A project to “Save the Wizards” started in 2004 with roughly 30 strangers meeting in a small downtown Kansas City office. Nine years later, many of those strangers remain best friends, forever bonded by their efforts to keep a Major League Soccer franchise in Kansas City.
Their fight of nearly two years — backed by the Heart of America Soccer Foundation — was rewarded at the highest level on Dec. 7 when Sporting Kansas City was crowned champion of Major League Soccer.
It was only fitting that they celebrated it together.
“As I was looking up into the stands seeing those guys, who are huge fans of the club still, it was very emotional for me,” said Greg Cotton, the former chairman of the board for Heart of America. “Those are the guys who I thought of first. It was a really special moment for me and for everyone involved with Heart of America to see how far we’ve come.”
One morning in late 2004, not long after Lamar Hunt announced he would be selling the Wizards, David Ficklin was reading the newspaper during breakfast when he came across a blurb seeking interest in the Save the Wizards campaign. He called the listed number, spoke with Cotton, an attorney in Kansas City, and attended a meeting later that week.
“I walked into this room, and I don’t think I knew a single person,” Ficklin said. “But they had the same burning passion that I did.”
The group formed the Heart of America Soccer Foundation and scheduled regular meetings. Using a “Save the Wizards” slogan, it established a primary goal to keep the Wizards in Kansas City by promoting soccer in the city and attempting to attract potential local buyers.
The project started rather slowly.
“The odds were so minimal that we would be successful,” Ficklin said. “But you absolutely have to try. The great things are worth fighting for against all odds. I think sports teaches you a lesson that it’s not over until it’s over.”
And it wasn’t, though many in Heart of America said it appeared that way on numerous occasions.
But OnGoal, a local ownership group led by Cerner co-founders Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig, purchased the Wizards from Hunt in Aug. 2006. Known as Sporting Club today, the group also consists of Greg Maday, Pat Curran and Robb Heineman, who met regularly with the Heart of America group when assessing the team’s place in Kansas City.
“It’s not the Heart of America that did it — Neal and Cliff saved the Wizards — but hopefully we kept that fire burning long enough to show them soccer could work in Kansas City,” Cotton said.
Added Heineman, “We were very involved with them. We listened to their belief system and what they thought the fan base could turn into here. Those guys were absolutely correct.”
The Heart of America disbanded after OnGoal’s purchase of the team, but its members have remained in contact while following Sporting KC. Many of them sat together at Sporting Park during the championship victory against Real Salt Lake, including Robert Houghton, a former member of the board.
“It was very emotional in my section because there were a lot of people there who had been around the team awhile,” said Houghton, a former president of the Sporting KC supporters group known as the Cauldron. “We know the history and we know the struggles from seven, eight, nine years ago. We know how close we were to not having a team. It was much closer than people realize.”
That fact certainly isn’t lost on Ficklin or Cotton, both of whom are now employed by Sporting KC.
After the final whistle sounded in the championship game, Ficklin said he hugged his wife, daughter and son. Then he climbed over two rows of seats and hugged Cotton, too.
He next quickly found Chad Reynolds and Sam Pierron — two others he considered key members of the Save the Wizards movement.
“‘Can you believe it?’” Ficklin remembers asking them. “‘All these years. We did it.’”
Nine years after its formation, the Heart of America’s website — www.savethewizards.com — is now a dead link.
Soccer in Kansas City, however, is very much alive.