Sporting Kansas City CEO and co-owner Robb Heineman and Lee’s Summit native David Wright found themselves in select company when Street and Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal published its 40-under-40 list of the industry’s most accomplished and promising young executives.
But Heineman and Wright, who was recently promoted as Major League Soccer’s senior vice president for global sponsorships, were more interested in what the inclusion of four executives with strong ties to the soccer community says about the sport’s emergence on the national scene.
“Soccer representing 10 percent of the list is pretty cool,” Heineman said. “It shows all the progress we’ve made as a league and does nothing but continue to elevate the status of soccer in the U.S.”
Heineman, 38, and Wright, 39, were joined on the list by Portland Timbers owner and president Merritt Paulson and Fox Soccer executive vice president and general manager David Nathanson.
“I really think that’s the story,” Wright said. “It wasn’t that long ago that we were fortunate to have some very bright, motivated, passionate folks make it on the list, but to have a number on there now says a lot about the growth of the game.”
Wright, a 1991 Lee’s Summit High School graduate, was an all-metro soccer player in his time with the Tigers and went on to win four letters at Indiana, helping the Hoosiers to two NCAA Final Fours.
“It’s funny, because I went on to IU and graduated there in ’96, and it was at the time when I needed to make a few decisions,” Wright said. “I could make a feeble attempt at playing still or start a career, and at the time, I thought coaching was in my future. I went after a situation that combined coaching with the opportunity to pursue a graduate degree.”
That led him to the University of Massachusetts, where he was an assistant soccer coach and earned a master’s in sports business, which got him a foot in the door with MLS.
Working his way up through the ranks, Wright now oversees the league’s business partnerships and development.
“It’s been fun. I’ve been here for almost 12 years, and when I started out, it was a 10-team league,” Wright said. “To see where we’ve gone in the last decade or so, it’s been incredible. If the next 10 years are anything like the last 10 years, it’s going to be a fantastic time for soccer.”
Heineman oversaw the rebranding of the Sporting KC franchise last season — after being known as the Wizards since 1997 — in conjunction with the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park, a soccer-specific $200 million state-of-the-art stadium in Kansas City, Kan.
“He is an absolute star in this league,” Wright said. “What Robb and the balance of the Sporting Kansas City ownership have done in that marketplace is nothing short of spectacular. In my opinion, I’ve always thought that the opportunity is there. Soccer participation is off the charts and there is corporate support, but Robb has brought all those pieces together in a remarkable way.”
Sporting KC went from an afterthought to a driving force on the local sports scene when the new stadium opened last June, earning Heineman a spot among the nation’s brightest stars in the sports business world.
“We were always caught in a general malaise in Kansas City,” Heineman said. “Now, in a short period of time, we’re in the same breath with the Royals and Chiefs. Obviously, we’re not the powerhouse brand that those teams are yet, but we’re making progress.”