The noise of an ardent crowd seeped inside the home locker room. A collection of soccer players who had spent the previous season competing on a baseball field sat in front of their compartments and listened.
It was an hour before Sporting Kansas City took the field for its first game at Sporting Park, and the players struck up a conversation about the energy in the building. An owner whipped open the door and walked into the room.
“I vividly remember Robb Heineman came in and talked to us and spoke very frankly,” Sporting KC captain Matt Besler says. “He told us, look, we’ve rebranded. We’ve built you guys a stadium. We’ve put a lot of money into this team.”
“Now, it’s on you.”
The objective of the speech, Heineman says now, was to create a we’re-all-in-this-together environment. But it struck another chord.
While the stadium opener on June 9, 2011, left no empty seats, the rebrand alone wasn’t going to be enough to keep fans coming back. The owners, coaches, players — everyone — were required to invest in putting a consistently competitive product on the field.
“There’s no doubt the stadium was a big draw. It’s an incredible place,” coach Peter Vermes says. “But if your friend gets a new car and you’re asked to go for a ride, you’re going to say yes. But if he asks you again, you really kind of couldn’t care less.”
The stadium sellout streak will reach 71 matches in the home opener next weekend, and all indications are the team will sell out every Major League Soccer game this season. The club had a 97 percent renewal rate on its allotted 14,000 season tickets, and it houses a 5,500-member waiting list, according to team president Jake Reid. Both are the most in club history.
But if there’s a pressure to keep the numbers there, it’s rising, says Heineman, who calls the last two years “simply not good enough.” While the club reached the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season in 2015 — and has never missed the postseason since moving into the newly renamed Children’s Mercy Park — it lost in a road knockout game in Portland. The 2014 postseason ended in the same one-and-done fashion.
In fact, Sporting KC has not provided its fans with a home playoff game since winning the MLS Cup in 2013.
Sporting KC opens the 2016 season at 6 p.m. Sunday in Seattle.
“We need to have big games in Children’s Mercy Park again,” Heineman says. “We haven’t had big games in Children’s Mercy Park the last two seasons. Yeah, we made the playoffs. But if you don’t even have a home playoff game, it’s hard to say you qualified for the playoffs in my view.”
The competition is heating up, and not just inside a competitive Western Conference.
Inside its home market, too.
The Chiefs won their first playoff game in 22 years this January and the Royals have reached two straight World Series, winning the Fall Classic last November. Sporting KC is insistent it hasn’t felt a financial effect from the Royals’ championship run — and the soccer club could certainly argue it started the winning trend with its 2013 title. Either way, the city seems to have a new standard.
“I don’t know if it’s more pressure, but it definitely creates a desire to win when you see other teams in Kansas City winning,” said Besler, who grew up in Overland Park. “We’ve experienced that before, but when you see what’s going on with the Royals, that’s what you want. You want to be in their shoes.”
Heineman, who serves as the Sporting Club CEO, says the ownership group has made a “very large (financial) commitment” to make that happen, offering him and Vermes “all the flexibility we need to sign players over the course of the season.”
Simultaneously, off the field, the team is targeting a new fan base with what it refers to as the “incubator” generation, essentially 12- to 18-year-old kids. It’s also expanding efforts to draw more fans from Jackson County.
Sporting KC is already home to an attractive demographic to sponsors — the strategy behind the rebranding. Its average season-ticket holder is shy of 30 years old.
The desire is to keep them.
“We want to be smart. We want to be innovative,” Heineman says. “But the most important thing for everyone here is winning. That’s always going to be the most important thing.”
Sporting KC at Seattle Sounders FC
WHAT: MLS season opener
WHEN: 6 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: At CenturyLink Field, Seattle
TV: Fox Sports 1