Winning boosts soccer in San Jose, Kansas City
9:12PM EST October 2. 2012 - Two days before a game against the Chicago Fire, Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler was phone shopping at a local Apple store when three employees approached him to wish him good luck. Besler was shocked.
"Nobody used to recognize me unless it was at a soccer event and they were very big soccer fans," said Besler, a four-year Major League Soccer veteran.
Across the country in San Jose, Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski told a similar story. "People will come say hello," he said. "In years past that didn't happen."
As recently as 2010, Kansas City and San Jose were the cannon fodder of MLS. But both squads have witnessed a renaissance over the last two seasons, and this year the teams sit atop the divisional standings with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
Kansas City and San Jose could face each other in the league's championship game, which will be held Dec. 1 at the home stadium of the finalist with the best regular-season record.
For both clubs, winning has erased bitter memories of local anonymity and empty grandstands. It's also boosted ticket sales and TV ratings, and attracted scores of casual fans. Since 2010, Kansas City has nearly doubled its attendance and San Jose has seen a 40 percent jump.
But it's the way the clubs have won that has helped attract fans. Sporting Kansas City suffocates its opponents with an aggressive and physical style of soccer. The team has surrendered only 25 goals this season, the lowest in MLS. It also fields six players who grew up in the Kansas City region.
Conversely, San Jose has won with dramatic goals in the final minutes. The club has scored 12 game-tying or winning goals in the 82nd minute or later — a stat that has earned the club the nickname The Goonies, in reference to the classic 80's movie.
"We embrace that 'Goonies never say die' attitude," Wondolowski said. "It means there is buzz all around."For both clubs, success has been well timed. San Jose is financing a new 18,000-seat stadium, which could open as early as 2014, to replace its current home, the 10,500-seat Buck Shaw Stadium at Santa Clara University.
David Kaval, president of the Earthquakes, said the team's success and media attention helped him sell all 12 luxury suites and 576 club seats in the new stadium. Kaval said it's also helped him in sponsorship meetings with the local corporate community.
"It's like we're transitioning from the minor leagues to the major leagues," Kaval said. "People gravitate toward that."
In Kansas City, the team is two years removed from a drastic re-branding campaign that replaced the old "Wizards" name with the European "Sporting" title. The club also built a new $180 million stadium for the team, which formerly played in Arrowhead Stadium.
Robb Heineman, CEO and one of five club owners, said he anticipated a boost from the new stadium. But winning, he said, has helped advance the new team name beyond his projections.
"We knew people would hate [the name] at first," Heineman said "But if we thought if we gave it time, people would get it. They're getting it."
Heineman pointed at the club's merchandise sales as proof. In 2010, Wizards merchandise ranked last in the league in sales, ranked below two expansion teams that had yet to play a game, as well as the generic MLS branded gear. In 2012, Sporting Kansas City's merchandise ranks third in league sales.
Soccer marketers and league officials also said the turnarounds in Kansas City and San Jose represents a new success story for MLS. For the last three seasons, the league has trumpeted its successful expansion clubs in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the purchase of international stars Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez.
San Jose and Kansas City have had MLS teams since the league's first season in 1996, although the original Earthquakes moved to Houston in 2006. The clubs have two of the smallest player budgets in the league. Neither club owns a "designated player" — big dollar stars whose salary does not count toward the salary cap.
According to Doug Quinn, CEO of FC Dallas and former head of marketing for the league, the teams are proof that marquee players, marketing campaigns and multi-million dollar stadiums can only take teams so far in MLS.
"Do you have to win [MLS] Cup every year to succeed? No," Quinn said. "But you need to be in the hunt."