The rebirth of soccer in Kansas City

Eastern Conference-leading Sporting Kansas City has taken a grass-roots approach to developing its fan base. Ed Zurga/Getty Images

There aren't many things to cheer for in Kansas City these days -- and perhaps more to boo -- but one source of local pride is the city's Major League Soccer team.

Sporting Kansas City can clinch the Eastern Conference regular-season title with a win or draw at home against the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night. No matter the outcome, the team is playoff-bound with home-field advantage in the Eastern Conference semis, which kick off the first week of November.

No doubt all 18,467 seats will be packed at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, which opened in 2011. The team has cultivated a passionate fan base in a unique, grassroots kind of way.

“It helps that we've been winning,” says Robb Heineman, chief executive officer of OnGoal and one of five local entrepreneurs that bought Sporting Kansas City, then called the Kansas City Wizards, in 2006. “Since the stadium opened the team has been doing well, and I think that's helped us convert a lot of people who were not even casual fans into strong fans, and strong fans into rabid fans.”

But Livestrong isn't the only K.C. locale where the team is building its brand. Several miles southeast of the stadium, in Kansas City’s historic Swope Park, swarms of kids and weekend warriors play and practice on fields at the Sporting Club Training Center near the likes of SKC players Kei Kamara, Jimmy Nielsen and Aurelien Collin. Everyone from the pros to the joes wears jerseys with the distinctive “SC” badge.

A European-style soccer academy? Kind of, but not quite.

“Those academies have much more of a commercial purpose than just to find and develop the next Messi,” Heineman says of European club development programs. “That’s an attribute of our plan, but we’re trying to build our brand and soccer in our region. If a byproduct is having kids starring on our junior or pro team, fantastic.”

If not, at least the Sporting Kansas City franchise won’t backslide into becoming its pre-2011 self, the moribund Kansas City Wizards, a team that regularly played in front of a few thousand fans in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium.

“There was nothing businesswise that supported the Wizards brand,” Heineman says. “They were last in ticket sales. They were last in merchandise sales. We wanted a brand that had more of the character we wanted our organization to embody.”

They wanted a brand that could drive more ticket sales and sell more jerseys, which is why they went with a name no one in the city liked at first. A name that didn’t even have the word “football” in it.

“The name is very literal,” Heineman says. “We wanted a vertically integrated, membership-based organization in Kansas City that responded to everyone from athletes at the highest level to kids. We wanted to be the local support system around their development, which is what the Sporting Club Network has evolved into.”

In about a year, the Network has gone from zero to 70,000 badge-wearing members in a five-state region. Greg Cotton, chief operating officer of the Sporting Club Network, says most of them are soccer players, but there is also a local rugby club. Members get access to the Swope Park fields, training for coaches and, of course, those all-important “SC” badges to stitch to their jerseys.

Membership has already gone up thanks to a new partnership with the Kansas City YMCA.

“Everything they do -- football, basketball, baseball -- we’ll have a chance to have a conversation with these people,” Cotton says.

The Y has already rebranded its soccer program “Sporting Tykes” to reflect its partnership with the Sporting Club Network.

“Every kid in the Sporting Tykes program is already wearing our logo,” Cotton says. “That’s 3,000 kids. As we add additional partners like the Orange Lacrosse League here in Kansas City, they’ll get patches and window clings and other brand-expansion accoutrements.”

And that’s how the Sporting Club brand -- and the Sporting Kansas City name by extension -- hopes to spread across Kansas City and the great Midwest, giving its members ties to the MLS team that started the whole thing.

It’s happening. The team that averaged about 8,000 fans a game in 1998 now averages about 19,403. And despite having one of the blandest jersey designs in the league, Sporting Kansas City now ranks third in MLS merchandise sales.

After all, it’s not about the shirt. It’s about the badge.