On a Saturday night in June, 21,505 fans crammed into a soccer stadium in Kansas City, Kan., and watched Sporting KC defeat the first-place Seattle Sounders. The crowd established a new regular-season attendance record inside Sporting Park, which hasn’t left a seat open for an Major League Soccer match in three seasons.
In fact, the stadium’s sellout streak reached 70 straight matches in October’s regular-season finale.
The 71st will come under a new name: Children’s Mercy Park.
Sporting KC and Children’s Mercy announced a 10-year partnership on Thursday that will grant the Kansas City-based pediatric medical center exclusive naming rights of Sporting Park and the championship field at Swope Soccer Village.
Sporting Park has not had a naming-rights sponsorship since the club ended its agreement with the Livestrong Foundation in January 2013.
“We always wanted to make sure that we had an iconic name on the building,” Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman said. “Obviously, the previous name we had didn’t fulfill all the expectations we had for their role. We wanted to make sure this time we had someone that fit perfectly.”
Sporting KC severed ties with Livestrong in January 2013 after the face of the cancer-fighting charity, cyclist Lance Armstrong, admitted to doping throughout his cycling career. In an ESPN report, Livestrong claimed Sporting KC failed to fully live up to its financial obligation of the agreement, in which the club would pledge as much as $7.5 million to the foundation over a six-year period. Heineman disputed the report.
The financial terms of the 10-year deal announced Thursday were not disclosed, though Children’s Mercy will pay a fee to Sporting KC for the stadium naming rights, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2016.
The partnership extends beyond the stadium name. Most notably, Children’s Mercy will open a 22,000-square foot sports medicine and rehabilitation center at the National Training Center. The NTC is currently concluding its design phase, Heineman said, with a grand opening projected for late 2017.
The Children’s Mercy branch of the NTC will offer a broad range of sports medicine services for youth athletes of all sports. The rehabilitation wing has been designed to include therapy pools, basketball goals, batting cages, a turf field and a gait analysis laboratory. In the research space, Children’s Mercy doctors will work to identify young athletes who are more likely to sustain injuries and create various training programs to prevent them.
In December 2013, Children’s Mercy opened a sports medicine facility at its Blue Valley location with a similar mission.
“While we’re going to determine whether or not the athlete is ready to return to sports after injuries, and while we feel we do a wonderful job in the operating room, the goal is for the athlete to never need to be in the operating room,” said Kevin Latz, the director of Children’s Mercy Center for Sports Medicine. “That’s why, when you look at Sporting’s involvement with kids, even within its academies, this is an opportunity for us to educate the adolescent athletes, their parents and their coaches.”
Per the agreement, Children’s Mercy will also provide the care for Sporting KC Academy players, who train at Swope Soccer Village.
Jake Reid, Sporting Club’s chief revenue officer, said he first approached Children’s Mercy about the full partnership in late April. Heineman said the club bypassed negotiations with other companies to instead work on its deal with Children’s Mercy.
Cliff Illig and Neal Patterson, Sporting KC’s principal owners, are co-founders of Cerner, a healthcare information technology company in Kansas City.
“Neal and I have worked with health care organizations all over the world, and we have the deepest respect for the world-class vision, values, leadership and capabilities (that) Children’s Mercy brings to pediatric clinical care, research and education in Kansas City,” Illig said.
The two entities also will generate the Sporting Moves program, a plan to prevent childhood obesity among elementary school-aged kids. They will continue to work together with the Victory Project, a charitable foundation that helps kids with cancer. That sparked a friendship this season between Sporting KC defender Kevin Ellis and Kit Van Sickle, who was 2 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.
Ellis and Kit attended Thursday’s announcement.
“It’s always been very important to us that it’s not just (acquiring) a name — it’s about an experience you’re going to provide for the community,” Heineman said. “Having a brand like Children’s Mercy that does thousands of youth activities on an annual basis — and having the ability for us to breed the Sporting brand into some of those activities — is really exciting for us.”