[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Kansas City fans have waited a decade and a half for a decent place to watch their team play. Now they've got Livestrong Sporting Park, which has free parking, TV screens in every restroom, and a winning team on the field.
Kansas City started as the Wiz in 1996, became the Wizards the following season, and this season rechristened itself Sporting Kansas City. The Wizards, who won the 2000 MLS title, played in Arrowhead Stadium – an NFL venue – from 1996 to 2007 and averaged about 11,000 over 12 seasons. (They averaged only 9,122 during the 2000 championship season.)
They spent 2008-2010 in a minor league baseball stadium, CommunityAmerica Ballpark, with a capacity of 10,385.
KC played the first 10 games of the 2011 season on the road and won just once before moving into Livestrong in June -- then rode a 9-2-6 (win-loss-tie) home record into the playoffs, which it hadn’t reached since 2008.
It averaged 17,810 in the $200 million, 18,467-seat stadium, up 73 percent from last year’s average. With $20 standing-room tickets offered for its playoff-clinching win over New York last Saturday, KC drew 19,921 fans.
That was four days after 17,142 came to Livestrong for a 2-2 friendly with Chivas Guadalajara. On a Wednesday night -- when MLS games usually drew meager crowds -- in late September, Sporting drew 17,838 for a 2-1 win over Columbus.
Joe Cummings is the CEO of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, which is headquartered in Kansas City. He says the Kansas City area has long had a strong fan base.
“The fans have always been here,” he said. “I believe it’s the No. 1 per capita participation in the United States. … They just had to find the right location and build. It was an, 'If you build it, they will come situation,' and that’s what they’ve done.
“And this present ownership group is probably one of the most engaged and active ownership groups that I’ve seen in MLS.”
Lamar Hunt, who had also owned the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas, sold the team in 2006, four months before the great patron of American soccer died at age 74.
The new ownership group is comprised of five local businessman and is bankrolled primarily by Cliff Illig and Neal Patterson, the co-founders of Cerner, a health-care tech company.
One of the owners is CEO Robb Heineman, who recently told the Kansas City Tribune that just a few years ago, “We considered ourselves to be the underperforming unit of Major League Soccer. And we were embarrassed by that.”
Then came Livestrong, which they were determined to make a perfect soccer venue. And that it is.
Not only does Livestrong have a nice, wide concourse so there’s no human traffic jam even during sellouts, it’s designed in such a way that one can see the field from the concourse. If that view is obstructed, there’ll be one of the 350 HD monitors from which to view the game close-circuit. Same goes if you’re in the restrooms, all of which are equipped with TV screens.
There are also two giant HD screens at each end, once of which, at 2,016 square feet, is MLS’s biggest.
Fans have a wide range of options, including the 20-game, $280 “Members’ Stand” package, which comes to $14 per game and includes access to a discounted concession area that offers $5 beers. For the very hungry and thirsty, there’s a $50 ticket “Beer Terrace” ticket that includes all the beer, soda, hot dogs and nachos one can consume.
There are 37 luxury suites, a party suite, a corporate suite, and the Shield and Field Clubs, with full bars and seemingly endless buffet options. (The Field Club has sold out for 2012. The Shield Club is $1,400; $70 per game.)
On the security front, 120 cameras scan the crowd, hence the prompt arrest of the thug who threw a bobble-head at goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen in August and the quick recovering of a 4-year-old who wandered away from his parents during a recent game.
There’s free wireless -- and 200 routers around the stadium to ensure a clear signal. The players get first-class treatment as well. Their ergonomic locker-room seats, that cost $4,000, include power outlets.
Instead of selling naming rights to the stadium, the club partnered with Lance Armstrong's Livestrong foundation, which supports the fight against cancer and seeks to improve the lives of cancer victims. Under the arrangement, the club donates $7.5 million to the foundation over the course of six years.
Income from concerts is part an important part the stadium’s business plan, but the stage is covered by removable seats so it doesn’t intrude on the soccer experience.
THE STADIUM BOOM. Of the 10 teams from MLS’s inaugural 1996 season, six now play in soccer-specific stadiums, the first of which was Columbus’ Crew Stadium, which opened in 1999. D.C. United is still looking for a better home than aging RFK Stadium. San Jose plays in an amenity-sparse college stadium that seats only 10,000, on bleachers, while moving forward with deliberations on plans to build a soccer stadium near San Jose Airport. New England moved from an old football stadium (Foxboro) to a new one (Gillette) in 2002. (The Tampa Bay Mutiny folded in after the 2001 season.)
Portland, Real Salt Lake, Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago and Chivas USA (which shares the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy) play in perfectly sized modern soccer stadiums. Seattle’s crowds are big enough to make it work at the soccer-football hybrid CenturyLink Field, as could be the case for Vancouver in the recently renovated (to the tune of $500 million) BC Place.
Houston moves into a 22,000-seat downtown stadium next season, and 2012 newcomer Montreal will play in a renovated 20,000-seater.