VAHE GREGORIAN

Despite MLS loss, All-Star game is a success

Updated: 2013-08-01T15:38:21Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

In the grand scheme, the pulsating spectacle at Sporting Park on Wednesday night wasn’t of the scale or dimension of the Major League All-Star game played last summer at Kauffman Stadium.

America’s pastime may be past its time in some ways, supplanted by the NFL to a large degree, but it still has far broader and deeper reach and resonance than soccer in this country.

(And speaking of the NFL, what does it say about where soccer stands next to that when at the Major League Soccer All-Star Game, an international celebration of the game, there were ample voices among the 20,000-plus to bellow out that silly, disrespectful “home of the Chiefs” at the end of the Star-Spangled Banner?)

But yet there is this: The 2013 MLS All-Star game didn’t just affirm that for one night, anyway, Kansas City was the “soccer capital of the world,” as proclaimed on a downtown billboard.

“It was a great, great opportunity for us to showcase Sporting and Kansas City,” MLS and Sporting coach Peter Vermes said after the All-Star team’s 3-1 loss to AS Roma. “It’s not just the game on Wednesday night; it’s everything that goes along with it.”

Some conflicting measurements of the growth in the game’s popularity and penetration notwithstanding, it also was the latest affirmation that its rising tide is no fluke, fad or mere niche.

Yes, MLS TV ratings might be, uh, underperforming, and comparing its attendance figures to other sports is an inherently imperfect exercise that can be skewed by such factors as price and frequency and timing of games.

Even so, according to a study by The Sporting News, the MLS last season drew an average of 17,782 as the NBA lured 17,323 and the NHL 17,132.

On a more local and more recent level, Sporting KC this season has enjoyed an average announced crowd of 19,709 this season — meaning 1,242 more than capacity.

The Royals, playing their best baseball in a decade this late in a season, are averaging 21,963 — 788 more than attended the MLS All-Star Game.

Apples and oranges? Maybe, a thought reinforced by Sporting lagging well behind the Royals in TV ratings.

But in a microcosm of the game’s trajectory into the mainstream bloodstream, there’s no denying how soccer is bearing fruit in Kansas City.

What was once a barren landscape for the game now is “one of the great sports stories in our industry,” MLS commissioner Don Garber has said repeatedly.

Especially considering where it came from, going back to the city’s first foray into professional soccer with the Kansas City Spurs in 1968.

“That funny game that foreigners play finally arrived here,” The Star wrote then in a telling nugget unearthed last week by reporter Pete Grathoff.

A year later, the Spurs won the North American Soccer League title … and folded in 1970, suggesting that merely being a winner wasn’t going to capture enough imaginations here then.

Then came indoor soccer, which surged only to sizzle out.

And then the Kansas City Wiz sprouted in 1996.

You know the rest: the Wiz begot the Wizards, winning championships but relatively few friends — a fact accentuated to absurdity playing in the vastness of Arrowhead Stadium.

Whatever the public numbers suggested then, the reality was worse.

According to one Sporting employee, when the current ownership group bought the team in 2006, the Wizards ranked last in the league in merchandising sales and had 450 season tickets.

Not season-ticket holders. Season tickets to offer.

Who needed them, after all, with about 80,000 seats to choose from?

Flash-forward to 2013: Sporting merchandise sells in the upper ranks of the league — not to mention can be seen all over KC — the team caps season-ticket sales at 14,000 to allow for more people to be exposed to the events and 650 Sporting fans traveled to Dallas in June to watch the team play.

That’s just one of dozens of points of contrast that could speak to the evolution of the organization and game.

Rob Thomson, now the executive vice president for communications, last week recalled a Wizards’ player event at Crown Center at which perhaps 20 fans showed up.

Under the Sporting reincarnation that began after the 2010 season with the new name and the building of Sporting Park, he said, a similar event drew what seemed to be hundreds, startling and baffling workers who had been there the previous time.

Maybe nothing tells where it all was, though, more than this:

Thomson once was driving home from work and was so excited to see another car bearing a rare Wizards bumper sticker that he described speeding up and weaving through traffic to get a glimpse and perhaps connect with one of the club’s constituents … only to have it be a colleague.

There was no assurance anything would be different when the five energetic entrepreneurs who formed OnGoal bought the team in 2006, no guarantee that the gamble of dubbing the team “Sporting KC” ultimately would go over and no way to know that securing financing for this $200 million jewel in The Legends would pay dividends.

A “calculated risk,” said Robb Heineman, the CEO of Sporting Club, the parent of Sporting KC.

“You’ve got to make decisions with imperfect information,” he said last week. “So what we try to do is make decisions with imperfect information and then work hard to make sure the outcome is correct.”

Whether they tapped into something that had simply been dormant or, in fact, cultivated a movement themselves, the combination at Sporting Park of cutting-edge technology, world-class architecture and first-class fan awareness and service — to provide fans at every ticket level some sense of amenities, to bring in “non-traditional” fans — and winning soccer has manifested in something with staying power.

“We feel like we’ve done a decent job of kind of what we call Fan Experience 1.0, but we really need to get to Fan Experience 2.0 and continue to delight our fans,” Heineman said, adding, “We don’t want to rest on what we have now.”

That’s the pioneering spirit the game, still in its relative infancy in the USA, needs as it’s still evolving into whatever it finally will be here.

It’s not baseball or football. It’s not basketball or hockey.

For that matter, it’s not even soccer as we know it around the world — otherwise, you would see moats and razor-wire fences separating fans from players and each other at Sporting Park.

Instead, it is its own entity and something more than can be dismissed by traditionalists as a niche. It’s an emerging world of its own, a phenomenon to be followed now through the lens of a city that represents the very core of the change to embrace what was once just the “funny game that foreigners play.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4366 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/vgregorian.

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