Sporting Kansas City will play for the championship of its league this weekend, but in some ways the franchise is working on something better, bigger and more important. In some ways, the franchise is working on something the Royals and Chiefs and any professional sports team of any size can and should try to emulate.
To understand, let’s go back to Sporting’s lowest moment in recent years.
Go back 10 months, to the middle of January. Sporting KC diehards know what this is about. Casual fans remember. Even people who don’t care about the team, soccer, or sports heard about it.
This was the official and overdue crumbling of the Lance Armstrong Myth, and with it any last hope that a unique partnership with Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation would avoid disaster for Sporting.
A sports franchise had tied itself to perhaps the most prolific drug cheat in sports history. Repeatedly, and in separate conversations both at the time and this week, Sporting KC executives acknowledged the whole thing was a mistake.
And you should’ve heard the reaction from the team’s fans.
“I wish I could show you,” says Robb Heineman, CEO of Sporting Club. “I bet there were 90 positives for every five or 10 negatives.”
Compare that reaction to something comparatively meaningless, like the Royals getting crushed by many fans for labeling the Jason Vargas signing a “major announcement,” or criticism of the Chiefs’ defensive schemes the last three weeks.
Sporting KC has built what Heineman calls “a tremendous benefit of the doubt” that borders on sycophancy from its fans and much of the local media. This is a fabulous credit to the organization, achieved through a meticulous brand-building strategy, and should be the envy of most every professional team both locally and nationally.
“They’re very creative,” says Kevin Uhlich, Royals senior vice president for business operations.
“They’re very smart about how they’ve communicated,” says Chiefs president Mark Donovan.
Winning is and always will be the most important thing for any sports team.
But this is Sporting KC’s hidden genius.
People often get it wrong about Sporting Kansas City, you know. It’s easy to see why.
You go to a game at Sporting Park with your paperless ticket and connect your phone to the in-stadium wireless and feel the energy in a gorgeous stadium, and it’s tempting to think these bells and whistles and technological advances are the parts of the team’s success that should be modeled by bigger franchises.
They are not.
Part of the reason is sheer scale, and part of it is demographics. Sporting KC can do things that franchises with bigger fan bases just can’t. It can try things that more established brands just can’t.
Sporting KC’s transition to paperless tickets was relatively smooth. The Chiefs’ transition to paperless tickets has been long. It has been a news story. It has been met with reluctance from fans who either can’t or don’t want to use their cell phones as tickets.
Sporting KC has been forward-thinking in how to provide fans with food and drink options and convenience. In Major League Baseball, the Mariners developed a way to order food through a cell phone app that only 40 fans per game used.
Sporting KC’s players are constantly accessible and interacting with fans. Three of them performed in the Nutcracker this week, something Chiefs or Royals players could and wouldnever
do the week of a championship game.
But that’s more a case of logistics than willingness, more due to Sporting’s need to promote rather than the Chiefs’ or Royals’ reluctance to be with fans. Jimmy Nielsen often buys kegs for fans who travel to road games, for instance. But Jeff Francoeur was also known for buying fans food or beer.
All three teams have made tremendous strides in improving the in-game experience in recent years. Sporting with its new stadium, the Royals with renovations targeted for the average fan, and the Chiefs with exclusive video and improved pregame show.
It’s not that Sporting cares more about their fans, in other words. A lot of what the franchise gets credit for are things the Chiefs and Royals can’t feasibly pull off in the real world.
The Royals and Chiefs have fans who are very much like Sporting’s fans, but then they also have more fans who like country music and rap, and who are old enough to remember the Vietnam War.
Sporting’s fans skew young, and technologically savvy. The Royals’ and Chiefs’ fans — and all teams have more information about their customers than ever before — are more like the broader demographics of the country.
So Sporting can be more agile. Its messages more direct, and concise.
Sporting has done a brilliant job in taking advantage of that.
But they’ve been just as effective with something available to all sports teams, regardless of size.
Adam Yarnevich is a 33-year-old who grew up in Wyandotte County. He is a fan of all three local teams. He regularly goes to games at Kauffman Stadium (he likes the weeknight games best), and when he’s not at Arrowhead on a Sunday he’s posted up on a couch and in front of a TV.
He used to have Chiefs season tickets, and hopes to have Royals season tickets someday. For now, he goes to Sporting games. Part of this is his budget. Part of it is something else.
“The biggest difference,” he says, “it’s more of a democracy with Sporting and not a dictatorship when it comes to the fan experience. It’s not just, ‘You will like what we give you.’”
This is Sporting’s genius.
They have made their fans part of the group in ways the Royals and Chiefs have slipped in recent years. Some of that is in having a bigger fan base, sure. But most of it is that Sporting has prioritized differently.
The Chiefs of the 1990s were Lamar Hunt shaking hands at tailgates, introducing himself, like he had to, “Hi, I’m Lamar.” The Royals of the 1980s were Ewing Kauffman in a baby blue blazer waving from the owners’ box during the seventh inning stretch.
One of the biggest complaints you heard about the Chiefs last year is that they were out of touch with their fans, and failed to make the paying customers feel valuable. Chairman Clark Hunt regularly returns mail from fans, and meets with season-ticket holders personally. But those efforts are mostly behind the scenes, hidden from the masses.
One of the biggest complaints you hear about David Glass is that he’s an absentee owner. It’s a false charge, because he’s at most home games, but chooses to be less visible. If an owner is at the game but nobody knows it, fans start to wonder if he’s connected.
Sporting has included fans in their process, everything from asking whether an exhibition game should be at Arrowhead (lower prices) or Sporting Park (more intimate experience) to Heineman tapping kegs in the parking lot. They have a loyalty program that includes Members’ Club access, exclusive events and a personal team representative for season ticket holders. When the team made cash-only lines at concession stands, fans were confused, complained, and the next game those lines were gone.
This kind of fan-centric prioritizing plays well in all demographics, young and old, tech-heads and technophobes, Northland and Leawood.
The power of the crowd is enormous, and Sporting’s strategy puts that power on their side in key moments where other teams would be fighting it. There is a different kind of loyalty this way, a buy-in that’s stronger than a playoff loss or a mistake that finds the club linked to a drug cheat and needing to change the stadium’s name.
It’s harder to move those bigger ships, so the Chiefs and Royals face challenges Sporting doesn’t worry about, but the rewards are more as well. The Chiefs have recently created their own loyalty program, and the Royals are looking into one. Even accounting for their bigger fan bases, this is the part where the more established brands should learn from Sporting.
This is the hidden genius, and why no matter what happens on Saturday, Sporting’s fans will feel closer to a franchise they’ve been made a part of.