Children’s Mercy Park is something like Kansas City’s Hogwarts, because it’s home to Kansas City’s Major League Soccer club Sporting Kansas City. Surrounded by the likes of Nebraska Furniture Mart, Bob Evans and a shopping district known as The Legends, Children’s Mercy Park is the only building of its kind within a large radius.
But the surroundings don’t matter because the only thing that does matter on a Sporting game day is what happens inside. Once inside the stadium, everyone’s favorite piece of clothing instantly becomes a scarf—an extension of identity and outward showing of love, a draped sense of belonging. There are individual sections within Children’s Mercy Park that Sporting Kansas City’s Chief Operating Officer Alan Dietrich calls “neighborhoods” and each one provides fans with a unique experience, such as The Cauldron, The Member’s Club, The South Stands, The Victory Project, The Soccer Country Club, or The Victory Suites.
Magic is a funny thing. Life can feel fine without it. It’s difficult to miss something you’ve never experienced. There are various kinds of magic. Surely, Harry Potter taught you that. But finding your magic? The specific spells that ignites something deep inside you over and over again? Once you’ve gotten a taste of that magic?
“It’s amazing,” said Sporting Kansas City midfielder Jordi Quintilla who cites the best atmosphere he’s ever played in to be Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena with Barcelona FC’s first team two years ago. That day, Quintilla played before 90,000 people. He said Children’s Mercy Park can feel like Allianz Arena with 70,000 less people. “I have never seen a stadium full with just 20,000 people screaming and singing all the game like that. Children’s Mercy Park, for me, is the best stadium in America. By far.”
“Normally [in great atmospheres where] I have played, the fans don’t support me,” said Sporting Kansas City defender Nuno Coelho, who is in his first year with the club. Coelho is Portuguese and has spent most of his 12-year professional career in Portugal with Porto and Sporting Clube de Portugal. He’s also played with SC Braga, with whom he remembers playing Champions League and Europa games in Turkey before 60,00 people. None of them were cheering for Coelho or his team. “Here? It’s great. All the time here, you hear your name. It’s incredible. It’s good. The Cauldron [is] amazing. Don’t stop singing, don’t stop supporting the team.”
“I listen to it—the national anthem, I don’t come out until after that,” said Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City’s head coach. “And I’m always amazed when I come out there. The hairs on my arms stand up a little bit. I get goosebumps whenever I come out and see a full stadium.”
A soccer match is certainly a fierce competition, but a human experience is not meant to be—it is meant to be felt. This is a story not meant to convince you that Kansas City is better than Seattle or Portland or Los Angeles or any other prominent Major League Soccer cities but rather meant to showcase one city and its club, their experiences together, and the power of human interaction as the purest form of entertainment.
OK, one more thing about Hogwarts and Harry Potter. Daniel Radcliffe (who played Harry Potter in all seven of the franchise’s films) said something of note to this story to Chris Hardwick on The Nerdist Podcast. “I feel like you are a bastion, you know,” Radcliffe said. “You stand for a lot of people who never have to apologize for how much they love something–whatever that thing is.”
“No,” Hardwick responded. “I never want people to.”
Sporting Kansas City prides itself on bastions—defined as “an institution, place, or person strongly defending or upholding particular principles, attitudes, or activities.” Ask anybody associated with Sporting, at any level of this organization, and you will hear the same sentiment: Winning trophies and creating memorable fan experiences are equally important.
“I said this from day one, when we opened [Children’s Mercy Park in 2011],” said Sporting Kansas City President Jake Reid, “if we are trying to sell soccer, we’re not going to make it because we need a population of people who want to come out and have a great experience. Everyone wants to have a fun night out, right? Doesn’t matter if you love sports, hate sports, you grew up playing soccer or you’ve never seen soccer before. Now, soccer drives that experience because soccer is the show that we’re putting on.”
Reid iterated that Sporting is “always going to try new stuff” when it comes to making game day the best experience it can possibly be for fans, and he can’t quantify what the ceiling for that might be. Recently, for example, Sporting has become the first club in MLS to have SkyCam technology throughout home matches, which enhances viewing for fans in Children’s Mercy Park or watching on television at home or at Sporting’s bar No Other Pub. After every game, a DJ is brought into The Member’s Club to provide a place for fans to hang out, discuss what they just saw and continue to mingle inside if they aren’t ready to leave Children’s Mercy Park.
“The Soccer Country Club,” as Dietrich called it, is for fans in the premium seats down on the field. The stadium is purposely designed so that the players walk onto the field through The Soccer Country Club; those fans get to see and interact with the players while they wait to go out onto the field for the game.
“Our promise to our fans is that we are going to continually delight our fans,” Dietrich explained.
Reid added, “We try to plug in these magic moments that are different.”
The goal for Sporting is for its fans to have organic experiences, but a lot of attention to detail and innovative brainstorming—a lot of nuts and bolts—go into building those experiences long before game day comes.
In early April, for example, Dietrich attended a four-day conference with the Disney Business Institute in Orlando, Florida. He wanted to learn more about Disney’s fan experience model and how he could better craft Sporting’s. There were classes throughout the day and the evening was meant to go out into the field, Disney World, and see practices firsthand in the environment.
“Disney has become much more introspective about why they are so great at what they do,” Dietrich said, “and they’re actually able to articulate that. They shared a lot of their science—we talked about detailed process design. These folks have everything planned out. The flow of the fans, the ticketing, the park entrance, boarding onto a ride, they have designed it all.”
Specifically, Dietrich learned something from his trip to Disney called service recovery, which basically means designing something to be perfect but knowing that it won’t be perfect and intentionally designing how to handle it when it falters. He learned the importance of being obsessive over every level of detail—and one way Sporting implements that is to have what they call “the pristine team” go through the stadium looking for every single dent, scuff, knick or crack. “We want the stadium to continually look new,” Dietrich said. “Fans feel like you care about them when you take care of your place where you’re hosting them.”
Disney taught Dietrich that as important as the game day experience is for your guests—or in Sporting’s case, fans—it is just as important to put on a show for your cast members—or in Sporting’s case, associates.
“It helped me to see the things that I think we’re doing really well and then it kind of revitalized a real passion many of our things just the next step further,” said Dietrich.
In 2006, the then-Kansas City Wizards (more on them later) were purchased by Sporting Club, which is a Kansas City-based “high-performance entertainment business offering the highest quality experiences through its unique, superior products and world-class facilities.” Nobody on Sporting’s staff forgets that they are a part of the entertainment business—from the president down to the ticket takers at Children’s Mercy Park on game day.
Coach Vermes pointed out that Sporting separates itself from any other MLS club simply by having all five principal owners, entrepreneurs and businessman from Sporting Club, living in Kansas City.
“You know, I’m amazed because I played at a time in this country where the game wasn’t even close to the kind of support it has today,” Vermes reflected. Vermes guided the Wizards to an MLS Cup Championship in 2000 and won MLS Defender of the Year Award. “To be able to be a part of it as a coach is tremendous, but when I see that it just makes me feel good because I love the progress that the game has made.”
And Sporting has been at the forefront of MLS’s innovative blaze toward soccer’s relevance in America.
Reid has also been crucial in Sporting’s transformation since his arrival in 2010 as Vice President of Ticket Sales and Service. He was then promoted to Chief Revenue Officer in 2012 before becoming president at the start of this season. Reid said that he made sure to casually sit down and hang out with as many fans as possible upon his arrival to really get a feel for who they were and what they needed or wanted from their club. Prior to Reid’s arrival, Sporting ranked last in nearly every financial category. Now, they are consistently among the leaders in season ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and merchandise or concession revenue, according to Sporting Kansas City’s website.
Reid is pinned as responsible for locking down Sporting’s first-ever jersey sponsor, Ivy Funds, in January 2013. But no sponsor is more or less important than another in Sporting Kansas City’s eyes. Reid said that the club has about 62 partnerships throughout Kansas City.
“We try to weave [our sponsors] in where applicable,” Reid said. “Certainly it’s tough to weave Ivy Funds into the fans, but we’ve done stuff where we’ve encouraged them to be active and to do a campaign with our supporters.
“Advertising is a big [advantage] in fan experience, but we also want them to engage the fans as much as possible.”
Sporting KC was recognized as Major League Soccer’s Corporate Sponsorship Team of the Year in 2014 and 2015.
On June 27, 2015, Sporting Kansas City snagged a 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids at Children’s Mercy Park. Star forward Dom Dwyer has a ritual. After a win at home, he picks a lucky fan and gives away his game-worn jersey. On this night, Dwyer gave his jersey and a hug to a fan holding up a rainbow flag (The U.S. Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage nationwide the day before). Hours later, Dwyer posted a video of the giving of his jersey with the caption: “Great performance from the lads, massive win tonight #LoveWins.”
When asked if he’s aware of any other MLS players who have made a habit out of gifting their jerseys to fans after games, Sporting Kansas City Executive Vice President, Communications, Rob Thomson first laughed. “Well, most teams don’t have as nice of an equipment manager as Mike Flaherty, who allows that,” he said. “I think, again, that is a special touch that is organic.”
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi and winger Chance Myers’s game-worn headbands are also very popular and sought after among “12-year-old girls,” Thomson added.
Actually, Sporting has a longstanding relationship with the rainbow. Before Sporting Kansas City officially became Sporting Kansas City in November 2010, it was the Kansas City Wizards with their famous kits featuring a rainbow splashed across the fronts. The Wizards were established in 1996 and founded by Lamar Hunt—who also founded Major League Soccer as a whole. Back then, attendance and game experience certainly was not what it is at Children’s Mercy Park. Starting in 2000, the Wizards played at Arrowhead Stadium, home to the Kansas City Chiefs, and attendance averaged around 11,105 from 1996-2007.
Zach Cobb is a dedicated member of Sporting Kansas City’s largest sub-group of supporters and rowdiest supporter group The Cauldron. He is at every possible game he can attend, home or away. By following Sporting to almost every stadium MLS has to offer, Cobb has noticed that Sporting Kansas City’s “casual fans—fans not in a supporter group—are more engaged and louder than any other place in the league.”
When at Children’s Mercy Park, you can find Cobb in the front row directly behind the goal in The Cauldron. He used to go to Wizards games at Arrowhead Stadium.
“[Arrowhead] doesn’t compare in any way [to Children’s Mercy Park],” Cobb said. “Not being hyperbolic. It doesn’t compare.”
Thomson, who has been with the club since 1997, can attest to this. Thomson has seen it all—the worst and the best—when it comes to soccer game day in Kansas City. For his first seven or eight years with the club, Kansas City’s staff was between 9 and 15 people, which limited them financially and in customizing fan experiences.
“I remember our first years,” Thomson said, “our players would kick the ball high out of bounds and our fans would cheer, like it was a football punt. Now, they wouldn’t cheer for that. Little nuances like that (have evolved).
“We were just trying to do random stuff that made sense in our heads to try and garner another couple hundred fans per game. We would play on Saturday and then by the next Wednesday, we would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have another home game this Saturday. What can we do?’”
Thomson said that a major disconnect between club and city back then was that Kansas City had no foundational demographic it was targeted with its material to build on.
Thomson estimated that the growth of Sporting coincides with the emergence of millennials. Sporting played into the millennial market without necessarily trying to by incorporating things such as “being local, being transparent, having your own voice and creative communities.”
This season is Sporting’s 20th anniversary celebratory season, which included an anniversary game on April 13, 2016, to commemorate the club’s first ever match on April 13, 1996, against the Colorado Rapids. During the anniversary game, fans were encouraged to take their Sporting jerseys to any of the Sporting Style stores within Children’s Mercy Park and get rainbow numbers printed onto them—a retro reminder of where this all began and how far they have come together.
Thomson mentioned that, now, it’s common for Sporting players to come to him with ideas on how to excite or better engage their fans.
Sporting currently has 14,000 season ticket holders and has sold out every home game since the second game of Sporting’s 2012 season, according to Reid. Children’s Mercy Park’s capacity is listed as 18,476, but upward of 20,000 fans pack the stadium for Sporting games.
A prince or a princess is in attendance for every game at Children’s Mercy Park. He or she is between 5 and 18 years old and has been invited to Children’s Mercy Park by Sporting Kansas City’s The Victory Project. The child’s family accompanies them, and they are seated in The Victory Suites, above everyone else—a customized castle. Outside of Children’s Mercy Park, all children crowned by The Victory Project are sick. More often than not, cancer has waged a ravenous war on their bodies.
The Victory Project was founded in 2013. Its mission statement reads: “The Victory Project is an initiative from Sporting Kansas City that unites players, staff and fans to help children thrive through life’s challenges.” The Victory Project’s efforts on game day include fundraising and spreading its message to the fan base, but the backbone is to host a different child from the Kansas City community battling cancer on every single game day and give him or her a royal experience.
The experience begins the day before the game, where the child attends Sporting’s training session at Swope Park Soccer Village to help familiarize him or her with the players ahead of time. Sporting Kansas City Community Programs Manager Brandi Thomas, who is responsible for coordinating this experience before every home game and on game day, explained that meeting players the day before their big day helps the kids feel more comfortable. Typically, by game day, the child of the week calls the players by their first names and thinks of them as friends.
When game day arrives, the child and his or her family are picked up by a zTrip driver and escorted to Children’s Mercy Park, where they are announced to the crowd before the match begins. Members of The Cauldron, which is located behind the goal on the north end, chant the child’s name. The child waves and laughs and soaks up the moment, then watches Sporting play from The Victory Suite. The child is escorted down to the field for the final 10 minutes of the match, and then meets with every single Sporting player who signs a soccer ball before leaving the field.
Thomas described what happens next as her favorite moment of the whole experience with each child. Usually, the prince or princess has stuffed his or her face with the unlimited food—including lots of candy—available up in the suite.
“Are you tired?” Thomas will ask every child after every game.
“I’m just exhausted,” the child will usually answer—or something to that affect.
“But they’re so happy,” Thomas explained, “and then the parents are even more happy just because they’ve had this time together. So, for me, it’s at the end when they’ve seen and done everything and they are just kind of in a state of euphoria of ‘I can’t believe that just happened!’”
“You’ll be asleep before you get to the highway,” Thomas will always joke before the night ends.
And most every time, the child is instantly sound asleep in the back of the fancy black car and perfectly content.
There’s a big, big difference between near-disappearance and steadily rising prominence; Sporting Kansas City and its supporters have experienced both.
Luckily for them, they are currently part of a rising star and are promised by their favorite club an out-of-this-world experience every time they enter Children’s Mercy Park.
“If you craft a product with great care it shouldn’t be a surprise when people care about it back,” reasoned Dirk Otis, a rabid Sporting fan and Kansas City native who is now living in Brooklyn, New York, and makes it to Children’s Mercy Park whenever he can. He sits with Cobb in The Cauldron. “The owners, the players, the manager, they all really, really, really care. So why would we not care, too?”
If Dietrich only had one word to describe Sporting’s game day fan experience, he’d choose uplifting. “People come here and feel great,” he explained, “and better than when they entered Children’s Mercy Park.”
Dietrich said the key to an above-and-beyond fan experience is activating all five senses in your fans, and Dietrich believes that Sporting does that.
You will see a highly competitive soccer match—probably Dom Dwyer backflipping in celebration if he scores—and something new each and every game.
You will hear The Cauldron singing or chanting through and through from beginning to end—a sold-out, enthusiastic crowd erupting when Sporting scores a goal.
Maybe you’ll touch a player when he jumps into the seats to give fans a hug. Either way, fans will hug each other.
You can smell blue-smoke-bomb-residuals sweeping through the stadium after a Sporting Kansas City goal. And after that subsides, fresh air on a beautiful Kansas City night.
Sometimes you’ll taste victory and sometimes defeat, but you’ll always taste passion.
And the invisible but omnipresent sixth sense floating around Children’s Mercy Park?
Images: Gary Rohman, Jamila St. Ann