Matt Besler on Sporting KC's Children's Mercy Park: "An unbelievable place to play"
Matt Besler was a Sporting Kansas City rookie in 2009, and although he had considered it something of a fairly tale to play for his hometown club, the reality didn’t match the illusion.
Sporting KC, then still known as the Kansas City Wizards, played soccer matches inside a minor-league baseball stadium — such an awkward fit that, even eight years later, everybody seems to provide a different example of just how incommodious it was.
Here’s Besler’s: In the second half of a match, he needed to use the restroom, so he asked a stadium employee to point him in the direction of the players’ bathroom. Besler’s eyes followed the employee’s index finger to a spot behind the bench.
A porta potty.
Besler needed a security escort so he could cut in front of a line of about 10 fans waiting to use it, including a next-door neighbor who tried to initiate some small talk.
“Every game we played there, from that moment on, I made sure to use the restroom before I came out,” Besler said. “That never happened again.”
On Saturday, Sporting KC will celebrate the 100th straight MLS sellout inside Children’s Mercy Park, a state-of-the-art venue opened in 2011 that the club touts as the best in the league.
There have been a number of makeovers inside the Sporting KC organization since Besler’s experience at CommunityAmerica Ballpark. All have played a part in the club finding its place in Kansas City after all but packing for a move to Rochester, N.Y.
But selling out 100 consecutive MLS matches in the soccer-specific stadium — jamming it full of supporters who hover on the end lines and make it their mission to harass opponents, crazed fans who proudly refer to themselves as the “Blue Hell” and sing and chant until they’re blue in the face — this stands as the most remarkable accomplishment.
“There’s no other place like it in our league,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said.
That’s a claim many like to make. Seattle has sold out more than 150 consecutive matches. Portland hit 100 straight last season.
But fewer can make this one: Children’s Mercy Park —and the environment inside it — is more than a home-field advantage. It’s the savior of a franchise.
A day after Forbes estimated Sporting KC as the seventh-most valuable club in the 22-team MLS, worth $260 million, team president Jake Reid phrased it this way: “I don’t know what it would’ve been in CommunityAmerica, but probably $240 million less than that.”
Vermes has a picture in his office with then-teammate and now-assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin from their playing days with the Wizards. The photo was taken during the third and decisive MLS semifinal game in 2000.
Only 8,320 attended the match at the team’s original home, Arrowhead Stadium. A victory sent the Wizards to the MLS Cup final.
“You can count the people in the stadium in the background,” Vermes said. “It’s a little different world, for sure.”
The Mystics were there. The Kansas City Wizards’ supporter group — which underwent its own rebranding to The Cauldron — totaled about 100 people at that game. Its growth was slow. The venue didn’t help the cause.
“It was horrible. It just didn’t fit the game,” said Sean Dane, a fan who later had a seven-year run as president of The Cauldron. “Even though you had 50 people chanting out there the way we do today, that gets lost in a 75,000-seat stadium.”
The move to CommunityAmerica Ballpark was only a slight improvement. It was ill-suited for soccer. The sight-lines were horrible, with fans pushed farther from the field to preserve the shape of the pitcher’s mound. The crowd noise escaped the open-air stadium as quickly as it materialized.
When Sporting Club bought the team in 2006, members of The Cauldron who had fought to keep the club in Kansas City had a new mission.
Get a new stadium.
In meetings with the new owners, Dane recalled the message as, “If you build this, we’ll deliver the fans, the passion, the atmosphere behind it. We can make it happen. We just need the stadium.”
The ownership group, as it turned out, didn’t need the sales pitch. It was perhaps even more optimistic about the franchise transformation a stadium could provide.
As Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman interviewed Reid to lead his sales staff, he set the goal at 10,000 season tickets in year one. The list stood at 2,000. In response, Reid submitted a list of requirements. Among them, tripling the sales staff.
“Let’s do it,” Heineman replied.
The anticipation became so great that David Ficklin, the club’s vice president for development, found his schedule clogged with tours. Fans. Owners. Players. Coaches.
Sporting KC, as they re-branded in 2011, distributed as many stadium renderings as people they could find, hoping to drum up interest.
A few months before the venue’s scheduled opening on June 9, 2011, the players were kept away from it. The grand reveal came the week of the first match, featuring a tour of the locker rooms and a training session on the field.
“That ended up being probably the best training session we’ve ever had,” Besler said. “I just remember the energy we had that day.”
The first match in the new digs was a clunker: a 0-0 draw against the Chicago Fire.
In the 82nd minute, a fan, dressed in a cow outfit, ran onto the field and did what no player could.
He put the ball in the back of the net.
Heineman called a local radio station from his driveway the following morning to issue a public apology to the fans.
“We were devastated,” Reid said. “We’ve got 18,000 people in the stadium, a lot of first-timers, and we thought that was our one chance.
“What we didn’t know is that people were saying the atmosphere was incredible. We had succeeded there. We wanted it to go to perfectly. It doesn’t always go to script. But it worked out in the end.”
The sellout streak started on April 7, 2012, a rather innocuous date. A crowd of 20,323 saw a 1-0 victory over the LA Galaxy.
And then they just kept coming back.
“What we do is the same thing that makes everybody love Kansas City — the welcoming, open people that we are. It’s that Midwest hospitality on a grander scale,” Dane said. “We’ll yell at you for 90 minutes, but then we’ll sit down and have a beer with you afterwards.”
The fan experience remains a common topic in ownership meetings. Principal owner Cliff Illig talks about creating “magic moments” for fans. It’s the community feel in the concourse. It’s the hype videos as the players are being introduced.
There are communities built into the stands, each of them offering something a bit different — The Cauldron, the South Stand Supporters Club, the Members Club, the Victory Suites.
“There are so many different environments inside Children’s Mercy Park, and that was purposeful,” Heineman said. “It’s a number of different types of people coming together to get behind a common cause. It feels authentic. It’s Kansas City.”
And then there’s the noise. Ficklin and his team designed Children’s Mercy Park to better sustain the crowd sound. The roof hovers as low to the ground as fire codes will allow, and it’s built at an angle to hold the sound inside the structure and bounce it back toward the field.
For a stadium that holds 18,500 plus standing room, it gets pretty loud.
“At least once or twice a year, I bring people to a game who have never been,” said Jeremy Hall, a season-ticket member. “I brought a guy this year, and he’s a football fan who thinks of soccer as communist football.
“He was so impressed with the atmosphere, the passion inside the stadium. That’s what makes it exciting to me.”
The stadium alone is only going to lure a fan so many times. Vermes likens it to a friend who offers you a ride in his new sports car. It’s fun for a trial or two, but eventually you’ve been there, seen that.
“The stadium brings them in,” Vermes said. “The way we play brings them back. That’s our job in all of this.”
Sporting KC hasn’t lost a match inside Children’s Mercy Park in more than 14 months. It’s celebrated MLS Cup (2013) and U.S. Open Cup (2012) championships in front of The Cauldron section on the north end.
The team has made the playoffs a franchise-record six straight seasons and is in prime position for a seventh. It will host the Open Cup championship next month. For that match, tickets to sit in The Cauldron, which holds 2,500 people, sold out in less than two minutes.
“The story is about sellouts and that it’s an awesome place to go out and watch a game, but to me the bigger story is the competitive advantage that the stadium has given us and the fans have given us,” Besler said.
“Without winning games there and without the fans thinking every time we step into that stadium, we’re going to win the game, I don’t know if this story is as special as it is.”