The Full 90

Sporting KC’s brash and innovative brand is now tarnished

The smart guys with the pioneering organization have their first skid mark now, and right across the face.

Sporting Kansas City must deal with real off-the-field defeat. This is new. They’ve been essentially perfect in the decisions that matter until this one, so the shine is gone but the sting is not.

You’d pardon executives in other Kansas City sports organizations if they take comfort today. Those whippersnappers at Sporting KC are humbled. Inexperience, naivety and a touch of star-chasing proved a nasty combination. Sporting’s brash and innovative brand is now tarnished by something more important than a playoff loss.

Their big bet on Lance Armstrong is now officially blown to bits, and for an added kick to the crotch, it’s Armstrong’s old Livestrong foundation that hit the eject button on a unique partnership that turned into a nightmare for the Sporting Club. Livestrong effectively pulled its name off Sporting’s stadium, and then started a public argument over contracts on the way out.

Translation: Sporting got dumped by the pretty girl it once loved, but now realizes is nuts.

They could use a hug.

“We haven’t had enough time to reflect,” says Robb Heineman, Sporting KC’s president and CEO. “But, yeah. We’ll try to learn from it.”

From the beginning, the union was curious. When the partnership was announced, Armstrong flew in but did not take questions from reporters. The smoke around his then-alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs — which he reportedly admitted for the first time in an interview with Oprah that’s set to air on Thursday — was impossible to miss.

But Sporting wanted to do something different. The fight against cancer is especially important and personal to its ownership group, and Livestrong has raised millions for awareness and provided millions with inspiration.

It wasn’t all altruism, either. Sporting hoped that Armstrong’s fame and connections would help land musical and athletic events for its new stadium — events that would generate donations for Livestrong but also more cash for the team.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. But the original thought was easy to get behind.

It just so happened they chose the wrong charity.

Sporting’s leaders didn’t go into this partnership blind. They knew Armstrong was under suspicion but hoped Livestrong’s brand was strong enough to continue its mission of fighting cancer without him. As Heineman said Tuesday night, Sporting’s decision-makers didn’t think the worst-case scenario was likely. They were wrong, on both counts.

As it turns out, Sporting looks the fool. No matter how much they try to separate Armstrong’s disgrace from Livestrong’s nobility, the liar and the charity he started are like Siamese twins. They invited Armstrong to games, spoke of him reverentially, and it’s no coincidence the seat reserved for special guests is painted in his familiar yellow hue. The team’s pregame hype video even featured Armstrong’s smiling face.

So Sporting’s brand is sullied, its message diluted. When it was announced recently that the Major League Soccer All-Star Game would be in Kansas City this summer, questions quickly turned to Armstrong and drugs. Sporting KC is expected to announce an investment firm called Ivy Funds as its first jersey sponsor on Thursday, and you can bet club officials will hear still more questions about Armstrong and drugs.

With hindsight, Sporting’s mistakes were the product of gullibility and idealism run amok. They were star-struck by Armstrong’s fame and hungry for the potential of the partnership, which not only clouded their thinking in the beginning but pushed them to hang on for too long.

To the very end, Heineman says Sporting was trying to “get to common ground” on an arrangement that would work for both sides, and that he was blindsided when Livestrong ended the relationship on Tuesday.

Sporting is still in a good position, of course. Going forward, the club is better off without Livestrong’s baggage. Heineman said the organization remains committed to the fight against cancer — again, this is very personal to the ownership group — and will find other ways to help.

In the meantime, the search for a new naming-rights sponsor begins, and Heineman said another nonprofit would be considered. Whatever happens, they’d like to maximize the local impact. Just like the last time, their hearts and minds are in the right place. But now, it’s with their innocence lost, their first major mistake gone public.

The best organizations grow from their mistakes. Let’s see if this one does.

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