A More Perfect Union

Hilary Bentman, Director of Social Media
Chester and Phang mascots high-fiving on the field at the Philadelphia Union

Two of the biggest anchor institutions in the City of Chester sit just three miles apart, sport the same colors, and share the same values and commitment to the community.

A partnership between the two would be an obvious win-win. And that’s exactly what has happened.

The seed was planted in February 2023, when Widener University and the Philadelphia Union embarked on a multi-year venture making Widener the official university of the Major League Soccer team, Subaru Park, and WSFS Bank Sportsplex.

Union fans in the stadium seats cheering and waving flags

It’s a partnership that transcends platitudes or stadium signage. It has opened the door to a wide range of opportunities for Widener students (current, incoming, and prospective), faculty, staff, and alumni, and for Union employees.

The list of partnership projects and initiatives is exhausting and growing. Over the last year, the lines between the Widener and Union campuses have blurred, as that seed has taken root and is spreading far beyond what many envisioned.

In only its first year, this partnership has grown and evolved in ways we could scarcely imagine when we first began talking about it. It touches nearly all aspects of the university, with our students, faculty, staff, and alumni benefitting academically, socially, and of course, as fans of our hometown team.” — Widener President Stacey Robertson, an avid Union follower and season ticket holder

And the future of this partnership is bright, as it looks to expand in coming years. The timing is fortuitous given that the region is a host for the 2026 World Cup, with the Union’s facilities helping to serve several national teams.

“When we began this partnership, we set out to open doors to educational opportunities with students in our community, a goal we've made significant strides toward in our first year,” said Charlie Slonaker, chief revenue officer for the Philadelphia Union. “Together, we will continue to prioritize our dedication to our community, with the enrichment and education of students as our primary focus.”

Chester Map

Home Pitch Advantage

Several times a season, Widener pitches a large blue tent on Subaru Plaza outside the stadium. It is there, in the time leading up to kickoff, that Widener students and university Admission staff interact with legions of fans.

Men’s and women’s soccer players have run dribbling contests with the Union’s youngest supporters and have handed out Widener-Union branded swag. These interactions are designed to help further build community between the two organizations, and to help show those kids (and their families) what Widener is all about. After all, it’s never too soon to be thinking about college plans.

That message is further reinforced by signage, advertising, and video content that peppers the stadium, including at the new WSFS Bank Sportsplex, which includes three Widener-sponsored turf fields, with dedicated time for the university to use there as it sees fit.

The Widener-Union connection was on full display in October 2023, when the university sponsored the match against Atlanta United. Widener alumni were treated not only to a Union victory, but a pre-match gathering, as well. 

Widener President Stacey Robertson and student Madison Forte stand on the field at the Philadelphia Union
President Stacey Robertson and student-athlete Madison Forte took part in a ceremonial first kick at Widener's Title Night at the Union in 2023.

The ROTC Dauntless Battalion honor guard presented colors and Robertson kicked the ceremonial first ball of the match. And with each of the Union’s three goals that night, thousands of fans waved Widener-Union soccer scarves, which they received on entry to the stadium. 

Widener will sponsor another match in September 2024.

And as part of the partnership, the university community can take advantage of discounted ticket offers to numerous Union home matches each season, often with the Widener Pride Ride transporting students and staff from campus to the stadium.

Academic Goals

What sets the Widener-Union partnership apart from similar ventures is the depth and breadth of the opportunities, especially in the academic and educational realms.

Widener students intern and job shadow with the Union, either in the front office or as part of gameday operations. Students are given hands-on experience opportunities, from marketing and communications to video production, accounting, and ticket sales.

Widener President Stacey Robertson and Union President Tim McDermott exchange jerseys
President Stacey Robertson and Union President Tim McDermott exchange jerseys at the partnership kickoff on Widener's campus.

"Beyond the tremendous range of career preparation experiences available, we have been especially impressed by the Union's commitment to matching students with their specific areas of interest,” said Janet Long, executive director of Widener’s Office of Career Design and Development. “Our students can select and prioritize three departments that offer internships at the time they submit an application. Taken together, these year-round opportunities paint a larger picture of all the career pathways available with a professional sports team.”

Added Long: “There are also great options to explore service and engagement through the Philadelphia Union Foundation that leverages the power of soccer as an agent of change within the greater Chester community."

Communication studies alum Niko Dinoulis ’19 took his passion for soccer and skills from his time at Widener and turned them into a career working for the Union.
Read Niko's Story

The Union partnership is an ideal one for the School of Business Administration’s Sport and Event Management program. While that has solid, albeit less formal affiliations with other professional sports organizations in the region, the scope of the Union partnership opens the door for so much more.

“We can count on the Union being there. All the support has emboldened us to make truly long-term projects,” said Brian Larson, professor of marketing and sport and event management. “All the work with the other sports teams in the area are relationship-based; because we know someone working there, we can we do this or that. But you never know if a project or opportunity will happen again.”

The Union partnership has enabled Larson, and students from his marketing research class, to conduct real-time surveys of fans about their experience to better understand the customer gameday journey. That research may become a model for international soccer (*read football or futbol*) organizations. 

It’s such an honor to be able to participate in this and it lets me know I made a good choice in coming to Widener. It’s really empowering, and it distinguishes you from a lot of other college students that you have hands-on experience and you’re actually making a difference in the real world.” — Ben Miller ’25, marketing major

The goal is to take this research methodology global by creating a model in which international universities could partner with football clubs in their areas. Larson’s connections in Spain and the Netherlands are pushing this process forward.

“Basically, we can replicate what we’re doing with Widener and the Union, and share with them our secret sauce,” said Larson.

A student talks with a fan about the survey, there is a tent and soccer themed activity in the background
Indwija Bhatta ’27 talks to a fan outside of Subaru Park as part of marketing research on the gameday experience.

The academic elements of the Union partnership also include Larson and other Widener faculty welcoming Union staffers into their classrooms to share their expertise with students about working in professional sports. The Union even came into a marketing class to serve as a client for a student-built marketing plan designed to solve a specific issue.  

These educational benefits run both directions. Union staff can gain access to competitive tuition discounts on Widener programs – at the certificate, undergraduate, or graduate level – with the goal of taking employees to the next level of their careers.

"We consider our Philadelphia Union partners as members of the Widener Pride and want them to benefit from the exceptional quality of our academic programs,” said Amanda Alleman, director of graduate admissions and enrollment. “Whether someone is looking to start their career, advance at work or change careers altogether, this partnership allows players, staff, spouses, and dependents to do that at a significantly discounted rate."

Youth Development

In fall 2023, Widener and the Union teamed up to host area high school students at Subaru Park and Union Power Plant, home of the Union’s corporate offices, to learn about the many opportunities for working in professional sports and the academic degree programs that kickstart those careers.

Over the course of three days, high school students met with faculty from Widener business and communication studies programs, and Union staff, to tour Subaru Park and discuss behind-the-scenes operations of the MLS organization for the inaugural Work in Sports field trips.  

Students sit around a table listening to a professor talking
Area high school students participate in the Work in Sports field trips with Widener and Union staff.

“Before coming in I knew I wanted to do something in business, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” said Grace Kelly, a senior at Strath Haven High School, who attended the trip. “Now I’m definitely way more interested in the marketing aspect of everything. I think every high school that is able to should take this opportunity.”

Students like Kelly heard from Union and Widener experts about career pathways in areas such as fan experience and hospitality, media relations, gameday experience, and ticket sales – and about the ways all the pieces work together.

These experiences allow students to connect theory and learn more about the business of sports and events beyond the four walls of the classroom. These work experiences also allow students to see what does and does not connect with their interests in the industry.” — Jeff Lolli, professor of sport and event management, who participated in the events

A second round of Work in Sports trips for area high school students is planned for 2024.

Set Pieces… and Beyond

The impact of the Widener-Union partnership continues to spread and be felt far beyond the academic or athletic worlds.

The two organizations have teamed up on community service initiatives to benefit the city of Chester and surrounding areas, including annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day projects.

The Union has also opened the doors of their striking facilities to host numerous events benefitting the Widener community, including a Summer Sendoff program for incoming first-year students, as well as a mindfulness retreat for first-year occupational therapy doctoral students.

Five students seated at a table with the Subaru Park stadium as background
Incoming Widener first-year students at a Summer Sendoff event at the Union.

Looking forward, the possibilities for the Widener-Union partnership feel nearly endless, as the two organizations seek to not simply replicate the successful programs from year one, but to expand and roll out new initiatives for subsequent years.  

And World Cup 2026 unlocks potentially new possibilities and opportunities.

“The Widener community is well-positioned to benefit long-term from having such an incredible partner who shares our values of belonging and cares about the vibrant Chester community we are both privileged to be part of,” said Robertson. 

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