Robb Heineman’s Sporting KC is ready for its close-up
Robb Heineman’s afternoon starts in the media building at Kansas Speedway. The president and CEO of Sporting Kansas City is on a panel with other local sports bigwigs — noticeably, the Royals aren’t represented. They’re speaking to the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Centurions, a group of young businesspeople who spend two years in the program learning to become better capitalists.
From there, he drives his black Mercedes sedan out of the massive race complex and down the street less than a quarter mile, to a trailer in the Nebraska Furniture Mart parking lot that serves as the team’s construction headquarters. LiveStrong Sporting Park, the club’s new soccer stadium, nears completion across the street.
Inside the trailer, Heineman, whose thick, permanently parted hair is the silver-gray of brushed stainless steel, takes off his sport coat, drops the public persona and becomes boss. In a conference room filled with maps, blueprints and samples of stadium chairs, he eats a veggie wrap and potato chips (taken from the spread at the Centurions meeting) as members of his senior staff update him on the size of the stadium’s wine cellar, what shade of stone will appear in certain areas of the building, and when the scoreboards will be turned on. His eyes move from his VPs’ faces to his Samsung Epic phone again and again, unsatisfied with receiving just one stream of information at a time.
Nothing is simple in the stadium-making business. Heineman hears about the latest problem: parking, specifically the 6,156 parking spaces that the team is contractually obligated to provide for each game. Police are concerned about what they’re calling triple-header nights: when the T-Bones and Sporting KC both play at home on big movie weekends at the Legends.
When will installation of the light-blue seats that spell “Sporting” be complete? There are concerns and hand-wringing about fans without tickets parking in the distant lots and walking all the way to the stadium, without knowing if the game is sold-out. Heineman slices through the discussion. “We have an easy iPad solution for that,” he says. All they’ll need is an employee camped out in faraway lots. “We have an iPad with a card swipe, and somebody can park in a remote lot and not have to go all the way to the stadium to find out if we’re not sold-out.” Next topic.
Good news: The patio at the front of the stadium has been finalized. Heineman wants to see it for himself. He puts on a hard hat and a yellow safety vest and strides to the construction site. Dodging bulldozers, and trampling loose nails and discarded strands of rebar, he arrives at the area that will be the patio. Satisfied, he hikes back across the street to his Mercedes and drives off to another meeting.
Two days later, on a sunny April day in the club’s brick-walled office in the Crossroads District, Heineman breezes around in khaki shorts, sandals and a Sporting shirt. On the hunt for more data, he’s told when new drafts of menus for the new stadium will arrive, about a splashy promotional video that has been proposed, and about a youth sports initiative’s need of funding. In a series of rapid meetings, he moves from discussing player injuries to the merits of grass over turf. When he writes something down, he usually underlines it.
Then, another major decision: Is the drawing of the team’s new mascot OK? He says he likes the costume, and he bandies about some name possibilities. Somebody suggests polling employees. He likes the idea.
“Do you want to do a Katherine-Charlie test run?” he asks, suggesting his young children. He puts the mock-up in his bag and moves on to discussing the kind of person he wants to hire.
“It’s got to be somebody that’s, like, a gymnast daredevil person,” he says. “I want him to be base-jumping from the Victory Suite or something like that,” he adds, referring to an area of the new stadium.
Later, a blogger drops by to take a picture, and Heineman is back to being the face of Sporting KC. Rob Thomson, the team’s vice president of communications, who worked for the team from 1997 to 2001 and then returned in 2006, says, “The Pitch and a national blogger in here — this would be a good month in 1997.”
Later, Heineman does a phone interview while walking on a treadmill built into his desk. He logs two-tenths of a mile while rattling off the reasons that the stadium has been named LiveStrong Sporting Park.
It’s office soccer day, and the employees will soon depart for the team’s Swope Park training facility to play and drink beer outside. Word reaches him that some are thinking about ducking out rather than hitting the pitch with the boss. Heineman doesn’t like this. He steps out of his office and, smiling, bellows, “Hello, everyone out there. If I may have your attention, please. Staff soccer is not optional; it is mandatory. Thank you.”
Before Sporting’s preppy, blue-on-blue color scheme and shield logo, before the shiny new stadium, and before the national attention, there was the Wiz, a team with unspeakably hideous uniforms, a name that baffled even the locals, and an unfit home.
In its early years, the Wizards (the team dumped the abbreviated name after a single season) mirrored the problems that each of the 10 charter Major League Soccer clubs had. The league was an optimistic progeny of the 1994 World Cup that, held in the United States, appeared to usher in a new American appreciation for the game. But when MLS kicked off in 1996, it quickly became apparent that putting “major league” in the name doesn’t make it so. A pair of corporations owned multiple teams, and support from the public was tepid.
The only way that the league could get on TV was by partnering with U.S. Soccer to buy blocks of time from networks, which essentially made the games commercials for the sport.
On the day President George W. Bush announced that the country was beginning military action in Afghanistan, ABC pre-empted a game between the American national team and Jamaica to show combat coverage, as all the networks did. U.S. Soccer had bought the airtime to show the game, yet ABC stuck with war coverage longer than the other networks. The head of the MLS marketing team complained to USA Today, “They must have decided, ‘Soccer? Let’s show the war.'”
In 2006, ESPN and ABC agreed to buy MLS’ television rights.
The Wizards had little local support. No matter how pitiful the Royals were, no matter that the Chiefs routinely disappointed in the playoffs, soccer just didn’t appeal much to Kansas Citians. Aside from the small base of neck-vein-popping devotees who made up the hardcore fan club, the Cauldron, KC sports fans chose to spend their money on sports they knew rather than on games with a low high-fives-to-length-of-game ratio.
Even the Wizards’ winning the MLS Cup in 2000 didn’t draw people to the sport in high numbers. Just ask Sporting head coach Peter Vermes, who was named MLS Defender of the Year on the 2000 club.
At the time, Vermes estimates, the team could claim only 2,000 or so season-ticket holders. He says that even in a championship season, attracting that many season-ticket holders was lucky: “I would say that that was a lot.”
This season, he points to the team’s 11,000 season-ticket holders. “I completely reject any statements that soccer isn’t a part of the mainstream because it is, absolutely.”
He’s right, and MLS’ recent growth has been impressive. Since 2007, the league has added teams in Seattle — where an average crowd of 30,943 lunatic fans attended each match in 2009 — Philadelphia; Toronto; Vancouver, B.C.; and Portland, Oregon. Montreal will debut a club next year, bringing the league to 19 teams.
Perhaps more significant than being financially stable and popular enough to blanket North America with teams, the league has succeeded in coaxing teams and cities to build soccer-specific stadiums. But none of them, people with the team say, will be able to compete with Sporting Kansas City’s new grounds, in the shadow of Kansas Speedway.
Vermes, for one, should know. The New Jersey native played for the national team in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. He played in first- and second-division leagues in Holland, Hungary and Spain before joining MLS for its inaugural season in 1996 and playing for the Wizards from 2000 to 2002.
“I do believe that that is the best soccer-specific stadium in this hemisphere. I do believe that. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he says.
While participating on the panel in April, an eager audience member asked about social media. Chiefs President Mark Donovan spoke about how the team uses its Twitter account to inform fans and “test-balloon some things.” If the Chiefs are using Twitter to launch test balloons, Sporting Kansas City is tweeting out Mars landing missions, with Heineman’s hand on the controls.
This spring, Heineman tweeted highlights from a meaningless training game in nearly play-by-play fashion. (A team source maintains that Heineman does all of his own tweeting.) In fact, his compulsion to be the first to relate news to fans has gotten him in a spot of trouble. When plans for a friendly match against British soccer giants Manchester United were being finalized, Heineman tweeted that the Red Devils were coming — before the league and team were prepared to make the game public.
The club’s fondness for 140-character proclamations is going to be integrated into the fan experience during games. Have a question about where the closest beer vendor is or the best way to get to the restroom? Don’t bother searching the concourse for a stadium employee. Instead, whip out your smartphone or iPad and tweet your query to @AskLSP. A reply will be sent from inside the stadium.
In fact, technology is as essential to the stadium as I-beams, concrete and grass. More than 330 TV screens will be mounted throughout the arena, including in the restrooms.
“If you get up to go to the bathroom, you don’t want to miss any of the play,” Vermes says. “Those types of details — that tells you a lot about what their [the ownership group’s] philosophy is and who they are.”
David Ficklin, Sporting KC’s vice president of development, says the monitors throughout the stadium and suites can show different angles of the game, and every screen in the stadium could be showing something different. But the moment a Sporting player breaks through with a goal, all monitors will show the same thing in what’s called a “moment of exclusivity,” meaning that the stadium community will share the experience.
Heineman is five years into owning and running Sporting KC, and both he and his team are ready for their own moment of exclusivity. And they aren’t above a few stunts and a little pandering to get it.
For instance, Sporting announced early this season that, in an effort to form a serious rivalry with the Chicago Fire, it had struck a deal with local Firehouse Subs restaurants. When the Fire loses, fans get free subs with the purchase of chips and a drink.
The promotion proved to be almost too successful. In a meeting in Heineman’s office, a marketing employee tells him that the Firehouse Subs location on the Plaza ran out of bread and cheese the day after the first sandwich giveaway. The company complained that it was losing too much money. Heineman expresses skepticism. He wonders aloud how much each sandwich could cost the restaurants, especially when diners are required to buy chips and a drink.
And there was the recent Chad Ochocinco circus. The Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver was brought to town for a tryout with the team. The media gushed, and the team was featured heavily on ESPN, but Ochocinco turned out to be mostly a bust on the field.
“There was very little downside,” Heineman says.
If these are the kinds of gimmicks that seem more typical of a minor-league team, Heineman appears to be just fine with that. After all, he learned the business of running a sports franchise as a child growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His family owns the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA’s Development League.
In a tiny market with a 6,300-seat arena and a team that varies in quality season to season, Heineman learned the craft of using theater to get people into a stadium.
“I did grow up working in the sponsorship side of our basketball team,” he says. “We tried all sorts of crazy promotions.” Some worked better than others did, such as a memorable sponsorship from a chiropractor.
“We dropped this inflatable doll out of the top rafters, and when he hit the floor, we did ‘Oh, that had to hurt!’ ” he says with a laugh. “We actually took a ton of heat for it because people were freaked out.”
Sporting’s approach is a little more polished. “I think we’re a bit more tactical about it,” he says. But still, he adds, “Failure is an option.”
And that’s an attitude he needed to gamble on when making some changes with the team.
On a rainy November night on the Power & Light’s Kansas City Live stage, Heineman announced to hundreds of shivering, wet fans that the team they had loved for a decade and a half was dead. The name, anyway.
The replacement? A mascotless moniker reflecting the style of a few European and South American teams. The initial reaction was less than enthusiastic. One local sportswriter panned it as the first “gerund-based” team name in America. Fans whined on discussion boards.
Heineman’s reply, delivered in numerous interviews, was simple but gently delivered: I understand you’re disappointed. Change is hard. Suck it up and support your team.
In March, the team made naming news for the second time in less than a year. Dozens of media members and VIPs in hard hats navigated paths through the stadium construction site and up concrete stairs to a room where folding chairs had been set up amid strips of extension cords. As construction workers toiled nearby, Heineman, co-owner and Cerner co-founder Cliff Illig, LiveStrong CEO Doug Ulman and seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong revealed that the club was giving away the naming rights for the new stadium to Armstrong’s cancer-research nonprofit, LiveStrong.
The move was unprecedented, according to Dennis Howard, a naming-rights expert and the Philip H. Knight Professor of Business at the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon.
“It is very much a first,” he says of the partnership. Naming rights could have meant a huge financial benefit for the team. In February 2010, the Philadelphia Union landed an agreement with the utility PPL Corp. for naming rights to the Union’s new stadium. It was worth a reported $2 million a year.
“A million dollars, maybe a million and a half, would probably be a ceiling,” Howard estimates for naming rights here. “You know, that’s not incidental money to an MLS team. To forfeit the potential to generate that kind of income stream is pretty incredible.”
“I think everybody’s natural reaction is that this is crazy,” Heineman said at the time. “And that’s OK.”
Mental health of the ownership group aside, Vermes says all that matters is that the organization follow up on its promises. He knows that he and his players have it good.
In his spartan office at the team’s Swope Park training facility, following a recent practice, he says, “If you look at this training facility, just this training facility alone, there’s not too many teams in the league that can say they have this kind of environment.”
Vermes continues: “I can tell you. I came here in 2000 as a player. If you were to say to me back then that 11 years later there would be this stadium going up that would be soccer-specific, it would be for this team, I would have said that you’re crazy. There’s no chance that would happen.”
How did Sporting KC emerge from rainbow-patterned uniforms and home games in Arrowhead and a minor-league baseball stadium to a club moving into a new 18,000-seat stadium, with an innovative naming deal and 11,000 season tickets sold — more than the average per-game attendance last season? Vermes says it’s because Heineman and his Sporting partners take chances.
“The thing that you have to take into consideration is that all five of the owners are entrepreneurs. First off, they’re risk-takers,” he says.
Ficklin agrees, saying that the first risk the owners took when they bought the team in 2006 was to keep it in town.
“We’re building something,” he says. “And it’s hard enough to sell soccer. And you have 15 years of it not being done in its own home. It’s easier to start a team fresh.”
The team has started fresh over the past eight months. Sporting KC could almost pass for an expansion team, if not for the championship star above the logos on the shirts.
On the eve of the season’s first game in March, the MLS power rankings had Sporting slotted at No. 8 among 18 teams — a playoff position. And Sporting had an explosive opener in which rookie CJ Sapong set an MLS record, for fastest time to first career goal, a minute and 43 seconds in.
But since then, it’s been a painful season. Striker Omar Bravo suffered a hernia, causing him to miss five games. There was a five-game losing streak. And there was the grinding match against the Seattle Sounders in late May, when the team fell 1-0 in the 93rd minute.
“The game against Seattle — it was our best 90-minute performance to date, the way we played,” Vermes says, still looking upset. “Easily, the guys could have tanked it in Seattle.”
But if failing is an option, tanking isn’t. By any definition of the word, this team didn’t tank when MLS was failing the same way that previous professional soccer leagues had. It didn’t tank when fans were outnumbered seven-to-one by empty red seats at Arrowhead. And it didn’t tank when it was forced to postpone a game last season because the T-Bones needed CommunityAmerica Ballpark for a playoff game.
Why would this rebranded outfit tank now, on the eve of moving into LiveStrong Sporting Park, where 18,000 fans and every local news station, newspaper and blog — along with ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and MLS Commissioner Don Garber — are about to grant Sporting its hard-fought moment of exclusivity in the local and national eye?
“We haven’t really been an important part of the fabric of Kansas City,” Ficklin says. He’s wearing his beat-up blue hard hat, talking over the clanking symphony of backhoes, bulldozers and Bobcats near the stadium.
“We’ve been an important part to a very small portion of Kansas City, but we aren’t integrated into Kansas City like we want to be. So how do you do that? By giving a crap. You do it by really caring about the people that are going to come here.”
You also do it by caring about the people who aren’t coming here — yet. Most Kansas Citians, if they think about pro soccer at all, still think about it in its Wizards form. Heineman and Sporting KC are betting that these people are going to catch up. They’re ready.