A region reeling from a near-generation of sporting futility and irrelevance suddenly is infused with life.
By VAHE GREGORIAN
The Kansas City Star
The Chiefs have enjoyed a splendid turnaround from a 2-14 fiasco and are almost surely playoff-bound, so why can’t they contend for their first playoff win since Jan. 16, 1994?
The Royals enjoyed their best season in 25 years, so why shouldn’t they make the playoffs next year for the first time since 1985?
But for a metro area that had been parched for nourishment from its professional sports, Sporting KC has shown the way and shone a light, claiming the MLS Cup on Dec. 7 in spectacularly painstaking fashion over Real Salt Lake before more than 20,000 delirious fans who shrugged off the frigid conditions.
It was, in fact, the second MLS title for the franchise once known as the Wizards. But the stakes and visibility and clout of it is so much different now.
“It’s really a perfect storm,” said Rich Luker, who founded the ESPN Sports Poll in 1994 and whose studies of sports trends can be found at LukerOnTrends.com. “There are several things converging at the same time.”
The MLS was in its infancy in 2000, soccer still was dismissed by many as a fad or even a nuisance, and the Wizards weren’t established enough to make real ripples … or even have an appropriate home, absurdly playing in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium.
At a celebration of this championship at Union Station on Monday, Sporting coach Peter Vermes considered the crowd there and what he saw in 2000 at Arrowhead as a player for the Wizards.
“There’s more people at this event than I think than there was in 2000 when I played in the Western Conference championship at Arrowhead,” he told the audience. “That says a lot.”
They just didn’t matter much then or in the ensuing years, really, other than to a passionate minority. That apathy was reflected in attendance and merchandising figures and absence of interest around town, where a public appearance by a player might lure a dozen or so people.
But then came energized, cutting-edge new ownership in 2006 and, ultimately, rebirth through rebranding, which has helped establish Sporting KC merchandise as among the hottest in the league.
Yet the changes were far more substantial than cosmetic and included the addition of magnificent Sporting Park.
“Your context (in Kansas City) for enjoying sports is second-to-none,” said Luker, comparing the impact of Sporting Park to what Camden Yards spawned for baseball. “Many kudos.”
The genius behind the reboot combined with the surging rise of the MLS, and soccer in general in the United States, to whisk this all to a fever pitch.
Among the keys to that, Luker said, is that a full first generation of parents and participants have played through the sport; television has gotten past the notion of, “If it isn’t American, it doesn’t play;” and that, because of the Internet and social media, Millennials are growing up far more exposed to the rest of the world than their ancestors.
So soccer no longer can be dismissed as a cult or a niche on the U.S. sports landscape.
Luker’s research has determined that among 12- to 24-year-olds, soccer is the second-most popular sport in America now behind the NFL.
According to a study by The Sporting News, the MLS last season drew an average of 17,782; the NBA lured 17,323 and the NHL 17,132.
The Royals averaged 21,614 fans in 81 home games this season; Sporting averaged 19,709 in 19 regular-season MLS games.
Those are imperfect measures for a lot of reasons, including that the Royals play many more home games and TV ratings for Sporting are well-behind those of the Royals.
But it all still speaks to this: Soccer may not yet be America’s game. But it is the world’s game, and that world is permeating this one.
For instance, Sporting’s roster this year featured players from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, England, France, Haiti, Kenya and Spain.
And that in part reflects Sporting’s touch being, well, world-class.
“They showed me something I never had in Europe. I would be working hard and have the best training facilities,” said defender Aurelien Collin, who is French, after the championship game. “For the first time in my life, I had the best facilities, the best environment, the best infrastructure. I know I am a better player now than I was three years ago.
“I know that if I stay here, I will be a better player in three years than I am now. I wasn’t expecting all of this, but I feel very blessed and happy to be a part of it.”
And so does Kansas City, whose faith has been rewarded at a time it can believe it’s the start of more to come on multiple fronts.
“This is an incredible sports town; the fans have had their downs for many years but they keep supporting their teams,” Vermes said after the game. “From our perspective, we’re happy to reward them for the support they have continued to show through thick and thin.
“It’s an exciting time for the city, and an exciting time for Sporting.”
To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.