brand new intimate stadium is infinitely palatable.
Boston isn’t a baseball town. Boston isn’t a basketball town. Boston is a sports town. If there is one thing I will state with unequivocal certainty, it’s this: Professional soccer will find a permanent place in the sports pantheon of the United States, and Boston will embrace the Revolution (wait, that sounds vaguely familiar...).
It’s not going to happen because MLS suddenly evolves into a top-tier league from an international standpoint, and there are enough NASL alums still involved with the league that, even if the Cosmos end up with an expansion franchise, nobody is going to allow the DP rule to drag MLS down the same ruinous path to crippling disparity. When America finally takes the beautiful game into its heart, it will be largely because the league has been able to recreate the European atmosphere on match day to some extent. Intimate stadiums, built to house a pitch, not the gridiron, are the way to move towards this goal.
At least that’s the way I see it.
The Somerville proposal is not the only site under consideration, but it’s clearly the front-runner, and presumably for many of the reasons outlined above. It benefits the team, it benefits the city of Somerville and it benefits the fans. It’s a classic win-win.
MLS commissioner Don Garber has been quoted in the Boston media lately as being heavily in favor of the Revs new stadium plan, naturally. He spoke about the potential of Greater Boston, and the opportunity the Inner Belt area would provide. Kraft had invested some $1 million already in analyzing the site by 2010, according to New England Revolution Chief Financial Officer Brian Bilello, making it clear that he also recognizes the possibilities there.
Honestly, that should be all you need to hear.
I know the fashionable thing to do among many Boston fans is to bash Kraft at times, but look at the facts: All he’s done since taking over the NFL’s Patriots in 1994 is build a state-of-the-art stadium and revitalize what was an infinitely stagnant franchise. With very few exceptions, every step he has taken with the Pats has been an erudite one. He has proven himself to be one of the shrewdest owners in the business. That’s why my belief is that the stadium project in Somerville will happen. It’s just a matter of when.
Kraft and the Revs are under no deadline to get anything done, and the owner has made it clear that he is going to wait for the right deal. My sense is that Inner Belt is the site, has always been the site, that is option number one. Now it’s just a matter of greasing enough hack palm to get the corroded wheels of Bay State government in motion. Simply put: Kraft will hold out for the most incentives he can from Somerville and Massachusetts to build on that site. In the end, I think it will happen. However, it may be a noisy process.
Remember back in 1999? Everyone thought the Pats were packed and ready to move to Hartford. There arose such a hue and cry from Patriots’ nation that you would have thought the sky was falling. Turns out Kraft was just negotiating; it was through this process that he was able to secure a deal he liked for a new stadium in Foxborough.
That’s what I think is about to happen in Somerville. My feeling is that a new stadium will happen, and most likely begin operations around the same time as the Green Line expansion, if not sooner.
It just makes too much sense not to happen, and Kraft is too shrewd a businessman to pass up the opportunity.