COMMENTARY

Sporting looks like KC’s most successful franchise

Updated: 2012-10-25T05:41:14Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

This isn’t about the soccer. Some of you can’t make that leap. Some of you never will. Some of you don’t want to, don’t care, and of course that’s your choice.

Your choice to miss out.

Because even if you’re stuck in the 1980s and refuse to think of soccer as anything more than orange slices and Capri Suns, you must at least wish your team could model the thorough, smart, and fan-first success of Sporting KC — MLS Eastern Conference champions after a 2-1 season-ending win over Philadelphia in front of another sellout crowd at Livestrong Sporting Park.

The Royals have the sorriest last two decades in the American League and the Chiefs have a case as the NFL’s worst team, so why not invest a bit in a winner?

Sporting KC is a serious threat to win the MLS Cup in its second consecutive playoff appearance, something the Chiefs haven’t done since 1995 (when Bill Self coached at Oral Roberts) and the Royals since 1985 (when Bill Snyder coached at Iowa).

Technically, this is the 17th season of the MLS in Kansas City but in reality it is the second season anyone outside a devoted but small demographic of hardcore soccer fans has paid much attention.

And what we’ve seen is remarkable.

Think about this: Sporting KC is not only on its way to joining the mainstream local sports scene … the franchise is changing it.

You would need a wild imagination and perhaps an opiate to believe Sporting will overtake the Chiefs or Royals in local importance, but that’s neither the goal nor the point. Why can’t Sporting turn Kansas City from a two-sport town to a three?

So maybe we didn’t need AEG’s non-promises after all. Maybe we just needed the rich guys at Cerner to buy an afterthought team and turn it into something much more.

You might’ve dismissed the first season of the franchise rebranding and the gorgeous new stadium as novelty, but what now? Every game but one was a sellout this year, and the team’s revenue is actually up across the board. The average (non-premium) season ticket holder is 27 years old. Disposable income is now being spent on professional soccer in a way Kansas City has perhaps never seen, certainly not since the Comets fad of the 1980s.

Sporting is not plotting world domination here, just a bigger chunk of the local sports market and two seasons in the plan is going off almost flawlessly. They are winning, and the management group is putting on a virtual clinic on how to connect with a community and make fans feel part of the process.

The $200 million stadium comes alive in large part thanks to the maniacs in the Cauldron — who have regular interaction with the ownership group, by the way — and the result is the league’s fourth-youngest roster playing with one of the strongest homefield advantages and a fan experience that’s increasing season ticket demand.

The only hiccup surrounds the name on the stadium, an ancillary fallout from Lance Armstrong’s chemically enhanced career finally coming into undeniable focus. But Sporting named its stadium after an organization that provides hope for cancer victims, not the fraudulent cyclist who started it, so backtracking now would be somewhere between counterproductive and cowardly.

Meanwhile, the team for which the stadium exists continues to elbow its way closer to mainstream. Soccer interest and participation continues to rise nationally, with Kansas City an emerging hotbed. Parents reading football concussion stories might give that an extra boost.

Look at this with an open mind, and the franchise that commissioner Don Garber calls the MLS’ greatest success story is perfectly positioned to take advantage of market conditions both in and out of its own control. So this is about much more than just soccer, but if that’s not your thing, then fine.

It’s just that you’ll be missing the best part of Kansas City’s current professional sports scene.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com

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