But if you go a little north of Montgomery County, you enter a region that is growing very fast. That's the Lehigh Valley, with cities such as Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton leading the way. From my house in Montgomeryville, it's about a 55 minute drive to Allentown, just about ten minutes longer than driving to Philly. I have not been there in a long time, but there's a good amount of stuff to do on a day trip. There's malls, there's amusement parks, there's college teams, which include the longest uninterrupted rivalry between Lehigh and Lafayette, and there's pro sports teams.
The last part in the previous sentence was something you couldn't say a few years ago. The only reason to go to the Lehigh Valley was to go to Dorney Park or the Crayola Factory. But that all changed in 2008, thanks to the Phillies
While Coca-Cola Park was under construction in 2007, the Phillies affiliated with the Ottawa Lynx. They moved the Lynx to Allentown the following year and renamed the team the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs and have led Minor League Baseball in attendance ever since their debut year, passing 600,000 total fans each season. The Iron Pigs joined the Reading Fightin Phils of AA as affiliates that are close in proximity to South Philly. Not only did Coca-Cola Park bring in the Iron Pigs, but also concerts and large events.
The next domino fell shortly after, which involved the Philadelphia Flyers. Their AHL affiliate at the time, the Philadelphia Phantoms, needed a new arena to replace the old, but legendary Spectrum. Comcast Spectacor, the owner of the Phantoms, sold the team to the Brooks Group from Pittsburgh, and announced plans to move the team to Glens Falls, New York. But new ownership expressed their interest in moving the Phantoms to either Camden or Allentown.
Allentown was the eventual selection, and plans about building the new arena began in 2009, before funding and purchasing space was secured by February 2012. After nearly 22 months of construction, PPL Center finally opened in September 2014, and the Phantoms moved to Allentown. PPL Center has provided Phantoms games, as well as games for the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks of the Indoor Football League, and various big name concerts and basketball games.
And finally, the Union made a move involving their reserve team a few days ago. After five years with the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Union announced they would operate a reserve team of their own in the United Soccer League in Bethlehem, beginning next season. The team name would be the Bethlehem Steel, named after the original soccer club that was very successful from 1907 until 1930. The team will play their games at Goodman Stadium, which is also the home of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks football team. Like what the Phillies and Flyers have done, the Union will provide fans with talent that can be seen closeby and at an affordable price.
From zero to three teams in a matter of about eight years, the Lehigh Valley has substantially changed in the eyes of sports fans. So with a solid start as a minor league hub for Philly teams, what does the future hold? There's not a lot to really talk about, except for two things.
The first is the NBA Development League affiliate for the Philadelphia 76ers, the Delaware 87ers. The 87ers moved to the campus of the University of Delaware in 2013, but the Bob Carpenter Center seats on 5,100. Other arenas around the D-League seat about 4,000-8,000 on average, but there are some arenas that seat over 10,000 as well as under 1,000. If the D-League improves in a few years, the 87ers could certainly make a move to the Lehigh Valley. But there's also two question marks as well. One is the interest of basketball in the Lehigh Valley. The second is if the Sixers want to relocate the team. The 76ers and 87ers have names related to America's history and the Sixers have used that for marketing for a couple of years.
The second would be the return of Eagles Training Camp to Bethlehem and Lehigh's campus. I miss making the pilgrimage to Bethlehem every summer for a day of Training Camp. But when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed, Training Camp didn't mean anything anymore, as the team moved Training Camp to the NovaCare Complex, with about three open practices at the Linc every year. Will Training Camp ever revert back to what it used to be from a few years back? Probably not. But if Training Camp did move back to Lehigh, the economy would get a boost.
With the situation that there is now, the Lehigh Valley is a great breeding ground for the future of most of Philadelphia's sports teams, whether it's professionally or even in the college ranks with Lehigh University and Lafayette College nearby. By the looks of it, three of five major Philly teams will have some sort of affiliation with the Lehigh Valley for a long time.
It's also a great place for younger fans to experience sports for the first time as well, and even a cheap option for many families. Sure you can bring your two year old to the Phillies or the Flyers game and pay a lot, but who knows what can happen in South Philly? And if the Phillies are awful, why would you bring your kids to watch a team more than likely lose with expensive ticket prices? Coca-Cola Park and PPL Center are great alternatives to watching great talent from the respective organizations at an affordable and family friendly price.
The area is not only a breeding ground for talent like Shayne Gostisbehere or Jesse Biddle, but also for future Philly diehards that might get kicked out of arenas for fighting or obscene language.
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