By Ridge Mahoney
More than once, Kansas City has been written off the MLS map. As of Thursday, with men and machines moving dirt on a site destined to house a soccer stadium as part of a vast commercial development, it gets a real shot at success.
Or does it?
Teams have fallen into this hole before. Colorado and FC Dallas, to name two examples, have justified a cautionary tone invoked by Commissioner Don Garber while lauding such new projects: a stadium, by itself, doesn't guarantee a glittering record nor a flush bottom line.
Yet OnGoal LLC president Robb Heineman, whose stadium efforts began long before his consortium bought the team from Lamar Hunt and Hunt Sports Group, believes this move is essential. "I spent some time with Mr. Hunt, talking about the future of soccer in this country and the opportunity. Lamar was always a visionary, talking about the appropriate steps for the sport to evolve," says Heineman,
"The development of soccer-specific assets was always a key mantra for him. He built the first stadium in Columbus and was always convinced the same could be done for Kansas City."
Six years ago, Heineman researched a site across the Missouri River in Johnson County, Kansas., but despite some political backing, the project collapsed. After OnGoal bought the team in August 2006, a plan arose to revitalize an abandoned shopping center, Bannister Mall, in the southeast corner of Kansas City.
Cleanup of that site began early last year, but an impasse arose in the aftermath of the financial-market collapse. The city refused to pledge its commitment to back up the sale of STAR (sales tax-revenue) bonds, which were to fund about one-quarter of the entire development.
Blocked in Kansas City, Mo., OnGoal was lured back across the state line by officials of Wyandotte County and a large piece of land for which development was being sought by Nebraska Furniture Mart. The Wizards stadium, estimated cost of $202.7 million, will be located in Kansas City, Kan., on a site near the Kansas Speedway as part of a $414 million development that will include offices of Cerner Corp., whose co-founders Neal Patterson and Cliff Ilig are the majority partners in OnGoal.
"It was always something he thought he could get done," says Heineman of the late Lamar Hunt's vision. "I didn't think it would take as long as this to get it done, however. I was probably pretty naïve. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take six years before we'd dig our first shovel. If I had known, I probably wouldn't have gotten involved in it.
"But we're here today and that's all that matters, and it's because I have committed partners who believe in it and are willing to put in the capital.
Kansas City has consistently lagged near the bottom of team attendance figures, and during the past two seasons has several times failed to sell out CommunityAmerica Ballpark (capacity for soccer 10,385), the minor-league baseball stadium it is using while Arrowhead Stadium is being renovated.
Blame has been levied on the market; the city's relatively small population of approximately 500,000 (about 2 million in the metropolitan area) is well-steeped in baseball, football and car racing, but not perceived as soccer-friendly. It doesn't have the cosmopolitan makeup of many MLS cities, in particular successful additions Toronto and Seattle, nor the track record of NASL tradition as does 2010 expansion city Philadelphia.
"We're not like those cities, and we do have a lot of tough competition with the Chiefs, Royals, and University of Kansas, which is almost like another pro team," says Heineman. "But we think this team will become part of the sports community and one that fans in the area will be proud to support.
At least the stadium will be near a well-traveled, familiar area, not off in the barren boonies like a few MLS facilities. It will seat 18,500 fans, include a roof to hold in sound and shield fans from rain and snow, and feature a grass field.
There may be a flaw in Heineman's marketing: he believes college students - the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., is about 25 miles east - can help form a viable fan base. How many of them - adorned with a 'K' on one cheekbone, a 'U' on the other, and devoted to "Rock-Sock-Jayhawk!" - can be converted into Wizards fans remains to be seen.
On Thursday, Heineman donned a hard hat, jumped into the cab of a towering John Deere, and dug and dumped the first load of dirt. He dismounted, obviously exhilarated.
Yet later that day he was back on the office, with a trip to New York that evening on his agenda. "This is a great step, and it's been a long time coming," he says. "But yes, we know there's much more work to do."