In the winter of 2004, shortly after Lamar Hunt announced his plans to sell the Kansas City Wizards, the franchise’s potential to remain in the city looked so dire that fans bought ads in the newspaper to grow a grassroots movement. “Save the Wizards,” its slogan read.
Nearly two years later, Cerner Corp. co-founders Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig headlined an ownership group that provided the financial commitment to accompany the cause, setting in motion a purchase that the Major League Soccer commissioner calls one of the league’s greatest success stories.
Patterson, a principal owner for the since re-branded Sporting Kansas City, died Sunday morning of unexpected complications from a soft-tissue cancer, Cerner announced. He was 67.
“We not only lost a great man, we lost the spearhead of our organization,” Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. “When you look at the things that are left behind in this organization — purchasing the team and saving it for Kansas City, the rebrand, the facilities that have been built, the stadium, the success the team has had on the field — he was extremely invested in all aspects of this organization.
“When you have a guy that is, like I said, the spearhead of all of those things, it’s such a huge loss.”
Sporting KC plans to honor Patterson during its match Tuesday against FC Dallas in the U.S. Open Cup, as well as the remainder of the season. The details of those commemorations will be announced Monday and Tuesday.
Patterson left an imprint on a soccer community that fancies referring to itself as the soccer capital of America. He was a regularly attendee at Sporting KC home matches until he was diagnosed with cancer last year.
Vermes said he exchanged text messages with Patterson after recent Sporting KC matches, and Patterson voiced that he was pleased with recent performances.
“This isn’t something that I think anybody saw coming,” Vermes said of Patterson’s death Sunday.
The preservation of Kansas City’s Major League Soccer franchise began with Patterson and Illig sitting at a Capital Grille dining table in the summer of 2006, when they met with Hunt and his son, Clark. That meeting would eventually facilitate the change in ownership to Sporting Club, a five-man group consisting of Patterson, Illig, Greg Maday, Pat Curran and Robb Heineman.
Illig later said he and Patterson were swayed by four points Hunt made during the pitch, but most specifically its final one.
“His final point, which we found most compelling, was he said Kansas City is a major-league city in the minds of most of the rest of the country because of our major-league sports franchises,” Illig recalled for an article in The Star in 2014.
“‘If we lose one of those,’ and he put the Wizards in there with the Chiefs and the Royals, ‘we’re going to become less major-league.’ ”
The franchise soared after the ownership makeover, most notably after it rebranded to Sporting Kansas City in late 2010. The jewel of the rebrand was Children’s Mercy Park, a state-of-the-art, soccer-specific stadium in Kansas City, Kan., that has housed 97 consecutive MLS sellouts.
“Neal’s vision and passion were instrumental in the incredible turnaround of Sporting Kansas City,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “He was a brilliant entrepreneur who made community relations and philanthropy essential components of every business he owned. We extended our condolences to Neal’s family and friends, the Sporting Kansas City organization and their fans.”
When the MLS All-Star Game came to Kansas City in July 2013, Garber further praised the “committed owners” of Sporting KC, adding that it was “a model example of what we hope to be able to achieve in every market.”
Vermes has been the club’s coach and technical director — the equivalent of a general manager — since the rebrand took place. He often raved about his interactions with Patterson, their competitiveness cut from the same cloth.
“When I had taken the job here, I had heard from a lot of people, ‘Oh, Neal Patterson, you gotta be careful; he’s tough; he’s really demanding. he’s all these things,’ ” Vermes said. “I had the pleasure and the opportunity to be in many meetings over the years with him — I would work for that man in any business any day of the week.
“He was always very straight. You knew where he was coming from. He always said what he meant. He had incredible expectations, which led to ultimately being incredibly demanding, which if you want a high-performance organization, you have to have those qualities. But in his own way, he had a lot of empathy. He was always asking about your life and your family and things like that.”
Sporting KC enjoyed significant success under the Sporting Club ownership. It won the 2013 MLS Cup and also captured U.S. Open Cup championships in 2012 and 2015. The team has reached the playoffs in six straight seasons, the longest streak in franchise history.
“When (Patterson) first bought the team, I don’t necessarily know if he thought he was going to be a huge soccer fan or someone who was going to be in tune with the wins, losses and ties of the team — but he absolutely was that,” Vermes said. “Until he became ill, he was at almost every game. He celebrated the wins. He felt the difficulties of the losses or ties, especially when we dominated the game. It was like a knife to the heart when we had the losses because he’s a winner. He pursued excellence every day.”
That showed in the extension of the Sporting Kansas City properties in recent years. The owners invested approximately $20 million into a youth academy, and two years ago they added the Swope Park Rangers, a minor-league affiliate, of sorts, that plays in the United Soccer League.
“Like Ewing Kauffman and Lamar Hunt, Neal was a truly iconic sports entrepreneur in Kansas City,” Sporting KC president Jake Reid said. “His commitment to the Kansas City Wizards in 2006 saved soccer in this city and paved the way for an incredible transformation that few could have envisioned at the time.”