Sporting Kansas City unveiled its new stadium Thursday night. Livestrong Sporting Park is a wondrous structure of sweeping, dynamic angles and curves, along with gadgets and gizmos tailored to the high-tech set.
The park is awash with high-def TVs, wireless hot spots, and all manner of cool conveniences, such as ordering food right from your seat. It cost $200 million, a price tag that both impresses and concerns me; the realist in me thinks, “How about $190 million for the new building, and maybe $10 million over the next five years to drive people into the place?”
Without naming names, or cities, certain MLS teams have backed off their marketing efforts once they’ve set up shop. In the past few years, a severe economic downturn surely forced cutbacks, but some have paid the price for believing new digs guaranteed a plus bottom line. Stadiums have reduced losses to a more palatable level, which is far from a universal attitude among the 17 ownership groups currently vested in MLS.
CEO Robb Heinemann and his well-heeled partners Cliff Illig and Neal Patterson have certainly created a marvelous venue for the fan experience, but I hope Phase II goes beyond upgrading the team itself, as important as that is. In MLS, winning by itself doesn’t always torque the turnstiles, sad to say.
Two years after winning their second title in three seasons, the San Jose Earthquakes were packing off to Houston. The Crew, titlist in 2008, has a louder and rowdier core, yet not a wider reach. A few minutes after Colorado claimed MLS Cup 2010, general manager Jeff Plush proclaimed its victory would render the Rapids “more relevant” in that market, but if so, the numbers haven’t caught up.
To cite a positive offshoot of victory, Real Salt Lake’s dramatic capture of the 2009 title gave the organization a huge boost, as did media coverage and solid attendances for its Concacaf Champions League run that went down to the final seconds of the final game. The timing of its title was perfect, as RSL had moved into Rio Tinto Stadium at the end of the 2008 season during a last-ditch playoff push, and rode a wave of momentum all the way to the title.
Like the Crew, RSL faces stiff competition from only one winter professional sport (hockey in Ohio vs. hoops in Utah) and a major college (Ohio State vs. University of Utah, with a splash of nearby BYU and Utah State). Neither city shares its market with the NFL, but so powerful is that league and its incredibly popular TV programming that aside from avoiding Sunday afternoon games during the football season, there’s not much relevance to what MLS is trying to do.
Aside from the NFL Chiefs, SKC faces direct competition from the baseball Royals during the summer, and it also has a soccer community that only rarely ventured out to see games at Arrowhead Stadium in large numbers. Marketing to the masses is less expensive in Kansas City than in many other MLS locales, which can work to team’s advantage, but it’s doubtful that SKC can approach capacity (18,467) on a regular basis if it doesn’t devote the time and resources and manpower and money to get those soccer constituents through the gates game after game, month after month, year after year.
The team’s previous owners, Hunt Sports Group, built stadiums in Columbus and Dallas but never got far in discussions or plans regarding its Kansas City operations, and also didn’t devote much effort to marketing. As such, the market has been tarred as a poor one for soccer, yet the fans who turned out last summer to see Manchester United at a renovated Arrowhead Stadium looked a lot like their counterparts in other North American cities.
That 52,343 crowd can’t be interpolated into MLS attendances. Nobody expects Kansas City to replicate the accomplishments in Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, Philadelphia and other cities, where both international games and the local MLS team do well at the gate, but there’s no solid grounding for belief that it’s a dead zone, either. Another test comes next week, when the stadium hosts a Gold Cup doubleheader including the U.S. on a Tuesday night.
Harsh economic conditions, both locally and nationally, certainly factor into this equation, as sports teams across the spectrum scramble and scratch for revenues. So far, there’s been only marginal drop-off in Toronto, which is 2-5-7 with a new coach after going a perfect 4-for-4 in playoff misses. Disgruntlement with operator-investor Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment will quickly show up as empty seats unless better results are forthcoming.
SKC had to play on a field shoehorned into a baseball facility, CommunityAmerica Ballpark, waiting for its new home to be finished, and it hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008, so fans had good reason not to attend. More than 19,000 showed up for the grand opening, and certain banners – “Cauldron,” “Welcome to Blue Hell” – caught the eye. Not terribly original, yet certainly of the right spirit. It’s a start.