Philly Soul: The city’s best pro team is a die-hard’s dream

The city’s Arena Football League outfit is a title contender. Again. And its “family” can’t figure out why more people don’t support the team.

“I saw Liz Jaworski at Shop Rite and she said, ‘I’ll see you at the game.'”

David Loeb is a Soul man. Loeb and his father have supported Philadelphia’s most successful sports franchise for a dozen years. Loeb is so ingrained in the Soul community—what he calls a family—that the owner’s wife recognizes him at the supermarket.

“I’ve been a Soul fan since their inception,” Loeb explained during a long phone conversation about his involvement as a season ticket holder for the local Arena Football League team. “My first game was their inaugural game in 2004. I went to a few more games that season and I’ve been a fan ever since.”

Loeb was clear: Soul co-owner and Eagles great Ron Jaworski’s wife didn’t see him in the store wearing a Soul shirt. She recognized him. She knows him. He’s part of the Soul family.

Loeb is a regular at Jaworski’s weekly radio program. He had third-row seats in section 101 of the Wells Fargo Center for Soul home games—seats that run about a thousand bucks a pop for VIP perks like postgame field access—before giving them up last year after getting so many comped tickets he didn’t need to buy them. Loeb is back as a season ticket holder this season (you can say hi to him in row 14 of section 101, seats 1 & 2 on the aisle) and he seems quite happy about his decision to renew.

Loeb attributes the enjoyment to the atmosphere in the arena. “Soul fans are great,” he explained. “I and my dad tailgate with a group called Soul Booster Club that raises money for funds for some of the Soul players’ families. We are part of SoulNation, because we are ticket holders. We’ve been to ticket parties with the team and training camp, exclusive for season ticket members only, and we love the atmosphere. Fans are like a family.

It doesn’t hurt, Loeb stressed, that the team is winning. After Monday’s victory over Tampa Bay, the Soul are 5-1 heading into Saturday’s tilt with the also 5-1 Arizona Rattlers. The only team in the eight-team league with a better record is the Orlando Predators, an undefeated 6-0 on the year. The Soul host them next weekend.

Loeb has been to every ArenaBowl the Soul have played in, and was still mad during our conversation about the 2013 title game loss to the Rattlers. And that’s really what this story is all about. Are the Soul a team people in the area actually care about, or is it just a way for football-crazed Eagles fans to get a quick fix during the offseason?

Are people truly jonesing for the Soul, or is it simply pigskin methadone for Eagles fans in withdrawal?

When asked to rank his favorite teams, Loeb said, “The Soul would have to be up there. I like the Sixers. I like the Eagles. The Soul. The Phillies are my favorite.” He noted, again, that winning has pushed the Soul higher up the list. In a win-starved sports town, finding success wherever you can—even in a half-full at best arena watching part-time football—is just as good as any.

But what Loeb stressed keeps him back isn’t the team’s record, it’s the access. He boasted that he’s Facebook friends with some of the players. The owners know him by face, and many other fans have the same stories and experiences too. There may not be a lot of fans, but they are certainly loyal. And the team is loyal to them, too.

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Vinnie Caliguiri—AKA Vinnie the Crumb—is the Soul hype man, working the crowd at every home game in hopes the fans help push on the Soul to victory.

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Philadelphia Soul

“I’m the host of the event…much like a DJ at a wedding or at a corporate function,” Caliguiri explained via email. “My job is to keep people interested, informed and excited.”

“The atmosphere at the arena is ALWAYS exciting,” he said. “My job is to get the crowd pumped up about every hit, every catch and every TD the Soul makes. Just like the players I also feed off the crowd…sometimes I gotta bring them back to the game and get them excited; they’re the best part of my night.”

Caliguiri explained that when he started with the Soul he sat upstairs in the broadcast booth high atop the Wells Fargo Center playing surface, but he requested to put the public address table on the floor during games so he could be a part of the crowd, too. “Crowds can be sparse,” he explained. “People have families and things to do, but Soul fans are very loyal.”

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David Loeb/Facebook

Loyal for a reason, it seems. The Soul ownership group consists of 13 men, including majority owners Craig Spencer and Jaworski, and high-profile partners in Dick Vermeil, Pete Ciarrocchi of Chickie’s and Pete’s and former NFL players Marques Colston and Jahri Evans. Per Caliguiri, the owners are “approachable, gracious and genuine…it makes fans and partners very comfortable, makes them all feel like they’re a part of something special.”

The days of Jon Bon Jovi may be over for the Soul, but this ownership group seems more involved in the development of the team. Again, that circles back to family.

“There are season ticket holders that now work for the Soul, volunteer and travel with the team,” Caliguiri explained. “I’ve been with the team since day 1 and I can tell you first hand that we’re all a family on and off the field. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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Joe Tordy calls Soul games for 97.5 The Fanatic, part of a recent deal with the local radio station to broadcast Soul games. Tordy’s broadcast, with Barrett Brooks of CSN Philly or former AFL player Jason Jones, is often simulcast on ESPN3, dubbed over Spanish-language television coverage. The AFL isn’t exactly moving the dial, so it’s often all the Soul can get. Loeb explained that last week’s game, for example, was moved back an hour after tickets were printed to accommodate ESPN’s coverage.

It was literally barely even coverage. But still, it was better than nothing.

Tordy explained, via email, that there’s a lot to juggle while calling AFL games: Knowing the audience is extremely niche, trying to service the interested fans while staying accessible enough that a casual fan may tune in and stick around to enjoy the game.

“When it comes to calling Arena football, there is definitely a balance that I try to find. On one hand, the die-hard AFL fans know the rules, know the game, know the players, and want that in-depth specificity and history between coaches, players, teams, etc.  On the other hand, you always hope introduce what is a fun, exciting sport to an audience that hasn’t necessarily seen it before. It’s a balance, and having pros like Barrett Brooks and Coffee Jones as analysts makes it way easier for the whole picture to be painted on the broadcast.

“From my standpoint, whether you’re calling arena football, outdoor football, baseball, curling, chess, whatever, there are stories to be told and characters that star in those stories. That’s my focus.”

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The franchise is understandably on a shoestring budget. For a team that averages 8,140 fans this season—about 1,500 below the league average—the need for ancillary staff seems superfluous. Finding a contact number for anything other than sales is difficult. The website is mostly geared toward promoting the team and a few community-related current events. And the cheerleaders, for sure. When inquiring about season ticket information, one can click “Chat with us” which leads to nothing more than an email form. There is no chatting with us. Unless you’re at the game.

The players in AFL make $875 per game this year. (Rookies make less.) Next year, that number balloons to $925. Quarterbacks, for what it’s worth, get an extra $300 per start.

AFL is barely part-time football. And the Soul seem to spend more money on servicing the fans than paying the players.

Tordy calls road games from the arena, not on a monitor in a local studio. Even the Union don’t send their local TV crew to most road games, but the Soul pay for its radio crew to travel. The energy in the Arena at home games is, as Tordy called it, “palpable. If you haven’t been yet, (it’s) definitely worth checking out.”

That’s a credit to people like Caliguiri and the gameday production staff. (He noted in his email that Director of Operations Jessica DeVito and her staff do a great job during breaks in action to keep the energy going.) Despite the sparse crowd, the teams does cater to those paying to put their butts in the seats.

“It’s the fans that make the game fun,” Caliguiri said. “They pay the money, they buy the jerseys, they take time out of their lives to support the team, they deserve ALL the access and they get it. That’s why the league’s been around so long.”

The seats, by the way, aren’t cheap. Loeb’s VIP package runs $1,000 for eight regular season games. The 50-yard line seats for this Saturday’s game would run $65, plus the exorbitant Comcast tix fees on top.

Sure, there are cheaper seats and fans can probably just walk down to better parts of the arena. Or, if that doesn’t work, Caliguiri will get you in the game for free.

“I think you’ll find that a Soul fan is a SOUL fan,” he said. “They do not watch the Soul because the Eagles aren’t on, a large number of them watch the Soul INSTEAD of the Eagles. It’s definitely not a stand in, it’s it’s own thing for sure.

“Many Soul fans are also Eagles fans but you will not find the same respect the other way though…there are many NFL fans who believe that the AFL is the ‘wrestling’ of football and don’t consider Arena football a legitimate sport. To those folks I say this…come. See a game for yourself. If you still feel that way at the end of the game I’ll pay for your ticket.

“In my 11 years with the Soul, I’ve never paid for a ticket. NEVER.”

It might be a challenge worth taking. And if the Soul keep winning, Philly fans might get to enjoy playoff football this year.

Even if it’s indoors.

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