Sporting KC is MLS’ new big thing

The Kansas City Wizards were in a bad way.

Throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s the club played in a sparsely-filled NFL stadium, was maddeningly inconsistent – trading off first with last-place finishes – and established no discernible footprint in a crowded sports market with established MLB and NFL teams.

No wonder then that by 2004, it seemed a foregone conclusion that one of Major League Soccer’s original franchises would move. An ownership group in Philadelphia, which didn’t yet have a team, was making a hard push. Several other groups on the East Coast were said to be interested.

But Lamar Hunt, the legendary sports tycoon who founded the club, was insistent the team stay in town. He wanted to sell to local owners committed to the market. But short was the line to buy a loss-leading team of a tenuous league in a weak market – that wouldn’t make any promises on providing public money for a stadium.

Finally, in August 2006, two local groups with no intention of moving the team joined forces to form OnGoal, LLC (since renamed Sporting Club) and bought the team from Hunt for $20 million.

"We believed him when Mr. Hunt said it should stay locally," says Robb Heineman, the club’s president and one of its five principal owners. "He thought it was important to keep major league teams in a major league city. He said it was a slippery slope to start losing major league teams. That statement was what swayed the decision to get involved with the team."

The fivesome had taken a leap of faith. The team plainly needed its own stadium, designed specifically for soccer. And it could scarcely afford to pay for one on its own. So unloosing a sizable amount of public money was imperative. There was no guarantee thereof. "It was probably a risk that we miscalculated, frankly," says Heineman. "We thought it was a lot lower risk and that we’d get something done much more quickly than we did. It was definitely something that we under-evaluated."

In December 2007, the city of Kansas City, Kansas – part of the Kansas City, Missouri metropolitan area – pledged $275 million in public funding. It took another three and a half years for the state-of-the-art Livestrong Sporting Park to open its doors and for re-branded Sporting Kansas City to escape the minor league baseball stadium it had since moved into and tread the new grass. But the day it finally did, on June 9, 2011, the club was irreversibly changed.

In fact, from this process, a blueprint was drawn for all MLS teams – and indeed any pro sports franchise – for which sellouts aren’t a given.

"When we thought about Sporting, we wanted it to be a social club for Kansas City as much as a sports club," says Heineman. So its stadium was designed to enable unrivaled interaction between fans. Through a special social network which learns its users’ preferences and tendencies, fans can use their smart phone to order food, communicate with each other on game day, re-arrange seats to sit together or watch and share replays from different angles in real-time.

"Because of the [IT] background of some of our owners and the age of our fans, who are on average 27 to 35, it was natural for us to make it a very technologically advanced environment,” says Heinemann.

The club has even spun off the Sporting Innovations company, which focuses on fan engagement and plans to implement more paradigm-shattering advances next season.

There’s a sense that the building, which harbors both stunning luxury suites and an intimate, old-fashioned stand for the vocal hardcore, gives as much as it takes, reinforced by its name. Rather than sell naming rights, Sporting gave away the name to the Livestrong foundation, which fights cancer, and committed to sharing at least $7.5 million of the stadium’s revenues over six years – just under half of what the club will presumably spend on its payroll over that period.

Over the last year and a half, Sporting’s unprecedented fan-centric approach has made it into a popular alternative to Royals baseball or Chiefs football. Attendance, just a shade over 8,000 per game in 1998, has surged to more than 19,000 this season. This effect has been amplified by consecutive regular season Eastern Conference titles, and enabled by an ownership and front office equipped with both vision and patience.

The only Eastern Conference team to forgo signing a Designated Player this year trusted the attractive, up-tempo squad it built through the draft, a few savvy trades and foreign pickups. Sporting drafted and developed the team’s young spine of defenders Matt Besler and Chance Myers, midfielders Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza, and strikers Teal Bunbury and C.J. Sapong, traded for forward Kei Kamara and signed Danish goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen and French defender Aurelien Colin from abroad. When Peter Vermes’ side won just one of its first 10 games in 2011, the club recognized he needed time for his young squad to gel – and that scheduling only road games until the new stadium was ready hadn’t exactly empowered him to succeed.

"The progress that we’ve made in an 18-month period exceeds any expectations that we might have had," says Heineman of his club’s remarkable success. "That’s a tribute to the fans and their buying into our ideas. I think we’re just scratching the surface of where we can take our brand and sponsorship, in how we can solidify. But certainly the early returns have been good."

Those returns could soon include a first trip to the MLS Cup Final since 2004, as Sporting embarks on the playoffs as the giant of the Eastern Conference – both on the field and off.