Bar manager Josh Ditto looked around and smiled. “I bet you have never seen anything like this,” he said.
Ditto said the nearly 13,000 people gathered to watch the United States’ World Cup match versus Germany was liveliest crowd he had ever seen in the district.
With thousands more expected to pour into the KC Live area of the district, adorning flags and face paint for Tuesday’s game against Belgium, some wonder whether this atmosphere can be repeated.
“All I can say is that I sure hope so,” Ditto said with a laugh.
Maybe. But it might be difficult.
The growing fan base of Sporting Kansas City has helped create some rare magic for the district, Executive Director Nick Benjamin said.
Plus there’s one other element: The entire crowd is cheering as one for the same team.
This year has put the Power & Light District on a national stage, with airtime on ESPN and The Associated Press naming it a top five watch party for World Cup fans. It is why Power & Light and KC Live were created, Benjamin said.
“Thanks to the World Cup, we’ve become the biggest living room in the Midwest,” Benjamin said. “There is something unique about the environment that’s been created over the last three weeks. It’s hard to replicate but exciting to be a part of.”
The turnout may mean the district is finally coming into its own, Assistant City Manager Rick Usher said. The city has invested heavily in the eight-block retail and entertainment district since it opened in 2007, and a number of downtown projects have launched in the area, he said.
“It was envisioned as becoming the metro area’s living room,” Usher said. “That’s shown to be true with these World Cup events. It will be an ongoing activity to capitalize on the success, but they’ve shown they can throw an incredible party.”
The district was designed with the hope it eventually would repay the $295 million in bonds the city issued for its development with tax revenue from its restaurants and shops.
The revenue has not been close to projection, however, forcing the city to provide a $10 million to $15 million annual subsidy to cover the shortfall and leaving a large portion for taxpayers to cover.
Councilwoman Jan Marcason said the World Cup watch parties have been a high point for the district, one she said she hopes builds momentum for other sporting events, such as the NCAA basketball Final Four and Big 12 Conference tournaments.
“It’s becoming a tradition in Kansas City to share these events with neighbors and strangers from all over the metro area who come in,” said Marcason, who attended World Cup watch parties at Power & Light four years ago and hopes to make it out again this year. “I believe it’s just going to keep growing.”
While World Cup crowds only happen for the district every four years, Benjamin said the growth in popularity of this year’s games is encouraging. He said that when the district first hosted World Cup watch parties four years ago, the crowds, which totaled about 35,000 people, came as a surprise.
If the crowds at Tuesday’s 3 p.m. match versus Belgium again reach capacity at 13,000, as all USA matches have this year, the district will have beaten the 2010 World Cup’s number by at least 10,000 people.
“The outpouring has been incredible. We’ve been at capacity every game,” Benjamin said. “It’s exciting this year, but it’s not surprising anymore.”
Although the Power & Light District has heavily promoted the games through social media, Benjamin said the success of this year’s watch parties largely reflects what Sporting KC has done to build a soccer culture in Kansas City.
“We aspire to be a mirror of things people care about and enjoy in the KC area,” Benjamin said. “It is incredible how Sporting KC has built its fan base over the years to make KC really the soccer capital of the country.”
When the Kansas City Sports Commission bids on hosting championship games, the Power & Light District is a huge selling point, said Kathy Nelson, the commission’s president and CEO.
“We were awarded nine collegiate soccer championships over the next four years, the most of any city,” Nelson said. “We include photos of Power & Light watch parties in the bid because of what it offers for the fans. There’s no better place to watch a game together or hold a pep rally.”
Ditto, the bar manager at McFadden’s, said this year’s World Cup games have been even better than when KC Live aired Big 12 games.
“I was here four years ago for the last World Cup,” Ditto said. “This atmosphere is 10 times better. We weren’t expecting this much growth in excitement.”
Ditto said McFadden’s is hoping the Power & Light District can use social media and promotions to create a similar atmosphere for other sporting events, such as big Chiefs and Royals games.
Juan Cisneros of Lenexa said he had heard about the large crowds and decided to check it out Thursday. He said that if the U.S. advanced, he would be at Tuesday’s game in a heartbeat.
“I’ve been here for concerts or other events, but everyone was just doing their own thing,” said Cisneros, outfitted in a red bandana and American flag cape. “Here we’re all chanting ‘USA’ together. I have never seen anything like this.”