Sporting Kansas City at forefront of MLS innovation
It begins at the top with Kansas City's completely organic, driven ownership group
Livestrong Sporting Park, opening in June, is a groundbreaking facility for the MLS
Sporting KC received national attention for the PR bit with Chad Ochocinco
When MLS insiders discuss various clubs' operational ways, they tend to categorize teams in one of two ways: those still running the sluggish, old MLS 1.0 (figuratively speaking, of course) and those having graduated to the higher-capacity 2.0.
Whether innovative approaches translate into more wins and better attendance, only time and prevailing market factors can say. But there's little question that committed ownership, armed with smart and modern plans, provides the optimum opportunity for success.
We're seeing a lot of that around Major League Soccer. Grounds have been grandly renovated for expansion outfits in Portland and Vancouver. Ownership in Seattle is a leader in forward thinking, of course.
But not all the trendy and cool things around MLS are happening in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, if you had to choose the most innovative group now thinking its way around the MLS chessboard, one that might even be running "MLS 2.5" at this point, you might be surprised where to find it. It lies deep in heartland, in Kansas City. There may not be a stronger embodiment of local, committed, innovative ownership.
That may be hard to see at the moment, but it won't be for long. That's because new Livestrong Sporting Park, with a full set of fancy technological advances, opens in less than two months, on June 9.
There is nothing wrong with AEG or Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd or any MLS ownership group. But there's a lot to like about a completely organic ownership outfit like Kansas City's, created and run by five wealthy, local businessmen with the singular aim of building a Major League Soccer power. OnGoal, LLC, led by Robb Heineman, Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig, bought the team late in 2006. This group has been steadily sprucing up the organization ever since.
Now if these folks make a mistake, it's because they made a mistake, not because they lost the plot while concentrating on NFL or hockey or selling concert tickets, which could be the case elsewhere in MLS.
It's not just the stadium that says "innovative and creative." It's everything. The owners are young by professional sports ownership standards, with backgrounds in health care information technology. The team practices at Swope Park, a $5 million complex funded in a creative public-private partnership with the city.
The club's major re-branding last year was the lead element in efforts to be more than a soccer team; they aim to be a community anchor, a noble and useful goal. Opinion might differ on the new name (Sporting Kansas City) and the artificially generated "history," but the organization formerly known as the Kansas City Wizards did generally get rave reviews for the spiffy new logo.
As for financial commitment, if the on-field product doesn't get better after two consecutive years of missing the MLS playoffs, it won't be from lack of spending. The club has five full-time assistants (including a full-time strength and conditioning coach) -- some MLS teams manage with three or four. And while a half-dozen clubs don't have a Designated Player at the moment, Kansas City's Omar Bravo, a popular Mexican international, has passed early tests.
Innovative marketing? Well, if "innovative" equals "guerrilla," Sporting KC easily leads the league. The PR bit with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco last month was just the latest caper. It certainly worked; how many other MLS sides got as much (or any) national media exposure in March?
None of it surprises MLS commissioner Don Garber, who told Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl last month that Livestrong Sporting Park will be the league's most innovative facility. "They're outside-the-box thinkers, very creative," he said.
Garber has long known the road to MLS success is mostly about committed ownership, a fertile market and the right facility. Kansas City always had committed owners. Fans and media might have bemoaned the original owner's spendthrift ways, but no one could deny Lamar Hunt's famous dedication. What Kansas City lacked most was the facility, banging around all those years at cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, then later in the minor league baseball grounds that became something of an MLS punch line. So developing the stadium was critical -- and then a resourceful naming-rights gambit put the cherry on top of it all.
The soccer team is years behind the NFL's Chiefs and MLB's Royals, of course. No point in challenging them head-on locally. But what if ownership practically created a new playing field? They did just that, finding a way for Sporting Kansas City to elbow its way into the conversation -- and for everyone to appreciate the effort. Ownership simply gave away stadium naming rights. And make no mistake, donating in this fashion to Livestrong is a gamble; the soccer team is leaving money on the table. For instance, the Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia Union will receive about $2 million a year through 2020 from naming rights at PPL Park. In MLS, that covers a substantial share of the player budget. Instead, Sporting KC hopes to donate somewhere around $8 million to Livestrong over a six-year deal for the fight against cancer.
"It's either groundbreaking or it's crazy, and there will be people to call it both," said Heineman, Sporting KC's president, as he announced the deal.
The stadium's initial price tag landed somewhere north of $140 million. But owners kept finding ways to improve the grounds -- and then kept finding money to pay for it. Today the final price is closer to $200 million, according to club officials. Meanwhile, ownership has systematically removed obstacles to on-field success. The team looks OK at the moment all things considered, 1-1-1 in the opening stages of a 10-game road binge pending completion of Livestrong Sporting Park.
"The ownership group, from Day 1 when they took over, they've come through on every promise they've made to organization," Kansas City assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin said. "It's everything. The stadium, the new brand, giving us resources to be successful. We need for nothing within the organization now, and they set the standard of excellence that we're trying to create through the whole organization. It's such a help when an ownership group like that is behind you and they understand the need for those kinds of resources."
Zavagnin should know. He played on a couple of pretty terrible MetroStars teams in the late 90s, when management was all over the place in terms of coaching, organizational structure, marketing strategies, etc. Later, Zavagnin played under the ultra-frugal administration in Kansas City.
So, is there a direct connection between resources and wins?
"If you use it wisely, there is," he said. "And you don't take it for granted. First you need a winning culture, and that's developed over time. That's what we're trying to do right now."