The Full 90

Sam Mellinger | It’s hard to ignore Sporting KC’s success

Sam Mellinger
Sam Mellinger

The newest big thing in Kansas City sports is a lawyer in a rainbow wig and a teacher day-drinking in the parking lot and a grassroots fan movement turned into 20,000 people packing a gorgeous $200 million stadium Sunday for a regular summer happening that by now is just stubborn to ignore.

The newest big thing in KC sports is not a fad. This is Juan cooking tacos and Jeff passing out miniature liquor bottles and more than a thousand people joined by a Facebook page where, among other things, they share pictures and make travel plans and memorize chants for the next Sporting Kansas City game.

This is a story about soccer. That will turn some of you off immediately, so we might as well get that out of the way. This is a story about a team playing a sport that some of you don’t respect, either because it’s too slow (not true) or there’s not enough scoring (debatable) or the culture of players flopping to draw penalties (endlessly annoying but not part of Sporting KC’s style).

Maybe you can’t think about soccer — even professional soccer being played well by grown men in a wildly fast growing league — without making a joke about orange slices and Capri Suns.

That’s fine. This is a free country, after all, and more to the point a country with an insane amount of entertainment options. You can watch a movie, play the slots or pool, read historical fiction, play with your kids, go antiquing, start a garden, whatever you want to do, but if you’re still dismissing professional soccer simply because it’s professional soccer then you should at least pause long enough to consider two inalienable facts.

This isn’t going away.

And you’re missing a heck of a show.

One of the reasons this professional soccer team will continue to be a success in Kansas City is that you don’t need to like professional soccer to help make it a success.

Here’s a fun game: Close your eyes and think real hard about what you want from your local sports teams. Use the Royals and Chiefs if you’d like. Think about what is most important to you as a fan. Don’t go to the next paragraph until you’re ready.

Got it?

OK, now listen to what CEO Robb Heineman wants people to notice about Sporting Kansas City.

“Hopefully they’ll say we’re winners,” he says. “That we’re winners and that we’re local. Those are the two biggest brand personalities we’re trying to push.”

Sounds an awful lot like answers to two prevailing criticisms of the Royals and Chiefs, no?

To be sure, Heineman makes a point that this has nothing to do with what’s across town. This is about Sporting, nobody else, and Heineman is just making the point that his ownership group is hypercompetitive and will do whatever it takes to win and is made up of men who call Kansas City home.

But the juxtaposition is impossible to miss.

“This is just so un-Kansas City,” says Mike Zuck, a Sporting KC season-ticket holder. “This is just nothing like what I’m used to around here.”

Actually, Zuck is a pretty good personification of how Sporting plans on building market share.

Zuck is 31 years old. He manages a store in the Legends shopping district. He grew up north of the river, in Gladstone, and played soccer growing up but always rooted more for the Chiefs and Royals than Wizards or Wiz. But today, he is a grown man who spends a portion of his paycheck on season tickets for soccer instead of football or baseball.

And this is the part of Sporting’s long-term vision that’s just stuffed with potential.

“Kansas City’s a little different,” Heineman says. “You’re seeing kind of that first generation now coming through with disposable income to spend on season tickets, they’re making decisions. And because the building’s so great, because value is there, we’re winning some of those situations.”

This is critical. Projections are very kind to soccer. For instance, an ESPN poll indicated that Americans ages 12 to 24 rank professional soccer as their second favorite sport behind the NFL. This is pro soccer as defined by the MLS and international leagues, an important distinction, but it’s also a statistic being passed around the television networks and advertising agencies as proof of the sport’s growth potential in this country.

Viewed in that prism, Kansas City and its pro soccer team are something like the perfect test case.

To be sure, Sporting is a distant third in the most measurable local interest: Royals average attendance is 22,831 compared with 19,017 for Sporting, and the soccer team is watched on TV by fewer than half as many people for fewer than one-third as many games.

It’s just that Sporting is shortening the gap. The club should sell out all but one home game this summer, better than even optimistic in-house projections, and has a disproportionately young fan base.

That young fan base is graduating college and making money and earning promotions.

You can see where this is headed, right?

They like to say Livestrong Sporting Park has different “neighborhoods.” Kids and families keep it smiley on one side, 40-somethings keep it classy on another, and the maniacs in the Cauldron keep it live behind the north goal.

You can find just about anyone here. They are hipsters in those old-school newsie hats, sports fans wearing Royals hats, and partiers wearing Native American headgear. They are 36-year-old women in mom jeans with kids who still have their shin guards on, and they are divorcees on dates.

They are former soccer players who will tell you exactly how that last goal developed and they are newbies just here for the show. Some of them act as if they just want to see a game, others as if they just don’t want college to end. Over on one end, there are three fans dressed in those weird blue man suits, the costumes off enough that you see it might be a father and his two sons.

Arrowhead Stadium is louder, and the K has more history. The Chiefs will always dominate Kansas City, and the Royals will always have the chance to ignite this area for a summer. Sporting KC has a ways to go still but is moving toward a seat at the big-boy table.

Professional soccer has long been the bastard child of our local sports scene, but those days are over. This is not a passing fancy, and it is much more than the novelty of a beautiful new stadium.

This is a business plan merging with a maturing fan base merging with a national trend. This isn’t fading. It’s growing.

Ignore it if you’d like. But you should know that’ll be much harder to do.

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