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Old 07-23-2013, 12:23 PM  
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New York Times | Soccer in the U.S. Heartland: Kansas City Transformed

Soccer in the U.S. Heartland: Kansas City Transformed



There are, of course, no official records, but it is generally accepted that the introduction of the Zardmeister was the low point in Kansas City soccer history.

A high-strung gentleman with a memorably awful haircut, the Zardmeister roamed the paltry Wizards crowds at Arrowhead Stadium in 2003, ostensibly whipping his fellow fans into a froth. Since Tony Meola was the team’s goalkeeper, the Zardmeister shrieked, “Me Likey!” and then waited for fans to respond — presumably without choking — “Me-ola!” The Zardmeister also attempted to lead groups of fans in a clownish chant that went, “I’m a Zard, You’re a Zard, We All Are Zards!”

“I actually heard him misspell ‘Zard’ one time,” Mike Gaughan, a season-ticket holder since 1997 and a former president of the team’s supporters’ club, said recently. “It was a disaster.”

There was no anger in Gaughan’s voice though, only a bit of mirth a decade later. In a reversal that Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber calls “one of the great sports turnarounds in the history of soccer in America,” Kansas City — which will host the M.L.S. All-Star Game on July 31— has become a seemingly unlikely hotbed for professional soccer. The rise of the sport in the heart of the United States has been so sharp, observers say, that it now rivals the standard set by the league’s two most prominent success stories in Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Attendance at Kansas City’s new soccer stadium, Sporting Park, is at capacity. The United States national team has made the area a regular part of its rotation for important international matches. Even television ratings, which have long been disappointing for M.L.S., are at least increasing on a relative scale.

The turnaround has been startling: as recently as seven years ago, Wizards merchandise sales ranked dead-last in M.L.S., behind even the sales of items featuring only the league’s generic logo. As recently as four years ago, the team played on a field that was shoehorned into a minor-league baseball stadium. As recently as three years ago, the number of people watching games on TV frequently came in at numbers one might think would be only slightly above public-access shows.

“I’ve seen a lot of teams get new stadiums, including the Red Bulls in my own backyard and it’s no guarantee that everything gets fixed,” said Meola, a New Jersey resident who played 10 years in M.L.S. “But in Kansas City they’re pushing the right buttons.”

‘A Lot of Screaming Kids’

The history of soccer in Kansas City is not particularly auspicious. Yes, there was a time when the local indoor team, the Comets, actually outdrew the city’s N.B.A. team (the Kansas City Kings subsequently moved to Sacramento in 1985), but St. Louis was typically seen as the region’s more soccer-crazy city, primarily because of its concentration of high-quality youth clubs and high-school teams.

Soccer participation in Kansas City, though, was always prominent. When Lamar Hunt, who owned the N.F.L.'s Chiefs, purchased the right to operate an original M.L.S. team in 1996, the thinking was simple: tap into the large number of families involved in youth soccer and get them to Arrowhead.

“What I really remember is a lot of screaming kids,” said Laura Hendricks, a longtime fan whose family has attended games since the team’s first season. “There was no real investment. They were there because it was something to do.”

Often, the team’s performance on the field felt secondary. In the early years, team executives met each Thursday before a Saturday game to discuss that weekend’s promotional gimmick. One official recounted a day when heavy rain began near the end of the first half, prompting another anxious executive to screech over the team’s in-house walkie-talkie system that “whatever we do, don’t cancel the mini-ponies!” that had been rented to give rides to fans at halftime.

“To be fair, a lot of that was happening all across the league early on,” said Chris Klein, who played for the Wizards from 1998 to 2005 and is now the president of the Los Angeles Galaxy. “Everyone was trying to figure out where M.L.S. fit into the American culture and how to make it work.”

In the standings, the Wizards actually had a measure of success. They even won the M.L.S. championship in 2000 but the club still struggled to embed itself in the community. Rob Thomson, the team’s executive vice president for communications, recalled driving home from work once in the early 2000’s and seeing another car with a Wizards bumper sticker. Thomson excitedly sped up to try and wave at the person in the other car. “I pulled up alongside and it was someone I worked with,” he said.

By 2004, with attendance languishing despite good results from the team, the Hunts — who also owned M.L.S. teams in Dallas and Columbus, Ohio — began exploring a possible sale. Given the commercial struggles of the club, there was persistent speculation that the team might be moved (Philadelphia was often suggested), and Garber admitted that relocation was considered.

Ultimately, the club stayed put after the Hunts found interest from a six-man, locally based group led by the co-owners of an electronic medical systems company. The sale of the team was completed in 2006 and the goal, Garber said, “was an immediate sea change” in approach as the new group set out to rejuvenate operations with a stadium designed for soccer at the heart of the plan.

New Owners, New Approach

During the summer of 2010, Robb Heineman, the team’s president and one of the six new owners, knew the coming six months would be crucial. The Wizards had spent the previous four years playing in a minor-league baseball stadium, essentially treading water while waiting for their transformation.

As the 2011 season approached, however, the new stadium was nearing completion and a rebranding — including the team’s name, colors, logo and uniform — was imminent. With those tangible changes nearly in place and a financial outlay that ended up being close to $300 million on the line, club officials talked often about the need to find a lasting relevancy in the community.

“In a lot of ways, that summer of 2010 was really a tipping point for us,” Heineman said in recent interview. “It was a combination of good timing and good planning.”

First, the team organized watch parties for the World Cup matches that summer, taking over the popular Power & Light District area downtown and attracting young professionals as opposed to the families that had been the focus of marketing efforts for so many years early on.

The team hoped for a decent turnout at the parties as a way to build a presence ahead of the rebranding; instead, thousands of fans went to the outdoor plaza area, and for games involving the United States team the crowds swelled to as large as 12,000. When ESPN showed highlights of American fans watching games back home, Kansas City was often portrayed as the hub; the crowd’s histrionics after Landon Donovan’s last-second goal against Algeria were captured in a plethora of YouTube montages.

Then, less than a month later, the Wizards played an exhibition against Manchester United at Arrowhead Stadium. More than 50,000 fans bought tickets but a majority appeared to be wearing the English team’s colors and cheering for the visitors at the start.

That situation was standard for a match between an M.L.S. team and a European power at the time and yet, despite the crowd and despite having a player ejected after only a half-hour, the Wizards pulled off a stunning upset, beating United by 2-1. At the final whistle, the fans — many still wearing Manchester United gear - exploded with glee. “The next day our phones literally went down because so many people were calling,” Heineman said.

Determined to capitalize on the soccer surge, the club increased its attention on attracting younger fans. Its approach was simple: in a city where the Chiefs and Royals play in older stadiums and have played poorly for a long time, “the 18-to-35 demographic here didn’t grow up with much success from those brands,” Heineman said.

He added, “We thought we could give them something different.”

The connection was multilayered. Greg Cotton, the team’s general counsel and chief of staff, had been a longtime member of the team’s main supporters’ club, known as the Cauldron, so during the transition Cotton was a constant voice for the fans. Team executives even enlisted help from the Cauldron when designing areas for the supporters’ groups in the new stadium. Like many European teams have done, a members’ bar for the supporters’ club was built at the stadium to encourage more time on site.

Technology was critical, too. Two of the team’s new owners, Cliff Illig and Neal Patterson, were the co-founders of Cerner Corporation, a leading provider of electronic medical systems. With that software background, it was not surprising that Sporting Park came with a strong Wi-Fi presence, constant social media connections among fans, and the stadium’s video boards and advanced camera systems that made for more entertaining replays.

The team also embraced social media away from the stadium, with Heineman often asking questions of fans on Twitter to help guide club decisions.

“It was like apples and oranges from before,” Gaughan said. “There was a deeper commitment to building a connection. It wasn’t just a ‘you-buy-tickets’ thing. It was more.”

That thinking went into the team’s name change as well. As the club approached its rebranding in the winter of 2010, it mulled a number of traditional American sports team names proposed by a consulting agency. Among the top suggestions was the Kansas City Bees because, the consultants said, the bee is the official insect of both Missouri and Kansas.

Instead, the club opted for Sporting Kansas City, a European-sounding name that was emblematic of its hope of becoming more than just a soccer team. The Sporting name also dovetailed with the club’s European-style soccer stadium and concerted effort to appeal to the serious soccer fan.

For the most part, it has worked. In 2011, the first year at Sporting Park, the team’s average attendance was 17,810. In 2012, it was 19,017. This season, it is 19,709 and Sporting has a streak of 27 consecutive league match sellouts as it has surged to a four-point lead atop the Eastern Conference.

To be sure, everything is not perfect. While the team trumpets its significant television ratings increase, the numbers are relative: ratings this season have generally been around 1.1 or so, which is up from the 0.1 that was standard in 2010 but still far below, say, the 5.8 that the Royals are averaging this season despite being six games under .500.

Still, Sporting’s relevance cannot be denied. Segments on local sports talk radio are now dedicated to soccer — something that was unimaginable in the past — and Thomson, the executive who recalled his excitement (and subsequent disappointment) at seeing a Wizards bumper sticker on the car in front of him years ago, said he was especially heartened when he pulled up at a drive-thru window recently and was immediately serenaded with one of Sporting’s fan chants from the employees inside. “They saw the logo on my shirt,” Thomson said.

Hendricks, the longtime fan, said that she too has reveled in the way Sporting has moved into the mainstream consciousness, but she also occasionally wonders what will happen if the team, which has won its division each of the past two seasons, begins to struggle.

Sports are cyclical, she said, and there will surely come a time when Sporting begins to falter. Will the interest wane then? Will the crowds diminish? Could there even come a time when the Zardmeister, or at least a distant relative, resurfaces?

Hendricks laughed. “I think those days are long gone,” she said. “It’s not manufactured here anymore. It’s real.”
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:24 PM   #46
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Two franchises win in the Kansas City area. Sporting and KU Basketball. It's a very simple equation.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:26 PM   #47
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Two franchises win in the Kansas City area. Sporting and KU Basketball. It's a very simple equation.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:28 PM   #48
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Any doubt the success will continue? Consider the average age of a Chiefs season ticket holder is over 40 while the same ticket holder for Sporting is around 28. That means lots of young people and young families as opposed to old farts like the haters.
Football is still the most popular game in America. The age of a Chiefs season ticket holders is higher for a couple of reasons. First, the people who hold the prime seats rarely give them up so they stay with the owner as they age. Second, it takes a financial commitment to be a Chiefs season ticket holder. Many mid 20s to mid 30 year olds are raising families and don't want to spend the thousands if dollars it would take to buy season tickets for the entire family. Soccer will never be as popular in the U.S. as football, baseball, or basketball.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:28 PM   #49
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Sure. Kansas City, MISSOURI.

I wouldn't go to Kansas to take a shit.
I don't understand your hatred for Kansas. It really isn't that much different than Missouri.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:32 PM   #50
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Zach, DEnise, sedated, Wickedson and Reaper.

Yeah, I feel terrible being on the other side of this one
Damn you. When you put it that way...
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:34 PM   #51
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I don't understand your hatred for Kansas. It really isn't that much different than Missouri.
Kansas = France

Hope that helps.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:35 PM   #52
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I don't understand your hatred for Kansas. It really isn't that much different than Missouri.
You are joking, right? You need to read up on some history of the two places to know just how different they have been and still are. Hint, they don't call it Misery for nothing.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:41 PM   #53
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Damn you. When you put it that way...
I understand how the triumverate of lifesuck that is Chiefs/Royals/Mizzou has jaded you (I do suffer from 2/3rds of it) but seriously, responding to it by embracing soccer is like turning gay just because you had bad relationships with three bitchy women.

Time for an intervention, dude. I'll send you a Cardinals hat to wear. Step into the light......

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Old 07-23-2013, 02:42 PM   #54
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You are joking, right? You need to read up on some history of the two places to know just how different they have been and still are. Hint, they don't call it Misery for nothing.
I'm well aware of the history.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:45 PM   #55
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:49 PM   #56
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I understand how the triumverate of lifesuck that is Chiefs/Royals/Mizzou has jaded you (I do suffer from 2/3rds of it) but seriously, responding to it by embracing soccer is like turning gay just because you had bad relationships with three bitchy women.

Time for an intervention, dude. I'll send you a Cardinals hat to wear. Step into the light......
I would, in all sincerity, suck a few dicks to completion before I became a Cardinals fan. I appreciate the gesture, though.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:52 PM   #57
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I would, in all sincerity, suck a few dicks to completion before I became a Cardinals fan. I appreciate the gesture, though.
You probably just got new rep message from Hootie.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:52 PM   #58
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I don't understand your hatred for Kansas. It really isn't that much different than Missouri.
Obvious troll is obvious.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:53 PM   #59
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Sure. Kansas City, MISSOURI.

I wouldn't go to Kansas to take a shit.
And Kansas Thanks You.
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Old 07-23-2013, 02:54 PM   #60
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I spent an hour at a recent dinner meeting listening to the wheel of a client drone on about soccer.

I don't get it, I don't care for it and I doubt I'd like watching it live, but I admit I can't tell you how many people are even on the field at one time. To me, soccer was something kids and people in 3rd world countries play.

That said, I think it's great that the team in KC is doing so well and the fans of that team are having something to cheer about. It's good for KC. It also proves there is no reason there can't be a winner in other sports there too.
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