FCKC’s disappearing act in 2017 is set right in 2021, by a married couple and KC’s Queen
On April 26, the city’s sports culture changed. Playing at Children’s Mercy Park on short notice, the night marked Kansas City NWSL’s first home game. It was a sold-out crowd, even with COVID-19 protocols in place. The Blue Hell is a sea of teal. The Blue Crew, the city’s women’s soccer superfans, get the crowd going through the good and the bad. It’s the start of a new generation in Kansas City.
We know what happened to its predecessor, FC Kansas City. It won championships in back-to-back seasons, hosted superstar talent, and looked to build itself among the ranks of the Chiefs, the Royals, and Sporting KC in Kansas City sports lore. Players such as Nicole Barnhart, Amy Rodriguez, and Lauren Holiday were becoming local legends. Holiday even had her number retired by the franchise.
It came tumbling down in 2017. Elam Bear, the CEO of North Central Equity, LLC in Minneapolis, was named the new owner.
“This is a good day for Kansas City, one of the greatest sports towns in the United States,” FCKC founder Brad Likens said at the time. “With Elam and his partners committed to the club and our region, I know our organization will be stronger than ever and that this move is not only good for the team, and our fans, but the league as a whole. While there are no certainties in sports, I know FC Kansas City will take the field on opening day poised to compete for another NWSL championship.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
After mismanagement by the new ownership, the NWSL announced after the 2017 season that FCKC would cease operations and move out west to Utah. Dell Loy Hansen, who owned the MLS’s Real Salt Lake, would take control. The team disappeared in a heartbeat and nothing would be able to stop it. When asked if Kansas City could still be a viable market for professional women’s soccer, then NWSL Managing Director said “given a different set of circumstances, yes.”
Chris and Angie Long of Kansas City-based Palmer Square Capital Management were given a different set of circumstances.
New Ownership, New Direction
Hansen announced Aug. 30 that he would sell his teams as Major League Soccer investigated allegations of racism against him. According to The Athletic, former employees and players accused Hansen of using slurs and calling Black people thugs. Hansen’s comments on a Salt Lake City radio show about his team joining eight other MLS teams in postponing games over the summer didn’t do him any favors, as teams across all sports in the U.S. were protesting over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI.
“I recognize that at times I have spoken too quickly, without pausing to consider the feelings or good intentions of others,” Hansen says in a statement. “This is not acceptable, and I assume full responsibility for allowing my words to travel unfiltered as to their significance and impact. I believe that communities are strengthened by diversity. I am truly sorry for offending and being insensitive to the plight of others. I seek to do better and commit to supporting and improving diversity and inclusion in my own community going forward.”
No amount of texts from his wife, Julie, to a news station in Utah would make up for the damage he’d done to the players in the organization. Apologies through press releases weren’t going to stop the bleeding. He could give out The New Jim Crow to all the MLS teams and it wouldn’t stop him from doing what needs to be done. Hansen lost the trust of the teams and the league. It was time to move on and sell the teams.
The relocation announcement came Dec. 7. The Long family, joined by former professional soccer player Brittany Matthews, would take control of Utah Royals FC. Women’s professional soccer made its way back to the Soccer Capital of the United States.
“It’s incredible. It’s amazing. The support from the community is so tremendous and the gratitude from the community has been so much,” Angie Long says. “It feels like [it’s] really an honor and exciting to be a part of it.”
The journey for the Longs officially started during the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The Longs have always been huge supporters of women’s athletics. After attending the tournament and seeing their daughter play in local tournaments in France, the Palmer Square power couple were convinced that soccer’s greatest community needed a team back. It only makes sense that season ticket holders of FCKC with a lot of money are responsible for the return.
Almost immediately after they returned to the U.S., the Longs reached out to the NWSL to start discussions on an expansion team. Staying in contact with NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird and other team owners in the league, they planned for the new team to join in either 2022 or 2023. Instead, Christmas came early not only for them but for soccer fans in the area.
Build it and they will come
Getting the team back was the easy part. Now they have to build a staff that’ll fit with their vision and meshes well with the incoming roster. They knew they wanted Huw Williams as the head coach as he has ties to the city. The Welsh native was a founder, assistant coach, and general manager of FCKC. He coached Avila University’s men’s soccer team from 1989-1992 and is also a former director of coaching for Kansas Youth Soccer.
After Williams, it became a puzzle that the Longs loved putting together. Chris says that one of the beauties of starting a team in Kansas City is the abundance of talent in the area. Staff from other organizations that were jobless due to the pandemic, leaders in their respective fields, and out-of-town recruitments make up the coaching, equipment, and medical staff. They tapped marketing and creative executive Jen Gulvik to be the team president. Amber Cox, formerly the Vice President of Sports for the Mohegan Sun, joined as the team’s Chief Operating Officer.
They then turned their attention to the players and getting their housing, cars, and access to facilities up to par. The Longs did everything they needed to do to make their team comfortable living here. It sounds simple on the surface, but it gets hectic.
Not all of the players reside in Utah, so shipping all of their possessions from one place to another in a relatively quick fashion during a pandemic isn’t ideal. Having players from Argentina, Australia, and Scotland adds another wrinkle to the plan, as pandemic restrictions make traveling overseas tougher.
Next came marketing, which is where Brittany Matthews shines. She was immediately interested in the team when the Longs reached out to her. Matthews led a brand advisory group that’s behind a lot of the promotion strategies fans see today, including asking the community what the team’s name should be. Her name draws attention alone—most people know her as the partner to Kansas City’s crown jewel, Patrick Mahomes.
“(Matthews) is a great person,” Angie says. “She’s so fun to work with. She’s young. She really connects well with our players and she’s such a great leader and business person herself. She’s just a joy to work with.”
“We are so lucky to have them in the community for so many reasons,” Chris Long says. “They’re so authentic. They’re both leaders, true leaders and they are so caring about everything Kansas City. From a community-specific standpoint, a sports perspective, and a business perspective they’re now really involved, so we’re really lucky to have them here.”
Matthews’ partnership is just one of many in which high-profile names are joining in on owning a franchise in a women’s professional league. In July, a group including Natalie Portman, Serena Williams, Eva Longoria, and members of the 1999 Women’s World Cup team announced they were starting Angel City F.C., an expansion team out of Los Angeles. Naomi Osaka now has a stake in the North Carolina Courage, while Jenna Bush Hager and Chelsea Clinton are a part of an ownership group for the Washington Spirit.
They haven’t released season ticket holder numbers, but Chris says it’s far surpassed the number they expected. The team sold out its first two games—a trend that’ll most likely continue as the season progresses and capacity limits increase. Matthews and her crew know what they’re doing in a market that ranked third in viewership during the 2019 World Cup and finished in the Top 10 for 2020’s Challenge Cup.
While their first game was at Children’s Mercy Park, Legends Field will be their home venue for the 2021 season. It’s a temporary spot and one that’ll operate at maximum capacity for the team’s 12 home games. The Longs are looking to build a stadium for the team very soon, and while they have a preferred location, they wouldn’t reveal its whereabouts.
“It was a lot of work for sure,” Angie says. “We’re lucky that the league is expanding and there was an opportunity with the Utah team dissolving for another team to come in. We’ve been in close contact with the league. They knew our interest and the seriousness of our interest and our commitment, so we had a chance to bring them here. Part of it is Kansas City. They know what a great soccer market this is.”
Play For Kansas City
The Longs want this team to be a cornerstone of the city for centuries to come. As Chris put it, “momentum begets momentum” and it was felt during both games. Despite losing 3-1 to Houston Apr. 26 and 2-1 to the OL Reign May 3, the crowd knew they were watching something special. Filled with young girls who were attending their first live soccer game or surrounded by their youth soccer teammates, the impact this team will have can’t be measured.
They are seeing women’s soccer played at its highest level. They are feasting their eyes on players they can look up to. Sometime down the road, some of the kids in the audience will be playing on a professional soccer field, whether at KC NWSL’s future stadium or overseas. They might even end up on the United States’ Women’s National Team, where they’ll trace their inspiration back to the nights KC NWSL forwards Michele Vasconcelos and Mallory Weber scored.
“I was in their shoes at one point,” Barnhart says. “I know exactly what it’s like to be out there and have role models that you look up to, admire, and want to be like one day. I had the opportunity to play alongside some of my role models, so every time I step out on the field and anytime I’m doing anything off the field, I know there are eyes on me and I always want to represent myself, represent this club in the best way that I can.”
“I just love being able to go around and connect with those girls because like Barnie [Barnhart’s nickname] said, that was us and I think that makes a huge difference,” Vasconcelos adds. “We have to take care of business on the field obviously, but I think that one of our biggest things to being in this community is getting to know the fans and getting that relationship with them, especially those young girls [and boys] that look up to us.”
It’s not often markets get a second chance at hosting sports franchises. Chris and Angie Long, Brittany Matthews, Jen Gulvik, Amber Cox, and the rest of the front office don’t want this to fail. The players, headlined by Barnhart and Rodriguez, who have been a part of the Kansas City/Utah franchises since the beginning of the NWSL, don’t want it to fail. It might be too early to tell, but it seems like the fans don’t want it to fail.
Whether it’s a women’s revolution or a women’s evolution in sports, they all want to change the world. The change starts in their communities and for Kansas City, that change starts now.