On June 6, 1995, Kansas City was, somewhat surprisingly, introduced as one of the 10 charter members of Major League Soccer, owned and operated by American sports pioneer and founder of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Hunt. Four months later, the nicknames, logos and uniform designs for the franchises were unveiled, and the “Kansas City Wiz” were born.
Beginning play in April 1996 with a 3-0 victory at Arrowhead Stadium over the Colorado Rapids, the Kansas City Wizards (the “Wiz” moniker was short-lived, changing after the inaugural season) rode a rollercoaster of ups-and-downs on the field in the early years of the league before reaching its momentous peak and lifting MLS Cup in 2000. Led by MLS MVP and Goalkeeper of the Year Tony Meola, Defender of the Year Peter Vermes, Coach of the Year Bob Gansler and the goal-scoring prowess of the “Danish Dynamite,” Miklos Molnar, the Wizards defeated the Chicago Fire 1-0 at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. on October 15, 2000.
Goalscorer Miklos Molnar drops to his knees in celebration at the final whistle of the 2000 MLS Cup.
Surrounded by his teammates, defender Peter Vermes lifts the Alan I. Rothenberg trophy during the post-match celebration. At bottom-center, goalkeeper Tony Meola holds his MVP trophy.
Four years later, the Wizards reached the top of another U.S. soccer mountain, winning the U.S. Open Cup for the first time (again over the Chicago Fire), and, with their second trophy in their young history, cemented themselves as the winningest franchise in Kansas City sports. Months later, the Wizards nearly added another trophy to the case, falling 3-2 to D.C. United in MLS Cup 2004.
Success on the field belied the business realities off it. By 2004, the Hunt family owned and operated two other MLS clubs in addition to the Wizards: the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas. The financially struggling league began the process of quietly looking for new ownership blood to lessen the burden on the Hunts and others. Still calling Arrowhead Stadium their home – Columbus had opened a soccer-specific stadium in 1999 and Dallas had one under construction – and finishing near the bottom of the league every year in attendance, the Wizards were the odd club out. Feeling it was in the best interest of the club and league to bring in new financiers, Hunt put the Wizards up for sale following the 2004 season, expressing a preferred desire to find local Kansas City investors with a plan to develop a soccer-specific stadium.
It took nearly two years and several close calls where the club was nearly sold to bidders outside KC, but the Wizards were saved in 2006 when a new ownership group stepped up and pledged to not only keep the club in Kansas City, but to build a state-of-the-art, soccer-specific venue. On August 31, 2006, OnGoal LLC, a group of six local investors led by Cliff Illig and Neal Patterson of Cerner Corporation officially purchased the Wizards from Hunt Sports Group. OnGoal immediately named former star defender Peter Vermes as the club’s first Technical Director, tasked with building the on-field product, while OnGoal investor Robb Heineman was named President & CEO and set about the process of rebuilding the business side from the ground up.
A new kind of Club
While plans to develop a soccer-specific stadium in a number of locations in the Kansas City area burned and fizzled out over the next few years, the Wizards knew tenancy in the 78,000-seat Arrowhead Stadium was not sustainable and opted to move. The club’s new temporary home was CommunityAmerica Ballpark in Kansas City, Kansas, a baseball stadium that required significant retrofitting to be suitable as a professional soccer venue. Despite the best efforts of all involved, the stadium situation was underwhelming and untenable long-term. With fewer than 400 season ticket holders – a holdover problem from the Hunt Sports Group era – and an embarrassing stadium situation, something needed to change if the club was going to become the success the ownership group had foreseen.
The winds of change would begin following the 2009 season, when on December 17, OnGoal officially announced the Wizards would be moving to Kansas and building a state-of-the-art soccer-specific stadium in the Legends at Village West entertainment district. Just down the road from the temporary confines of CommunityAmerica Ballpark, the new stadium was set to open the summer of 2011, meaning everything would need to be designed and built at a breakneck pace. Bulldozers were soon on the lot, and ground was broken on January 20, 2010 with an accelerated construction schedule of only 16 months.
With a new home for the club in the works, it was time to finish tackling the other major problem: the Wizards’ status in the Kansas City market and overall American soccer landscape. In short, the brand. Work on rebranding the club had been taking place internally since even before OnGoal took over, the timing always intended to coincide with the opening of a new stadium.
A world-class venue now set, launching a brand worthy of the club’s new home was of equal importance. It was obvious to all involved the existing Wizards brand would not suffice in the new era of Kansas City soccer.
The historic impression of the Wizards was one of screaming 12-year-olds with plastic noisemakers in an empty, chasmal Arrowhead Stadium. The status quo was playing second-fiddle in an ill-equipped minor league baseball stadium. And throughout the then-15 year history of the Club, a series of silly monikers and an even-sillier rainbow motif and color palette limited the ability to sell merchandise – or even be taken seriously. The impression needed to change. The brand needed to grow up.
In many ways, it didn’t matter what the Club’s new name would be, as long as it was clear this was a new era and a new, authentic, soccer brand. During discussions on the relationship between the Club and its fanbase, a theme began to develop: The biggest sports clubs in the world were all driven by dynamic fan bases with a clear sense of belonging and investment in everything the club does – on and off the field. They were a part of something larger than themselves. More than just fans, they were part of the club. That was the goal. The current fanbase called the team “the Wizards.” The future meant creating a place where people felt a sense of ownership and belonging. Where people would say “We.” The idea of creating a “modern sports club” in American soccer was born.
Modern, authentic, inclusive and fiercely connected to the city and region, a new Sporting Club began to take shape. “Season Ticket Holders” would become “Members” in the Club, and those members would be engaged in unique ways and provided benefits. As the stadium continued to take shape, the Club worked closely with its fanbase, asking for input and creating the types of amenities and experiences they were looking for. Developing the stadium and brand around “people” and “experiences” was paramount.
On November 17, 2010, the Kansas City Wizards officially rebranded as Sporting Kansas City. With a new name came a new set of marks, colors and uniforms. The logo and brand story featured deep ties to both the city and the sport, and combined with the colors and kits, moved the Club into a more modern, grounded, authentic soccer brand. The stage was set for what Sports Illustrated would later call “American sports’ most successful reclamation project.”
Opening night, June 9, 2011, was a spectacle at Sporting Park. A standing-room only crowd was treated to all the pageantry and excitement they could handle from the new, sparkling crown jewel of American soccer… right up to kickoff. A lackluster 0-0 draw, featuring a red card, questionable refereeing and a bovine-costumed pitch invader as the highlight of the evening, had many in Kansas City wondering if the shine was already off the brand new toy.
Indeed, the club was met with heavy criticism the next day on local sports talk radio, with serious questions being asked whether Kansas City could succeed as a soccer town. That sentiment was in many ways echoed, and then taken as a challenge by a surprising caller: owner and club President Robb Heineman. “You’re right.”
Heineman’s message was clear. An updated brand and a shiny new stadium weren’t going to be enough. On the field, the Club had to live up to the new standard they’d promised the same way they had off it. The challenge was answered in emphatic fashion. After having opened the year with only one win on a near-unprecedented 10-game road trip prior to opening the stadium, Sporting finished the season on a tear, losing only three of their remaining 24 matches and finishing the regular season atop of the Eastern Conference standings.
The following season would confirm Sporting’s resurgence, with captain Jimmy “The White Puma” Nielsen lifting the club’s first trophy in nearly a decade as winners of the 2012 U.S. Open Cup.
That breakthrough set the stage for a magical 2013 year in which the stadium became the focal point of the U.S. Soccer calendar, playing host to the MLS All-Star Game, a World Cup-clinching qualifier for the U.S. Men’s National Team and its biggest event to date: MLS Cup 2013.
On December 7, 2013, after an exhilarating and nail-biting run through the playoffs, Sporting faced Real Salt Lake for a chance to add another star above the crest on the shirt, and another trophy in the trophy case. A frozen field and a frigid, 20-degree temperature at kickoff – officially the coldest match in MLS history at the time – didn’t deter the 21,650 fans who saw a drama-filled 1-1 draw in regulation, with the visitors taking the lead in the 52nd minute and defender Aurelien Collin equalizing in the 76th to send the match to extra time. Two scoreless extra periods meant the match would be decided by penalty kicks.
Knotted at 3-3 after the requisite five kicks, Sporting and RSL went on to sudden death. A full 10 rounds into the shootout, Collin again would play the hero, burying his kick into the upper right corner past the outstretched arms of Nick Rimando. RSL midfielder Lovell Palmer subsequently pounded his attempt off the crossbar, and the trophy and glory belonged to Kansas City.
It was too early to lock the trophy case just yet — more championships would follow. Nielsen retired after the MLS Cup triumph and handed the captain’s armband to hometown hero and center back Matt Besler. An Overland Park native, Besler anchored a perennially stout backline and helped Sporting to U.S. Open Cup glory in 2015 and 2017, with the club claiming an unprecedented four trophies in six seasons.
With Sporting consistently competing among the MLS elite, Kansas City’s transformational breakthrough as a soccer hotbed was further defined by the completion of multiple world-class facilities on both sides of State Line. In Kansas City, Missouri, Swope Soccer Village had established itself as a premier youth soccer complex and a regular host of Big 12 Conference and NCAA National Championships. In Kansas City, Kansas, the development of Wyandotte Sporting Fields in 2017 gave the city another state-of-the-art destination for regional and national youth soccer competitions.
Committed to providing best-in-class amenities across the club’s enterprise, Sporting Club orchestrated the development of American soccer’s next crown jewel in 2018 when the Pinnacle National Development Center opened in Kansas City, Kansas. Sporting Club had jumped into the planning phases of the venue back in 2012, aiming to build one of the best athletic training facilities on the planet. It was an ambitious project, to be sure, but when the $75 million complex was finally inaugurated — complete with five full-size soccer fields, a cutting-edge sports performance lab, an expansive sports performance gymnasium and multiple spaces uniquely specialized for coaching education — the club had witnessed another ambitious dream become a stunning reality.
Throughout Sporting’s successful run as a title contender — Vermes would lead the side to a team-record eight straight playoff appearances from 2011-2018 — the focus on living up to and delivering on the club’s brand pillars and brand promise were paramount. The connection between the club, its members and its city was clear. Once dead last in MLS retail sales, Sporting is now a staple in the top three, and logos can be seen all around Kansas City on everything from t-shirts, jerseys and car magnets to the world’s largest interactive augmented reality wall mural.
From rainbow merchandise, a “for sale” tag and a minor league baseball park to a stadium and city earning the nickname “the Soccer Capital of America,” Sporting’s ascent from MLS laughingstock to the club we know today has lived up to, and in many ways, exceeded even the club’s wildest dreams – if not its aspirations.
At Pinnacle’s grand opening in the spring of 2018, coaches, dignitaries and prominent soccer figures alike gathered to celebrate the flagship facility and its seismic impact on the sport. Among them was MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who not only showered praise on Pinnacle but spoke more broadly to Sporting’s meteoric rise since the turn of the decade.
“There’s a lot said about the big cities and the big markets, but the model franchise for Major League Soccer is right here in Kansas City.”
- Don Garber Commissioner, Major League Soccer
As the next chapter of Sporting’s evolution begins, the table is set to continue that meteoric rise and truly live up to the idea of what it means to be America’s premier modern sports club.