Soccer sparks strong reactions in Kansas City. There are those who will defend the sport like their family’s good name.
Others think it’s dumb because it’s nearly impossible to score and therefore inherently boring (Google “inherently boring” and one of the first results is a story about soccer). Then there’s a group that’s really not sure what to think because they’ve yet to be exposed to the sport.
Many thought there weren’t enough soccer lovers here for the sport to succeed in Kansas City, and they had 15 years of proof. The Wizards couldn’t outdraw a local high school football game on most nights.
Ask Robb Heineman, who’s standing in a parking lot across the street from Livestrong Sporting Park two hours before Sporting Kansas City’s final playoff game against the Houston Dynamo. The lot is full. Barbecue fills the air. If it weren’t for the soccer balls being passed back and forth instead of footballs, you might mistake it for the Arrowhead parking lot before a Chiefs game.
“When we first bought the team, we had 500 people coming to our games,” said Heineman, 38, Sporting’s part owner and CEO. On this night, 20,894 packed the park.
Had Sporting won, they might be playing in Saturday’s MLS Cup, Major League Soccer’s Super Bowl. The game could have been played at Livestrong.
It’s not happening, of course. But what is happening is a success that few thought would occur. Livestrong was sold out for 16 of Sporting Kansas City’s 17 regular-season matches this year. The stadium is also becoming a destination for the U.S. National Team after successfully hosting a World Cup qualifier for the men’s team in October and the women’s team in 2011. If you’re wondering how a soccer team became popular in Kansas City, spend the evening with an executive who high-fives fans, asks for opinions, starts every game standing with the club’s most passionate supporters and talks shop over beers.
A couple of hours before kickoff at Sporting’s only home playoff game on Nov. 7, Heineman is finishing dinner with WHB 810 radio personalities Nate Bukaty and Todd Leabo.
After his vegetable sandwich and shrimp mac ’n’ cheese, he hops on a golf cart along with Bukaty and Leabo to head to a tailgate organized by the Cauldron, Sporting’s largest and most vocal group of supporters. As the cart turns the corner on the northeast side of the stadium, Heineman yells “Let’s go!”
When the cart arrives, a fan offers a beer and Heineman starts to make the rounds. Most know him already. Some thank him for giving them a team that’s actually winning. One fan who thanks Heineman is Alan Swanson. Sporting held a contest for fans to show their devotion to the U.S. Open Cup, which the team won in August, and the winners got to spend a day with the cup. Swanson took it to his daughter’s school.
Some members of the Cauldron made a road trip to Houston to see the first playoff game. They sell their own merchandise before the games out of a bus painted in Sporting’s sky blue. When Heineman found out the group was going to Houston, he sent the Open Cup trophy with them.
“The thing I like about Robb is underneath being an executive, he’s as big a fan of the team as any of us,” said Sean Dane, a Cauldron organizer.
When OnGoal bought the team in 2006, they had a problem: How do we make people care?
When Lamar Hunt sold the team, the Wizards were playing at Arrowhead Stadium. You think that place is empty for a one-win Chiefs’ team? It’s like a zoo compared with what it was when the Wizards played there.
The owners moved the games to a much smaller venue, CommunityAmerica Ballpark in Kansas City, Kan. That was the first step toward fixing the atmosphere at games, giving it a more intimate feel.
Then they needed people to fill the seats. Heineman started with the group he knew already cared. He got their attention by regularly posting messages to a popular soccer message board,BigSoccer.co
The most passionate fans, he learned, were part of the Cauldron, the group best known as the fans in the area behind the north goal who stand, sing, curse and chant for 90 straight minutes. But it is actually a club of fans, made up of multiple groups, each with its own name such as “La Barra KC.”
The group was sensitive to change. Even now, some still call the team the Wizards and wear Wizards’ gear.
“They’ve been supporting the team since 1996 and I have a lot of respect for them, and whatever they want to call the team is fine with me,” Heineman said. “But if it were my decision, I’d call the team Sporting.”
Since the name changed to Sporting, merchandise sales have gone up 600 percent. Branding is extremely important to Heineman. He says he has a “fashion guy” who designs some of the team’s merchandise. The rest is designed by fans.
Heineman went to Dane before the season and said the team was interested in providing more fan-generated merchandise. Dane went to his members who designed T-shirts and scarves and said “there are no rules. Design whatever you want.” The group sold that merchandise to Sporting, and the team sells it in its stores.
Before Heineman left the tailgate, he approached one of the workers at the bus.
“I’ll take ’em all,” he said, referring to the shirts. The group had 12 styles for sale that night.
If Kansas City were to accept soccer, Heineman had to make sure that the media knew Sporting existed.
Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl, who grew up on the Kansas side of the city, said Kansas City used to be considered a “soccer dead zone” around the MLS and there used to be no reason for him to cover his home team. But Wahl recently wrote a story in the magazine about the franchise’s turnaround.
Heineman goes out of his way to build relationships with the media.
When he heard local radio personality Kevin Kietzman of WHB 810 criticizing the team after losing the home opener at Livestrong in 2011, Heineman called Kietzman’s show.
“I absolutely agree with the standard that you hold us to,” he told Kietzman. “If that’s the sort of stuff we’re going to put on the field, people shouldn’t come out and watch. Period. It was bad.”
At the playoff game, Heineman ran into Mike Kuhn, a blogger who follows the team. Kuhn, 30, has had season tickets since 1996. He started his blog,Downthebyline.com
, in 2006 when he was between jobs. He started attending some practices at the time, which is when he met Heineman.
Heineman told Kuhn what the team wanted to do in the offseason and some of the areas they needed to address. He asked Kuhn his thoughts on what they should do with the Livestrong name.
Kuhn and Heineman talked like two soccer fans, not an owner of the team addressing a blogger, and Kuhn is convinced it’s not an act. When Kuhn was at the opener in Los Angeles last season, Heineman sat with Kuhn and a group that traveled to the game. Heineman could have been sitting with the other owners. During last year’s playoff game, Kuhn saw Heineman in the Cauldron, asking his buddies where they had sat for the Colorado game, which Sporting won 2-0.
“Let’s stand there this time,” Kuhn recalled Heineman telling them. “Don’t want to mess with mojo.”
“It’s just more proof that he’s more than just an owner,” Kuhn said. “He’s a fan of the team.”
After tailgating with fans, Heineman headed to one of the cell stations in the Members Club to charge his iPhone. These are set up throughout the stadium and Heineman plugged his phone in at every opportunity.
Heineman is proud of Livestrong Sporting Park, and he has every right to be. This is the ace in OnGoal’s deck.
He heads upstairs to the Victory Suite in the northwest end of the stadium to greet Sporting’s corporate clients and then heads downstairs to the Field Club, an upscale bar under the stands at midfield, and orders a Boulevard wheat.
“We’re going in to see the Boulevard guys,” he said. “Gotta make sure we’re drinking their beer.”
Heineman bursts into the room and lets out a “Yummm, this beer is delicious.” Laughter quickly fills the room. A group of Boulevard employees sit around enjoying their beer and a tour of the facility. Heineman goes into his sales pitch, telling the group how much the team’s fans love Boulevard. He would like to expand their partnership. He realizes the importance of Boulevard in the area.
Heineman says they have big plans for the stadium next year, including mobile gaming and live-streaming of the game to mobile devices.
He visits the locker room, meets with his buddies from the Member’s Club and heads to the Cauldron, where every fan — and even the owner — ultimately wants to be.
When OnGoal built Livestrong, Heineman asked the Cauldron what its members wanted their section to look like. They came up with a wish list.
They wanted their own bar, cheaper beer and cheaper food. They wanted a roof so it would turn their section into a megaphone. They also wanted space for people who weren’t season-ticket holders.
“We wanted people to have access on a single-game basis to get in there with the most passionate, fervent fans and experience that to create that demand to come back,” Dane said. So Sporting put the Cauldron members in charge of selling the single-game tickets to their section, and they receive part of the proceeds. The Member’s Club was built. They got their roof, and the concession prices in the club are cheaper than anywhere in the stadium.
Heineman watches every game from the Cauldron for at least the first 15 minutes. It’s his final opportunity on game day to be seen by the fans. As Heineman and his buddies rushed to their spot, a fan walking in the other direction recognizes Heineman and hands him his Sporting Kansas City scarf. “I want you to have this,” the man said.
It’s the second thing he was gifted that night. At the tailgate, a fan handed Heineman a Sporting KC beer koozie. “I can’t take your koozie,” Heineman said, handing it back to him, but taking the opportunity to talk about how cool his marketing staff is. At every opportunity, he praises his people.
Heineman and his buddies navigate their way into the middle of the Cauldron where it’s almost impossible to move. Heineman is much more reserved here, which is surprising considering the shenanigans that go on around him. He sings the anthem out loud with the Cauldron, but once the game starts, he’s quiet. He doesn’t do the chants. He’s exceptionally fidgety.
“It’s hard to watch games because I have zero control over the outcome when they’re on the field,” he said.
When Sporting is awarded its first corner kick, Heineman pumps his fist. He throws his hands in the air at a bad call. But mostly he’s locked on the game. He knows the importance of winning to keep the franchise momentum going.
“It’s not something we’re doing just to try to drive butts in seats,” he said. “We want to win because deep in our soul we want to win championships and be something that’s special on the field. That’s who we are.”
After 21 minutes in the Cauldron, the time it took Heineman to finish his beer, he headed to his seats along the sideline with his family. He wants to be perceived as the owner who is also a fan, and he pulls it off. But he’s also a nervous wreck during the games, and he needs to be alone.
No matter how much you learn about the franchise and how it was built, you don’t understand the draw until you witness a game. Right now there is nothing else around that rivals the energy at a Sporting game unless you head down Interstate 70 to Allen Fieldhouse.
The grand finale of a two-year successful run was the playoff game against Houston, which ends up as Sporting’s final match as they lose the two-game series by an aggregate score of 2-1.
When Heineman finally emerged from the locker room after the game, he began to make the rounds again around the Field Club, visiting with anyone he might have missed before the game. Everyone congratulated him on the season.
Heineman kept a happy face, but he obviously didn’t have the energy he had pregame. Still, he was encouraged by the season and what he witnessed that night, particularly the play of two young midfielders, Peterson Joseph and Oriol Rosell, who were thrown into the starting lineup that night.
“They’re going to be incredible,” he said.
The fact that he could talk about the two players with fans afterward and they knew what he was talking about shows the progress of this franchise. The town is adopting the team as one of its own. People care.
“I remember times when there would be 20-25 people in the Cauldron, and I would know everybody’s name,” Kuhn said. “It’s no longer my dirty little secret that me and my friends go and hang out here and drink a couple beers and yell at some players and have some fun.”
Sporting has a young roster. Nineteen of the players on the current roster are 26 or younger. Because of its youth, the club finished with the lowest payroll in MLS, but there isn’t a perception that they’re cheap. Heineman said the club plans to do everything it can to retain quality players and sign players as needed to “make us a championship contender.”
“They’ve put money behind it and made an investment in the team,” Wahl said. “It shows a belief that soccer and the MLS have a long-term future in Kansas City. A lot of that went into the stadium, which in my mind I have a hard time imagining a nicer, more technologically advanced 20,000-seat stadium in the world. And they certainly didn’t have to build that nice of stadium, but they did.”
At one point before the sale, the Hunts had Chiefs’ reps doing ticket sales for the Wizards on the side. Now Sporting Kansas City focus solely on the team.
Wahl said Sporting’s success would not have been possible if local investors had not stepped up to buy the team. He said he respects what Lamar Hunt did for the league, but he believes local ownership is best for the MLS.
“We need to do whatever we can to make our team relevant in Kansas City,” Heineman said.
They have. And if Hunt were still with us today, he would hardly recognize what he sold.