Sporting Group’s latest vision further cements KC’s soccer-capital status

07/23/2014 5:00 PM

07/24/2014 10:18 AM

More than anything else, vision has defined Sporting Kansas City’s ownership group and fueled the franchise’s and area’s fortunes.

That was true with a rebranding from the Wizards name that jarred some, seemed pretentious to others and appears only brilliant in hindsight.

It was true with the accompanying “build it and they will come” mind-set behind Sporting Park, a marvel that has been the recipient of some 170 worldwide awards and in 2013 was the shimmering site of both the MLS All-Star Game and Sporting’s MLS championship.

All of that has given the Kansas City area currency as the emerging hub for soccer in the United States.

Now it’s on a trajectory to cement that status via another audacious venture hatched by Sporting Club’s minds, a development that could make this area the epicenter of soccer in the country, and may lead to Kansas City one day becoming a World Cup host city: the proposed National Training and Coaching Development Center near Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.

“It’s phenomenal, and I use that word carefully and appropriately here,” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Soccer is taking off in the United States. … And here’s the next step forward for U.S. soccer, and we’re going to be at the heart of it.”

Sporting Club thinks the training center concept, a $75-million-plus soccer wonderland a mile from Sporting Park, would create ripples similar to what another major professional sports franchise in the region would in terms of economic impact and identity.

Brownback, who may stand to receive a spike in his sagging approval ratings, suggested, “It’s almost bigger than that.”

A feasibility study commissioned by Sporting projected a multibillion-dollar impact and the creation of hundreds of jobs over the next 30 years.

Economic-impact projections, of course, can be in the eye of the beholder and are contingent on multiple variables.

And speaking of variables, there remain a few, given that entities ranging from the state of Kansas, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., and the U.S. Soccer Federation are essential to this.

Some details still are to be sorted out in the literal groundwork for the complex, which is to be enabled through a combination of STAR bonds (essentially a sales tax within that area) and what Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman called some “private participation through land transactions.”

Mark Holland, the Unified Government’s mayor, laughed when asked to clarify who currently owns the 150- and 40-acre sites for development roughly adjacent to the Schlitterbahn Water Park.

“It’s a pretty complicated formula that needs to be all worked out,” he said in a phone interview. “Obviously, the gist of it is done, but it’s a matrix.”

But Heineman and Holland were optimistic ground could be broken this fall, and Brownback suggested the project is all but inevitable.

When completed, Sporting thinks it will have created not just the premiere American soccer facility but the best in the world.

Plans for the complex call for a 125-room extended-stay hotel, 16 fields and a pavilion anticipated to be a veritable sports-performance mall.

It’s expected to feature best-in-class facilities for sports science, wellness, strength and nutrition, hydration, video, and analytics.

While there might be some specifics of putting it all together “left to be determined,” Heineman said, the design will be led by Sporting vice president for development David Ficklin and the architectural group Populous.

Their work on Sporting Park, Heineman added, “kind of speaks to the design team’s prowess.”

There are many reasons the standard, and the price tag, are what they are, but perhaps one rises above any other.

Other countries have “had their turn” to dominate soccer, as the group pitched to the U.S. Soccer Federation last year.

Now, the group proposed, “It’s ours.”

“As an MLS team, probably the most important thing that could happen to us is our national team continuing to achieve at a higher level each time we play in the World Cup, with obviously winning the World Cup being something that would transform soccer in this country forever,” Heineman said. “So it’s probably something that we aspire (to) as a Major League Soccer owner, even more than winning the MLS Cup: trying to achieve that highest level as a national team.”

Perhaps foremost, Heineman expects the facility to become a regular training center for U.S. men’s and women’s national, Olympic and youth teams.

Noting those teams have other training-site options, and aren’t apt to sign on for a January camp here, Heineman added, “We’re going to be able to blow them away with what’s available here, such that why would they want to go anywhere else?”

Moreover …

“What sports property in the United States is trending in a better direction than U.S. Soccer right now? What sports property has a stronger demographic position in this country?” Heineman said. “So I would think that when any of those teams are in residency … the whole community will rally around them being here.”

The same would figure to apply to foreign national teams. The village is seen as a lure for them to use as temporary headquarters, either when on tour or in international competitions in the United States.

If the complex were in place now, for instance, Heineman suggested Manchester City might have set up home base there for several weeks as it plays games around the nation.

Looking forward, Heineman hopes that the complex will be completed in time to be in the spotlight when the Copa America tournament is held in the U.S. in 2016.

The group already has been in touch with some of the national teams likely to participate (Argentina, Brazil, Chile) regarding the possibility of hosting them here.

They also will explore working with the U.S. Development Academy to create annual under-14 and under-16 international tournaments in what Heineman called “almost a World Cup-style” format made possible by what by then would be dozens of high-quality fields in the area.

So in the event of the next World Cup in the U.S., it’s easy to envision various national teams seeking to make their monthslong base camps here regardless of whether Kansas City would be a host site (at what could only be Arrowhead Stadium because of seating requirements) for a game or games.

“And fans from those nations know where those teams will be,” Heineman said. “They’ll want to come and stay.”

On a more routine basis, Heineman and Ficklin stressed the impact of coaches and referees being here for thousands of room nights as the village becomes their primary hub for training and further accreditation.

U.S. Soccer isn’t moving its home office from Chicago, but it is committed to relocating administrative staff here for that purpose as it consolidates some 30 current sites around the country.

Add it all up, and Ficklin reckons it will mean “hundreds of teams and tens of thousands of coaches” coming to the area.

The concept is another nod to the broader mission: priming the pump at the youth level to develop “our own.”

It’s a philosophy that Sporting demonstrated anew in its own operation by finding the means to retain Matt Besler and Graham Zusi after they became of international intrigue because of their play in the World Cup.

“That’s probably the most important part of our investment strategy for the future,” Heineman said, later adding, “We’re going to try to develop and retain our own, and we think that’s not only good long-term for the culture of our team but also think it’s good for our brand in this city and this market in particular.”

The notion also figures to beget a better MLS, which in turn nurtures the idea that the U.S. soccer future is bright and on course to more competitive days in World Cup play.

“We’re not patient,” Ficklin said, smiling. “We want to do great things quickly. Winning the World Cup is one of them, and it takes investment.”

And some vision.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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