An MLS tale of second chances

By Paul Kennedy

A lot of life is about second chances and how you take them.

The second chances of two MLS clubs have dominated the news this past week.

Everything about the do-over of Chivas USA has gone wrong from its last place in the Western Conference standings to its dwindling attendance to the p.r. nightmare that was the airing of a segment about the club on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

We've been told for months about how we should be patient and how Chivas USA has a plan, but the only plan you hear about is the systematic plan to exclude non-Mexicans alleged by the former academy coaches, Dan Calichman and Ted Chronopoulos, who have sued the club, and by others who came forward in the HBO piece.

(It'll be up to the courts to decide whether the club's practices are discriminatory, but the fact is that the team has been transformed from one that often fielded no players of Mexican descent in 2012 to a team that finished Sunday's match against Seattle with all 10 field players being of Mexican descent.)

Last week's HBO segment might have lacked the gotcha moment you used to see from Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, but it certainly painted Chivas USA as amateurish. Its response after the fact, releasing a statement that the report was one-sided, only reinforced the notion management has no clue what it's doing.

Just how ridiculous Chivas USA looks is all the more apparent when you look at the other end of the spectrum of second chances and Sporting Kansas City, host of the 2013 AT&T MLS All-Star Game.

Like with a lot of second chances, good timing and good luck have been critical to Sporting KC's success, but it wouldn't have been possible without good management.

Sporting KC's second chance starts out like that of many other MLS clubs that were sold in the last decade: new owners come armed with plans to build a new stadium and rebrand the club. But what OnGoal, the ownership group, has done in Kansas City is unique.

If you were asked a decade ago to pick an MLS team that would sell out every game, Kansas City would have been the last team you'd have named. The Wizards, as the team was then known, played in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium and drew some of the worst crowds in MLS.

Sporting KC sells out every game. It even started a waiting list for season-ticket holders after capping sales at 14,000. Its success story has been been chronicled in national media as one of the great turnarounds in the history of American sports.

"It's been beyond our wildest dreams, frankly," says Sporting KC CEO Robb Heineman.

Among MLS markets, only Seattle and Portland surpass Kansas City in terms of the intensity of their soccer fever, and the Pacific Northwest clubs have the advantage of much deeper soccer roots.

To be sure, pro soccer in Kansas City goes all the way back to the initial launch of the old NASL in 1968 -- the Spurs were one of only five teams to stick around after the league's initial collapse -- but it was still going nowhere after a decade in MLS.

Good timing came in 2010 as Sporting Park was going up on the Kansas side of Kansas City. Like other teams across MLS, the Wizards as they were still called at the time, used the World Cup in South Africa to promote the team, drawing thousands of hard-core fans who filled the downtown entertainment area, Park & Light District, to watch matches on big screens.

Good luck came in the form of the Wizards' exhibition victory over Manchester United the same summer. The 2-1 victory before 50,000 fans at Arrowhead Stadium might have been a fluke, but it helped win over fans skeptical about MLS.

They don't call Kansas City Silicon Prairie for nothing, and new Sporting KC instantly connected with those soccer fans in the 18-to-35 demographics drawn to the area because of jobs in the creative, digital and service industries and because of affordable housing.

It helped that two of Sporting KC's five founders, Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig, started Cerner Corporation, a pioneer in electronic medical systems. Cerner's standing in the community helped allow Sporting KC and its stadium project to be embraced by local government, and its technical know-how was invaluable in helping make Sporting Park a state-of-the-art digital facility.

"Cliff and Neal are quiet Midwest guys, run-quiet, run-deep guys," says MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

Sporting KC is at the forefront in the sports industry in creating innovative digital fan experiences. Since it sells out every game, Sporting KC must find ways to get fans to spend more money at or around the game if it wants to grow revenues. The data the club collects via their digital experience allows it to better serve its fans. Translated: it knows what products and services to push.

None of this would be possible if the fans weren't having a good time. Back-to-back regular-season conference titles don't hurt. The biggest change is the intensity with which Kansas City soccer fans follow their team. It's reflected in the spike in coverage on television, radio and in print and, of course, how fans interact in the world of social media. They now debate the club's strengths and weaknesses just like their elders have done for years following the more traditional Kansas City sports teams, the Chiefs and Royals.

Asked what advice he gives to prospective MLS owners, Heinemann says, "Be a fan. Think like a fan."

That connection Sporting KC has developed with its fans is unique, and Heinemann is cautious about his club getting too far ahead of itself.

"We don't take anything for granted," he says. "We remember the lean years."
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2 comments about "An MLS tale of second chances".
  1. Jack Lawrence, August 2, 2013 at 10:39 p.m.

    I disagree with Kennedy's assertion that the HBO interview had no "gotcha" moment. What do you call it when Chivas' "spokesperson" runs away during the middle of the interview if not "gotcha?" Think again, Paul.

  2. Allan Lindh, August 3, 2013 at 1:44 p.m.

    So time to invoke a single-entity form of relegation. Let the league buy Chivas cheap, and move them to the second division. Replace them with a city that wants a team. You could move them to another city, but who would want them? Mexican arrogance about "their" football punished appropriately -- what Chivas deserve for assuming they could field a B-team and trounce the Gringos.

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