Sporting Kansas City’s groundbreaking naming-rights arrangement with Livestrong, the cancer-fighting charity launched by embattled cycling champion Lance Armstrong, is history.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
The Major League Soccer club said Tuesday night that it would sever ties with Livestrong, which claimed Sporting KC failed to live up to a financial agreement struck between the two organizations in March 2011.
For now, the team’s stadium — located off Interstate 70 in the Village West shopping area of Kansas City, Kan. — will be referred to simply as “Sporting Park.”
According to a report from ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell, Livestrong informed Sporting KC this week that it had been paid only $250,000 of its $1 million pledge for 2012.
Sporting KC President and CEO Robb Heineman disputed that claim.
“We paid them $250,000, which was a contractual obligation, and that’s all we owed them,” he said.
The agreement’s dissolution just shy of two years brings to a halt one of the most progressive naming-rights deals in professional sports. Rather than sell its stadium’s naming rights, Sporting KC announced in March 2011 that the Livestrong charity’s name would adorn the $200 million soccer-specific venue.
As part of the agreement, Sporting was to funnel as much as $7.5 million over six years to Livestrong, donating a portion of ticket, concession and souvenir sales.
Livestrong Chief Financial Officer Greg Lee told ESPN.com that, “While we don’t talk about the specifics related to any of our partners, part of my role as the chief financial officer is to ensure compliance by our corporate partners. We strive to be great partners ourselves and expect the same from those we do business with. If a partner is struggling to meet the terms of our agreement, we do everything possible to reach a fair and reasonable compromise. If no compromise can be reached, as good stewards or our brand and mission, we have no choice but to bring that agreement to an end.”
Heineman, who said the two sides had been engaged in talks to “redefine expectations” for the agreement, said he felt blindsided by Livestrong’s accusation.
“I didn’t think that’s how they would go about treating a partner,” Heineman said. “And I didn’t necessarily think our relationship was something to be debated on ESPN or in the media, quite frankly.
“It’s something we were working on in good faith, and it was to both our mutual benefit to try to do something to continue to raise money for the foundation. They obviously took a different tack, and it was a surprising one to us.”
Termination of the unique relationship comes the same week that Armstrong admitted using performance-enhancing drugs during a record-breaking cycling career highlighted by seven Tour de France titles, which have been stripped.
Armstrong is expected to admit to doping throughout his career during an interview with Oprah Winfrey that was taped on Monday and will begin airing Thursday.
“As you can imagine, it’s been difficult to be a Livestrong partner for the last year or so with the media attention (on Armstrong),” Heineman said. “We weren’t able to get to a common ground on what those (redefined expectations) looked like and, candidly, I thought we were making some progress. Clearly, by the action taken by the foundation here the past few days, we weren’t making any progress.”
Armstrong, who was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer in 1996, became an inspiration to millions when he returned to professional cycling. But whispers that he was a cheat also dogged Armstrong throughout his comeback.
Those whispers became a roar in June, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency formally accused Armstrong of doping and trafficking in drugs used for doping.
Two months later, USADA stripped Armstrong of all competitive results prior to Aug. 1, 1998, including all seven of his Tour de France titles, and also banned him for life from competitive cycling.
Cycling’s international body, Union Cycliste Internationale, upheld USADA’s findings and recommendations after the full report — and its more than 1,000 supporting documents and 26 eye-witness testimonies, including 11 from Armstrong’s teammates — was published in early October.
Nike, Anheuser-Busch and 24-Hour Fitness were among the sponsors who immediately ended sponsorship agreements with Armstrong, but until Tuesday, Sporting KC had stood by Livestrong.
Heineman was adamant at the time that Sporting Club would continue to partner with Livestrong and its fight against cancer, saying “we believe strongly in this mission.”
“What’s disappointing is that we didn’t pull it off,” Heineman said Tuesday night. “It seems like there was the best of intentions to make this thing really go, so to wind up the way that it is has is sad. I don’t think any of us thought this would happen.”