Kansas City, Kan. — Peter Vermes has seen the worst of soccer in Kansas City.
The Sporting KC coach was reminded of that a few days ago after seeing a photo from the early 2000s when he played for the organization — the Kansas City Wizards at the time — in Arrowhead Stadium.
“There’s absolutely nobody in the background,” Vermes said. “You can tell it’s not a real environment. It just isn’t.”
Fast forward a decade later, and it’s hard for Vermes to believe what he sees.
The coach gets goose bumps every game when walking out of his team’s tunnel at the state-of-the-art Sporting Park, which has sold out every game this season and has averaged 19,700 fans, though official capacity is 18,467. When Vermes looks to his left, he sees a standing-room only section that goes six people deep.
Kansas City, which hosts the Major League Soccer All-Star game tonight at 8, has officially become soccer-crazy.
“It’s unimaginable,” Vermes said. “If you could have told me 13 years ago that this would be here, I’d have told you you’re absolutely nuts.”
So how has Sporting KC transformed from ignored to adored, all in a little more than a decade?
It started with the vision of a new five-person ownership group in 2006, which includes CEO Robb Heineman.
Sporting KC proudly boasts on its website that it is “the only professional sports organization in Kansas City with local ownership,” and Heineman says that’s no small thing.
It also appears that SKC attempted to learn from the mistakes of the other professional sports franchises in Kansas City.
While Kansas City Royals owner David Glass is seen or heard only a few occasions a year, Heineman has his own Twitter account that has nearly 10,000 followers.
“I think just being transparent and raw, unadulterated with fans, that works out,” Heineman said, “so that’s what we try to do, and we’re going to keep doing it.”
Vermes also has seen an ownership group that has followed through on all its promises. That included building a new training facility, constructing a new stadium and investing in its players.
“When you do that, I think you get buy-in from your city to support what it is you’re doing,” Vermes said. “Because you’re putting yourself out there. You’re saying, 'I'm going to do this,' and the next thing you know, you do it, and everyone’s like, 'Wow, these guys are for real.'"
When the team rebranded itself in 2010 — changing from the Kansas City Wizards to Sporting KC — it embraced the club aspect of the sport, making fans feel like they were a part of something larger than themselves.
Listening to those fans also has been beneficial.
When Sporting KC supporters recently said they’d have interest in attending road games, Heineman helped set up a program in which Sporting KC pays for their tickets. Some of the design features in the new Sporting Park — opened in June of 2011 — were based on fan feedback.
And the members of the team’s main supporters club, “The Cauldron,” receive the added benefit of reduced concessions. On some days, that’s a hamburger and chips for $4 or a locally brewed beer for $3.
“I think what we’ve done is we’ve created a 'place to be' from a social standpoint that a soccer game breaks out every now and then inside of it,” Heineman said. “It’s really our responsibility as a club during that 90 minutes in that soccer game to try to convert them from thinking, ‘Wow, this is a really great place to be,’ to, ‘Wow, this is a really great place to watch soccer.’”
It seems to be working, especially with the team’s recent success.
Sporting KC, with a 10-6-6 record, sits in first place in the 10-team Eastern Conference. Vermes — the coach of the MLS All Star team tonight — signed a long-term extension last week, and star players Graham Zusi and Matt Besler both have signed extensions with the team since December (the two players also are on the current U.S. men’s national team roster).
Vermes also embraces an attacking, exciting style of soccer that he says embodies the personalities of his risk-taking owners.
MLS commissioner Don Garber calls Sporting KC “a great success story.”
“It’s a tribute to great ownership and the vision and commitment of all the guys that bought this team in 2006,” Garber said. “They had a great plan from the beginning.”
Besler, an Overland Park native who has been with Sporting KC since it was the Wizards in 2009, says the team has come a long way since he watched games in Arrowhead as a kid.
“I think everyone from here has a lot of pride in the city. We always knew that it was a great soccer city,” Besler said. “But now the whole nation’s watching.”