The Full 90

Parting with Livestrong brings some relief to Sporting KC

Updated: 2013-01-16T22:45:26Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

Livestrong Sporting Park exists now only in memory.

The brick and mortar remains, and the stadium’s soul — its raucous and rowdy fans — presumably won’t change either, but for the time being, Sporting Kansas City’s stadium will be known simply as Sporting Park.

The yellow “Livestrong” signage already had been taken down by Wednesday morning after Sporting KC severed ties Tuesday night with the cancer-fighting charity started by disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong.

One of the most innovative arrangements in professional sports – Sporting KC offered the naming rights for its stadium to the charity, agreeing to donate $7.5 million from ticket, concessions and souvenir revenue over six years – ended with a messy public divorce.

Livestrong accused Sporting KC of failing to meet its financial obligations, a claim rebuffed by Kansas City’s Major League Soccer club.

Understandably, Sporting KC, which stood by Livestrong even as Armstrong’s history of systematic performance-enhancing drug use was detailed in recent months by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, wasn’t thrilled with the PR grenades lobbed its way by Livestrong.

Still, closing the Livestrong chapter also brings a sense of relief to One Sporting Way.

“We wanted to do things in Kansas City that could impact the cancer community, and we wanted to build a stadium with activities and events inside it that were really great for Kansas Citians,” Sporting KC President and CEO Robb Heineman said. “That’s what we always wanted the attention on. We didn’t want the attention on the media circus surrounding some of those other things, but the good thing is now we can move on from those.”

Sporting KC wasn’t blind to the risks inherent in partnering with Armstrong, who had won seven straight Tour de France titles from 1999-2005 all while orchestrating an elaborate doping program, when it struck the initial agreement with Livestrong in March 2011.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Heineman said. “We believed in the mission. … We tried to make it clear our decision-making wasn’t going to be based on Lance, so we don’t regret that. It’s all hindsight.”

Of course, Sporting KC underestimated the level of scrutiny it received and the degree of blowback when Armstrong’s cheating was revealed, which will be chalked up as lessons learned as the search for a new stadium sponsor begins.

Reached by phone Tuesday night, Heineman didn’t rule out the possibility of partnering with another charity for Sporting Park’s naming rights, though Sporting KC – which reportedly will unveil Ivy Funds as a jersey sponsor Thursday – also might revert to a more traditional route.

“It won’t be solely dependent on us,” Heineman said. “If we were approached and there was a partner opportunity that had a narrative that fit what we’re all about, we’d look into it.”

He continued, “If it’s in the near term, great; if it’s the far term, fine. This is a great stadium. It’s the community that makes it great, so we’re going to do what we can to try to push it forward and continue to have it be an innovative place.”

The push forward won’t include abandoning the principle tenet of the Livestrong mission — the fight against cancer.

“One of the coolest parts of the stadium, quite frankly, is the yellow seat that we built in the Victory Suite and the people that have sat in that,” Heineman said. “That’s a program that we’ll absolutely continue. That’s one of those things that creates some really special moments inside of the stadium. We won’t walk away from that.”

There might be some tweaks, though, including ditching the iconic yellow – a direct link to Livestrong, whose fundraising bands are bright yellow.

“We’ll see about that,” Heineman said. “We’ll certainly keep the designated seat, but the color remains to be seen.”

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.

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