Kansas City has transformed into a soccer hotbed

07/27/2013 12:00 AM

07/29/2013 1:32 PM

The massive mural is visible from the office of Robb Heineman, the CEO of Sporting Club, the parent of Sporting Kansas City.

“Welcome to Kansas City,” it reads, “the soccer capital of America.”

Days before playing host to the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday, that’s no hollow platitude to Heineman.

“We’re kind of using that big mantra this week and we really feel that way, whether it’s our team, our stadium, the project that we’re working on here with U.S. Soccer around the training center that will advance over the course of this fall, whether it’s our youth development,” he said. “We want to be what soccer really is in America, with the ultimate aim of that to have the U.S. win the World Cup.”

The notion of Kansas City as such a cog, as the soccer capital of America, still is audacious and maybe more of a declaration of an aspiration than an arrival.

But any such thought at all would have been preposterous only a few years ago.

Only the most ardent fans, a few thousand, would attend then-Wizards games, dwarfed in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium. They later were relegated to the more intimate but also inappropriate confines of CommunityAmerica Ballpark.

Attendance grew, but not much beyond the niche audience, and merchandising attempts were futile. At one point, Heineman considered the team “the underperforming unit” of MLS and was embarrassed by it.

All that changed with the radical rebranding and recasting of the franchise in 2011 by Heineman and the rest of the innovative local ownership group that bought the Wizards in 2006 from the Hunt family.

Watch fans talk about soccer in Kansas City

Even the crucial successes, though, took time to take.

“The name, ‘Sporting,’ we knew going into the announcement of the brand that it would be wildly unpopular, right?” Heineman said, adding, “But we also had a vision for where we thought we could get and thought that if we could get to that vision point, ‘Sporting’ would make complete sense to everybody.

“Because we knew what we wanted to be. What Sporting Club is all about is membership, it’s about connection, it’s about inclusion.”

It was, he added, a “calculated risk.”

But the most profound risks, obstacles and rewards have come through the living manifestation of that membership, connection and inclusion: Sporting Park, the team’s gorgeous, intricately planned, futuristic $200 million home that opened in 2011 after a number of exasperating attempts to secure financing had failed.

“You can throw that stadium up against any stadium in the world,” Alexi Lalas, who played 30 games for the then-Wizards in 1999, told The Star last year before a U.S. men’s World Cup qualifying game there. “Is it stunning? Yeah. I’d be lying if I said I predicted it, but that’s a credit to the visionaries — the guys who can look at a desert and see Las Vegas.”

And so it is, particularly because of the architecture and mind-boggling array of amenities and gizmos derived from influences all over the tech and soccer worlds, including Europe and South America.

“Every Tuesday for basically two years from noon to 6, we would sit in a room with the architects (Populous) and design this stadium,” Heineman said. “We were involved in, for better or worse, every decision in the building, down to knobs on doors.”

All of it is contoured to the consumer “experience,” a broad term that Heineman says principal investor Cliff Illig was “just adamant” would drive decisions and that can’t be defined in any “one-for-all-thing.”

So, some 31 different sets of constituents were considered in the process, and if you build it, they will come, hasn’t resonated this much since “Field of Dreams.”

The stadium capacity is 18,467, but with standing-room crowds swelling the ranks Sporting is averaging nearly 20,000 this season and has capped season-ticket sales at 14,000 to allow more non-traditional fans to take in the spectacle.

“It would have been much more difficult, maybe impossible, even” to have the All-Star Game without it, Heineman said.

And at least for the next few days, Kansas City, in fact, is the soccer capital of the United States.

“Gosh, you can see almost the whole narrative of our brand in the stadium on a game-to-game basis,” Heineman said. “But we still have a lot to do. I think the impetus now is really on us to make this a sustainable regional brand and not just kind of a couple-year wonder.”

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