Robb Heineman of Kansas City is CEO of Sporting Kansas City and one of the professional soccer club’s five local owners.
Heineman was named executive of the year 2012 by an
international organization, the Stadium Business Awards.
This conversation took place at Livestrong Sporting Park in
Kansas City, Kan., which won venue of the year 2012.
Heineman tweets club news @robbheineman.
For the photo, you just tossed a soccer ball up and down one-handed about a thousand times. You look like you’ve done it before. Did you play soccer?
I did, from the time I was 5 till I was about 18. I started in the Cookie Monster League in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1978. That was the first year they had organized soccer in Sioux Falls.
What position did you play?
Center-midfield. My dad was my first coach, and he didn’t know a thing about the game. I always liked soccer, but it was underdeveloped in Sioux Falls, so it was always my third sport behind football and basketball.
You’re living every guy’s fantasy: owning a sports team. How is that different from what you used to do?
Before I was in private equity, investing in small companies all across the United States. My dad owned an NBA development team in 1993, so I was around professional sports when I was in college. What I really liked was the competitive aspect: Your entire business plan was on display every Friday or Saturday night on the court.
And fans have immediate and strong opinions about how the plan is faring.
Absolutely. What I love is how we’re challenging the traditional way things are done. For example, we are really open with the information we share with fans. We tweet about who our draft picks are going to be in advance of actually taking them. And we ask fans for input on pricing and on players we’re signing.
Has sharing information ever backfired?
Sure. A lot of it does. Once we had a verbal agreement with a Spanish forward to come here and I tweeted, “We’ve signed this player” but didn’t give his name. The guy wound up getting hurt, so we didn’t bring him in. Fans were asking, “When’s the Spanish player coming?” Well, never.
But we’re going to keep doing it because our fans feel they are as much a part of the team as we are, and that is how our ownership group sees it as well.
Are there any rule changes you would like to see?
I think technology is the thing that could influence the game the most. I wish we had goal line technology to determine whether the ball has crossed the goal line or not. And looking at card decisions by the referee in real time. But at the end of the day, it’s better-coached players and teams that are going to make the game more exciting.
It’s understandable that Major League Soccer teams would bring in international stars to draw fans. Do you have any questions about the number of second- and third-tier foreign players that we import, and does that take chances away from American players?
I think it has, historically. On a go-forward basis I think the youth development system has improved in this country, and some of those second- and third-tier players will have a harder time breaking into our league. If you look at our team, we have a really good group of young American players — Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Chance Myers and C.J. Sapong and also Teal Bunbury. We have some very good young international players to complement that. We did that intentionally.
How is Sporting involved in youth development?
We have the Sporting Juniors, kids 12 to 18. We pay for all their coaching, the travel and lodging. I think that’s going to add consistency to how our players are developed and improve fitness, which is as big a deal as anything. You don’t build up that engine that can play for 90 minutes over a year.
I think in five years’ time you’ll see a lot of difference and in 15 years’ time, I would guess the bulk of the players will have come up through the development system.
When is the U.S. going to be a real contender in the World Cup?
I think we as a country should do everything we can to be a serious contender by the 2022 World Cup. I think winning in 2022 is not an unrealistic goal.
The physical stadium has been a big hit, but some fans have some minor gripes. For one, some people say it’s hard to find the stadium if you’ve never been before. Have you thought about improving signage?
The popularity of the stadium has taken us by surprise, but we do need to do a better job of marking it from the interstate and after you turn off.
Another suggestion from fans: How about listing the players who are on the field on the scoreboard to help novice fans get to know the team better?
That’s a good point. We should probably do a better game-day presentation along those lines.
The Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan., helped you get this stadium built in record time. Are you doing anything to repay the community?
Hopefully the sporting and non-sporting events we hold out here are helpful. Holding Farm Aid here last year raised a bunch of money for a good cause. And we’re working with the Unified Government right now on after-school programs for kids that will integrate tutoring, health and wellness training and on-the-field soccer training.
Sporting Club, which owns the soccer team, also has a technology arm, Sporting Innovations. How do those businesses intersect?
Since two of our owners founded Cerner, it was always clear that Sporting would have a tech component. We wanted Livestrong to be a living lab to demonstrate what we consider to be the next version of fan experience. We’ve done things in this stadium that have caught the attention of people all over the world.
We have the first implemented HD-WiFi system in the world. So 70 percent of the people can stream live video on their handset in real time. We’ll soon be launching a system here where we’ll be streaming live video from a bunch of different cameras so you’ll be able to use your phone like a DVR and watch from a bunch of different angles.