The smart guys with the pioneering organization have their first skid mark now, and right across the face.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
Sporting Kansas City must deal with real off-the-field defeat. This is new. Theyve been essentially perfect in the decisions that matter until this one, so the shine is gone but the sting is not.
Youd pardon executives in other Kansas City sports organizations if they take comfort today. Those whippersnappers at Sporting KC are humbled. Inexperience, naivety and a touch of star-chasing proved a nasty combination. Sportings brash and innovative brand is now tarnished by something more important than a playoff loss.
Their big bet on Lance Armstrong is now officially blown to bits, and for an added kick to the crotch, its Armstrongs old Livestrong foundation that hit the eject button on a unique partnership that turned into a nightmare for the Sporting Club. Livestrong effectively pulled its name off Sportings stadium, and then started a public argument over contracts on the way out.
Translation: Sporting got dumped by the pretty girl it once loved, but now realizes is nuts.
They could use a hug.
We havent had enough time to reflect, says Robb Heineman, Sporting KCs president and CEO. But, yeah. Well try to learn from it.
From the beginning, the union was curious. When the partnership was announced, Armstrong flew in but did not take questions from reporters. The smoke around his then-alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs which he reportedly admitted for the first time in an interview with Oprah thats set to air on Thursday was impossible to miss.
But Sporting wanted to do something different. The fight against cancer is especially important and personal to its ownership group, and Livestrong has raised millions for awareness and provided millions with inspiration.
It wasnt all altruism, either. Sporting hoped that Armstrongs fame and connections would help land musical and athletic events for its new stadium events that would generate donations for Livestrong but also more cash for the team.
Obviously, that didnt happen. But the original thought was easy to get behind.
It just so happened they chose the wrong charity.
Sportings leaders didnt go into this partnership blind. They knew Armstrong was under suspicion but hoped Livestrongs brand was strong enough to continue its mission of fighting cancer without him. As Heineman said Tuesday night, Sportings decision-makers didnt think the worst-case scenario was likely. They were wrong, on both counts.
As it turns out, Sporting looks the fool. No matter how much they try to separate Armstrongs disgrace from Livestrongs nobility, the liar and the charity he started are like Siamese twins. They invited Armstrong to games, spoke of him reverentially, and its no coincidence the seat reserved for special guests is painted in his familiar yellow hue. The teams pregame hype video even featured Armstrongs smiling face.
So Sportings brand is sullied, its message diluted. When it was announced recently that the Major League Soccer All-Star Game would be in Kansas City this summer, questions quickly turned to Armstrong and drugs. Sporting KC is expected to announce an investment firm called Ivy Funds as its first jersey sponsor on Thursday, and you can bet club officials will hear still more questions about Armstrong and drugs.
With hindsight, Sportings mistakes were the product of gullibility and idealism run amok. They were star-struck by Armstrongs fame and hungry for the potential of the partnership, which not only clouded their thinking in the beginning but pushed them to hang on for too long.
To the very end, Heineman says Sporting was trying to get to common ground on an arrangement that would work for both sides, and that he was blindsided when Livestrong ended the relationship on Tuesday.
Sporting is still in a good position, of course. Going forward, the club is better off without Livestrongs baggage. Heineman said the organization remains committed to the fight against cancer again, this is very personal to the ownership group and will find other ways to help.
In the meantime, the search for a new naming-rights sponsor begins, and Heineman said another nonprofit would be considered. Whatever happens, theyd like to maximize the local impact. Just like the last time, their hearts and minds are in the right place. But now, its with their innocence lost, their first major mistake gone public.
The best organizations grow from their mistakes. Lets see if this one does.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.