Midway (OK, technically a third of the way) through a 1,456 mile odyssey across America to relocate myself and my car to Pittsburgh (the family, wisely, took a plane), I found myself in Kansas City, Kansas on a Saturday night. This gave me the privilege of attending a Sporting Kansas City match. And as much as I’m emotionally bonded to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and the Colorado Rapids, I have to admit, it was pretty great.
It was only the fourth MLS stadium I have ever been to: Colorado’s Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (duh), Seattle’s CenturyLink Park (for the 2016 Western Conference Finals, leg 1), LAFC’s Banc of California Park (this year while visiting family) and now Children’s Mercy Park.
I chose to spend the game in the stands, knee-to-sweaty-knee with the hoi polloi in the regular ol’ stands, instead of getting a media pass. The game was sold out, and not in a DSGP ‘sold out’ kind of way, where there are 18,000 tickets distributed but a fair sprinkling of open spots. No, this game was packed to the gills. Every seat was occupied. This is, of course, at least partially due to SKC’s successful 2018 season: the baby blue Wizards sit second in the Western Conference table, and on this night faced fourth place Portland Timbers.
The atmosphere was loud. The members of the KC Cauldron supporters group at the north and south end kept the noise up all game, but also the other sections to the west and east rose and cheered and chanted and were engaged to a degree I haven’t seen elsewhere. The Cauldron was packed with maybe 2,000 fans on the more active north end, and had an ‘auxiliary’ on the south of another 100 active noisemakers.
Children's Mercy also has a much expanded pre and post-game space, akin to DSGP's 1876, but called the Budweiser Brew House. It's maybe ten times larger, though, and has three food stands, at least four bar or tap options, a gathering space for supporters to march and drum and rumpus, standing tables, an outdoor patio, a scarf wall, and perhaps a dozen large screen tvs, mostly tuned to other MLS games. It's 1876 but much, much better. I was super jealous, if you can't tell.
How did they get there? How has SKC, an MLS original team in a ‘football’ town in the midwest, built a fan culture and experience that is far exceeds that of DSGP? Both the Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City were, once upon a time, struggling franchises playing soccer in cavernous throwball stadiums with gridiron lines with seating for nearly ten times as many fans as were present. Kansas City began life as ‘the Wiz’, a name only a urologist could love. In 1997 they rebranded as the Wizards, and in 2011 they rebranded again as ‘Sporting Kansas City’ - being to my knowledge the only sports team in the US to stay in the same city and yet go through two separate rebrands.
I got to hang out post-game with Sam Pierron, former Kansas City Wizards employee, former supporters group president, and season ticket holder since the team’s very first year in 1996. I asked Sam if the team’s remarkable success could be attributed to fielding winning teams, or the supporters group having success, or the new stadium coming online in 2011, or being in a city with only football and baseball to compete against. Sam thought it was a little of all three, but definitely felt that the building of DSGP occured a little *before* the big MLS boom, while Children’s Mercy came in at the exact right moment to capture the national soccer zeitgeist.
Everybody loves a champion, and KC residents love Sporting. They buy tickets, they show up, they make noise.
And they don’t even have a downtown stadium.
A familiar refrain of Rapids fans is the belief that ‘if only the stadium was closer to downtown’, younger, more engaged millennials would turn up, the team would sell out, and we’d have a more engaged fan base. And perhaps that’s true. But SKC didn’t build a downtown stadium - far from it. They built their new stadium far to the west of downtown Kansas City, just north of a NASCAR speedway and surrounded on all sides by unattractive, soulless big-box stores in a suburban commercial sprawl that stretches virtually as far as the eye can see in any direction. The upside is that there’s plenty of parking, I guess, but the downside is that you ain’t walking to the game from your downtown hipster loft apartment.
There is certainly a chicken-and-egg challenge to boosting ticket sales and fan involvement at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. For the team to win, it needs the financial wherewithal that comes from big time ticket sales, merchandise, and tv ad revenues. For fans to see a Colorado Rapids game as a desirable ticket, there needs to be the buzz that comes from a raucous supporters section and regular appearances in the playoffs.
The point of all this is not to say ‘SKC is a better soccer experience than seeing the Colorado Rapids’. It’s not better, just different. But it certainly has advantages. The point is really to show that there was a divergent point for both of these two MLS originals back in the mid-2000s. Both teams were perennial mid-table clubs in midwestern flyover cities playing soccer in NFL stadiums.* Both teams built a soccer specific stadium that changed their teams fortunes - the Rapids fortunes improved modestly, and Kansas City’s improved dramatically.
Colorado is not so far off from KC in any aspect. It has infinite potential for a more robust and intense soccer experience. Perhaps all it needs is a few sustained years of winning. It’s not unattainable. It’s not so far. We can get there from here.
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* The Kansas City Wizards also played in a minor league baseball stadium from 2008-2010.