Are Somerville and the New England Revolution Playing Ball?


At first glance, Assembly Square and Gillette Stadium during a New England Revolution game present one striking similarity: the two sprawling landscapes are mostly vacant.

The difference, besides the fact one is a development site rife with potential and the other a 68,000-seat stadium better known for its owner’s more popular team (maybe you’ve heard of the New England Patriots), is this: one of them is filling.

After 15 years of dealing, planning and plenty of arguing – oh yes, let’s not forget the arguing – buildings are going up at Assembly Square. A train station is being built. Space is being leased. And for the most part the people who did all that arguing over the last however-many years are happy.

But over in Foxborough, things have become stagnant in recent years for the Revolution. The team is one of Major League Soccer’s original 10 clubs and advanced to four Major League Soccer Cup Finals in the 2000s. But the team currently finishing up their third consecutive losing season. Home attendance in 2012 sits at second to last in the league, with an average of 13,281 people attending each game.

Interviews with Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and Revolution President Brian Bilello, as well as reports from other media outlets, reveal that Assembly Square and the Revolution could be on a collision course. The Krafts and the City are exploring the possibility building a 20,000- to 25,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in Assembly Square. The likelihood of that happening and the extent to which it would benefit the city remain unclear.

A lot of empty seats

Could Revolution players like Juan Toja (18) and Lee Nguyen (24) eventually play their home games in Somerville? Photo credit: New England Revolution

From a soccer standpoint, the Revolution needs a stadium to call its own. One in Boston’s urban core, with easy access to the MBTA. You can’t get to Foxborough on the commuter rail, except during Patriots games. And the types of fans that represent a goldmine for MLS – young people who grew up with soccer in the United States and immigrants who grew up with it elsewhere – live in the city and many do not have cars. For these potential fans, the trip out to Foxborough isn’t just unattractive. It’s not very doable.

Though the team’s attendance numbers this year represents a slim upgrade from last year, the 0.44 percent increase trails league-wide growth of almost 7 percent. But beyond attendance issues, playing at Gillette has a negative cultural effect on the team and its fans as well.

The stadium is property of the Kraft Sports Group, which also owns the Patriots and the Revolution. Though it easily fills nearly 70,000 seats for Patriots games, those Revolution fans that show up to watch soccer amount to a drop in a bucket. Soccer fans’ support often manifests itself in song, and the Revolution supporter groups are always eager to flex their vocal cords. But with a crowd that doesn’t even fill a quarter of its seats, those songs have a hard time filling a stadium so big.

Revolution fans even go so far as to theorize that the reason NBC Sports has not shown a game in Foxborough on its weekly national MLS broadcast is out of embarrassment for the emptiness of the stadium. Fans aren’t happy that the Revolution, once one of the league’s flagship franchises, is one of just five MLS teams to not play in a soccer-specific stadium. “At what point,” asks Revolution fan Steven Stoehr, who blogs at The Bent Musket, “does it stop being worth it to abuse your fans like that?”

With some regularity, the team gives the fans hope that a stadium is coming. But want to know another Revolution fan theory? Here it is: the rumor of a stadium briefly surfaces almost every autumn, right around the time the club begins to court season ticket holders to renew. Still, Stoehr said, from a fan perspective, there may be reason for optimism this fall. “This story has picked up steam this time around and stayed important,” he said, noting this year’s round of stadium news surfaced on Sept. 20 and has lasted almost month.

But as much as the Revolution needs a stadium from a soccer perspective, they don’t necessarily need it from a business perspective. Gillette already belongs to the Krafts. Ticket sales could be higher elsewhere, but a ticket sold in Foxborough is revenue all the same, and it comes without the cost of new construction.

A lot of open space

The idea that the Revolution could come to Somerville isn’t a new one. Word first broke on the possibility in 2007, when the Revs were competing for league championships. At that time, the Inner Belt/Brickbottom area was more regularly mentioned than Assembly as a potential stadium site. The neighborhood was projected to eventually serve as the site of a Green Line extension and featured plenty of developable land. Because it stood behind Assembly in terms of development planning, a stadium would help establish the neighborhood’s basic infrastructure when redeveloped – both physically and economically.

The recession stalled the talks between the club and the city, while also violently shoving back the due date of the Green Line Extension – originally expected to be open by now and currently expected to open, best case scenario, by 2018. Through the recession, Assembly development sat still before development started moving forward earlier this year. With the Green Line’s arrival in the Inner Belt and Brickbottom still questionable, it’s unlikely any stadium talks would focus on the area this time around.

In July, IKEA announced it would not be opening a store in Assembly Square – a decision that had been widely expected in Somerville since 2006 when the Swedish furniture giant opened a Stoughton store. With more than 5 million square feet in space suddenly opened up, buried deep in message board threads on soccer websites, Revolution fans began wondering again if Somerville could be a possibility with all that room suddenly available.

Curtatone has repeatedly said since even before the decision was announced that should IKEA opt not to open a store, the site would not play host to development at the same scale as the retail outlet. And with IKEA currently “quietly shopping” the land, according to Curtatone, it bears mentioning that there is other vacant land in Somerville’s newest neighborhood.

There has been little said publicly in recent years about the land in Assembly controlled by RD Management. Currently, a vacant AMC Theater and a swath of parking define the space, which sits between the office building at 5 Middlesex Ave. and the Assembly Square Marketplace. Based on similar stadium projects, the land is not big enough to play host to a 20,000-seat stadium and a parking lot, but it could contain the stadium and some parking while sharing parking with the Marketplace. (The IKEA land is conceivably large enough for a stadium, parking and more.) If a stadium were to go into Assembly, this land would put it further than the IKEA site from residential developments set for Assembly Row.

Asked if the organization was considering land in Assembly for a stadium other than IKEA, Revolution President Brian Bilello said the team would follow the directives of the City if it were to make a deal with Somerville. Posed with the same question, Curtatone said, “Absolutely.”

Where’s the money?

Neither Bilello nor Curtatone could offer any specifics about a financing model, with both parties saying all talks to this point have been preliminary. City Hall did provide what appear to be preliminary notes, comparing financing models of other MLS stadiums across the continent. The models differ widely, from completely publicly-funded to completely private projects. Most of the models involve public-private partnerships – incidentally, a favorite Curtatone phrase – and range between $100 million to $150 million in cost.

Curtatone repeatedly said that any project would need to be in the best interests of Somerville. “We’re not going to do anything to threaten our best-in-history credit rating,” Curtatone said. City spokesman Tom Champion clarified the remarks, suggesting that should the City put public money toward the project it would expect some level of participation in the stadium’s revenue stream at least until its stakes in the project were paid back.

For some, breaking even would not be enough. The city and developers fought with activist group the Mystic View Task Force for a big chunk of the 2000s about the future of Assembly. By the end, the parties reached an understanding. The activists were pleased to eventually reach an agreement that called for 5 million square feet of office and research and development space. Never fans of IKEA’s presence on the site, MVTF members hope the land will now be used for more high-value, tax revenue-generating development. And the space that belongs to RD is slated for office and retail space.

To opt for a stadium at either space could incite the group anew. Indeed, Bill Shelton – a Mystic View Task Force member (and occasional Scout columnist) – wrote in an email, “A soccer stadium would squander the site’s potential to create jobs and tax revenues, while discouraging more productive uses of the land surrounding it. This could be the first test as to whether city officials will faithfully implement the new comprehensive plan.”

A stadium would not generate the same sorts of property tax revenues or jobs as high-end densely-packed office buildings but it would present a major draw to the neighborhood and the city, not just for Revolution games but for other sporting events, concerts and more. Whether a stadium’s effect on commerce strong enough to justify its presence would figure to be a point of contention between the City and activists if a deal with the Krafts were struck.

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Keeping score

Somerville is not alone in seeking to host the Revolution. Alongside Revere, the city does appear to be one of two finalists.

On Sept. 20, The Revere Journal reported the team was in discussions with Revere about building at the Wonderland racetrack, right off the Blue Line. The Boston Globe followed with its own report on Oct. 1. The gist: Suffolk Downs, which owns the 34-acre Wonderland, is expected to become the site of a casino for the Greater Boston region. If and when the project is approved, as written in the casino legislation passed in the State House last year, the City of Revere will get to make mitigation demands of Suffolk Downs – which can include cash. Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo would use that leverage to acquire Wonderland and turn it into a stadium for the Revolution.

Put simply, fewer public resources – the amount would depend on the kind of deal Rizzo could work out – would be used to secure the MBTA-accessible Revere site.

Fall River also recently joined the fray. While Fall River is expected to eventually host a commuter rail station, the city lies well outside Greater Boston – which would appear counter-intuitive to most of the Revolution’s public comments to date.

The Krafts might value Fall River’s participation if only to further leverage Somerville or Revere. Revere’s own participation has already had an effect on Curtatone’s rhetoric.

I first talked to Curtatone about a stadium on Sept. 29, when he confirmed the City and the Krafts had been talking for several months. He spoke about as loosely as you might expect a politician to about a major business deal – not very – but his tone and message were hopeful. Though he stressed that any deal would have to benefit the city, his common refrain was that Somerville and Assembly Square would make a great fit for the soccer team.

The Globe story about Revere ran two days later. Champion called me to set up a second chat with Curtatone, and when we touched base, the tone had changed: though Assembly would still make a good fit, he said, the more common refrain was that the City was “not going to get into a bidding war.”

That week, Curtatone and Champion would appear across regional media in stories by New England Soccer Today, The Boston Business Journal and The Somerville Journal about the possibility of a stadium, offering those more measured sentiments. Meanwhile, Rizzo took to the media on his own, going on FOX25 News and saying: “I view Revere as soccer central.”

That won over some fans, the Revolution blogger Stoehr said. “It’s so validating to hear something like that. They’re basically begging us to come. As a fan, you can’t beat that…Somerville seems to just offer canned statements, saying, ‘Don’t forget about us.’”

But then, Curtatone would likely defer to Revere the enthusiasm edge. His administration’s primary talking point has remained the same since the Revere news broke into major media outlets. “If a stadium deal takes away resources from any of our priorities, then we’re not interested,” he told The Boston Business Journal. “It’s important to note that large-scale, smart-growth, mixed-use development is already well under way at Assembly Square: a stadium is not an essential component in the City’s development strategy for the district,” Champion told The Somerville Journal.

At least publicly, Somerville’s enthusiasm is not as strong as Revere’s – but neither are its resources, provided the casino becomes approved and Revere acquires Wonderland.

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17 Responses to “Are Somerville and the New England Revolution Playing Ball?”

  1. Joe+G says:

    Good point. Revere already has a stadium near a T-stop and a big desire to make it work. There’s a lot that has to happen, but it won’t be easy to get the Krafts to move from a place they own (unless Bob K. gets a new girlfriend who wants a stadium in Somerville).

  2. Mrs. W says:

    Great article. Comprehensive telling that includes all the details. Hope the Revolution DO come to Somerville – a community with much to offer…

  3. CCRider says:

    Let ‘em go to Revere or stay in Foxboro. Somerville does not need the New England Revolution. The Mystic View Task Force hit the nail on the head: high value, tax revenue-generating development like high-end, densely-packed office buildings is what the City of Somerville’s leadership should be targeting for Assembly Square. A stadium, especially one playing host to a nich sport like American pro soccer, isn’t going to deliver the tax revenues or jobs that offices and research related development will.

  4. Kraftownzrevs says:

    Very well done article. A little harsh on the attendance though. Yes, many nights of 13,000 but also in August and Sept., there are many over 20k nights.

    Also LOL at the poster who called Soccer a niche sport. Yes, maybe American pro soccer has to do some more growing but let’s not assume it’s always going to be where it is now. It has grown, it will continue to grow, we don’t know the limit and it could be huge and it’s plugged into the biggest sport on the planet. The average hoary sports fan doesn’t see the signs yet, but Baseball is in trouble growing new fans. Football, while king, has to confront its issues of concussions, injuries and violence. Hockey, keeps shooting itself in the foot and is staying a niche sport. Basketball is about status quo. Only Soccer has the potential to make huge strides.

    If Somerville turns it’s nose up to this and defers to Revere they may someday regret it. The stadium will be beautiful (just look at the ones other MLS teams are getting) and there will be that cache and community pride involved.

  5. Would You Like to See the New England Revolution Build a Stadium in Assembly Square? « Somerville Scout | Somerville Events, News & Culture says:

    [...] Where’s My Scout? Report missed delivery « Are Somerville and the New England Revolution Playing Ball? [...]

  6. Great article – it’s nice to see something “real” is finally transpiring after years of being strung along by the Revs’ FO. I am strongly in the Assembly Square Somerville camp because it’s a much better fit from a longer term perspective. Revere has T access now, public enthusiasm and more resources. However, Somerville is easier to get to for more people, including from the south and the west. Personally, due to its proximity, I won’t get to many games in Revere but I know – big picture – it’s about the 20 somethings who live around Boston.

    In our haste to satisfy the urban revs fan, we can’t forget the people who have jumped in their car and driven to support this team the past 17 years.

  7. Joe+G says:

    Funny thing … for Somerville residents of, say, Davis Square, it will be just about as easy to get to Wonderland on the Blue Line as it will be to get to Assembly Square on the Orange. The Green Line Extension might change that in the future.

  8. Adam Vaccaro says:

    True, Joe, if everybody in Somerville were to commute by train. But I’d have to think the benefit of the MBTA is for folks outside the host city. The trip from Davis to Assembly can be accomplished via bus, bike, Hubway, and even a walk is less than an hour (though I’m an admittedly hurried stroller).

  9. Joe, when I lived in Somerville, pretty close to Davis Square (just off Broadway), getting to Assembly Square was not that difficult via bus. It would be a pain in the but via T, but on the bus it’s only about 10 minutes from Davis or Porter on a Saturday. You’re probably not able walk it from those two Red Line stops, but it is still an easy commute.

  10. Ron Newman says:

    I would support this only if it is built WITHOUT a parking lot. Surface parking is totally unnecessary and a waste of land if the stadium is right next to an Orange Line station.

  11. The key for this stadium to actually work for non-public transit types (which there will be plenty is to have ample parking nearby. Obviously not everybody would take the Orange line to the game so it would be pretty awful if there was not ample surface parking / garages nearby.

    Even if the focus is on public transit, surface lots are a mandatory and key part of the development of a revs stadium given they facilitate tailgating which is half the reason a lot of revs fans currently go to games in Foxboro.

  12. Mike says:

    Neighborhood groups should be mindful of the fact that between November and April, there will be no games played there, and when the season IS on, they play half their games away from home. And when they DO play at home, they typically play on Saturday.

    The project would mean instant construction jobs, and permanent stadium jobs, as well as a tax revenue windfall for the city.

    Neighbors should also not worry about rowdy crowds, American soccer fans are not hooligans, and they aren’t drunken Patriots fans, either.

  13. AmSocNews says:

    [...] Suburb of Somerville again mentioned as possible Revs home [...]

  14. CCRider says:

    Kraftownzrevs… as a Somerville resident I will take the high value, tax revenue-generating development and jobs that high-end, densely-packed office buildings will bring to Assembly Square and this city over the “cache and community pride” that a “beautiful” soccer stadium might provide.

  15. Sgc says:


    That assumes the choice actually exists. In this market, I’m not too sure.

  16. Gov't Mule says:

    Revere politicians are concerned about potential traffic at Wonderland? Isn’t there already a race track on the property? A race track that has sat vacant for years and one where the previous owners failed to pay their property taxes on.

    The Revere site is probably better potentially because there is more parking available. In order for it to be successful, it needs to be a mixed use facility w/ some retail presence, perhaps similar to Patriots Place. Keep in mind that even if you add international matches, some concerts, and a few other events, you are optimistically looking at fewer than 50 dates a year, and probably at most 30.

    The Revere pol is right that traffic is not optimal at Wonderland. Fine. Demand major infrastructure improvements to Rt. 16 and other nearby roads.

    Has it ever occurred to the Krafts that attendance is down at Revs games because the Krafts have put an inferior product on the pitch for the past four seasons, missing the playoffs the last three. The team is not developing the quality talent they have in the past. There are no Clint Dempseys, Taylor Twellmans, Michael Parkhursts, or other quality players. Instead of improving, the team has regressed. Every MLS team that has built a new stadium has shown improvement on the pitch as well as at the box office.

    One thing I can’t understand is why the Revs schedule virtually all their games at night, including early in the season and late in the season when it is cold. Yes, I know they are trying to maximize the youth soccer crowd, but how many kids want to be dragged to a night game in crappy weather to watch a horrible team? Schedule some more matches during the daylight hours and attendance might go up.

  17. Ron Newman says:

    With Federal Realty buying Ikea’s property, I’m assuming that a Revs stadium is now off the table.

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