KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Davy Arnaud remembers gazing into the stands at Arrowhead Stadium on a crisp March day and nearly being able to count the number of fans.
The midfielder was playing for the Major League Soccer club in Kansas City against Costa Rican club Deportivo Saprissa. It was a quarterfinal of the CONCACAF Champions League, and Arnaud estimates there were about 400 people that day — which means nearly 80,000 empty seats were staring right back at him.
“I’ve seen it in a lot different times, for sure,” Arnaud said with a smile.
Fast forward six years and Arnaud’s place on the team is about all that’s remained the same.
The club has changed its name from the Kansas City Wizards to Sporting Kansas City, a rebranding this season designed to forge a new identity while emulating its European counterparts. The team practices in a plush facility in Kansas City, Mo., and its home games are played in Livestrong Sporting Park, a $200 million stadium on the Kansas side of the state line that opened a few weeks ago to rave reviews.
Just about every game at the soccer-specific stadium has been close to a sellout, a far cry from when their games were played at the home of the NFL’s Chiefs. Local television ratings are booming, sponsors are coming on board and the club is becoming a fixture on talk radio shows.
“There’s no doubt in my mind how far we’ve come just in the time I’ve been in the league,” said Arnaud, the club’s captain and elder statesman. “It’s pretty phenomenal when you look at it.”
The success on the business front has translated to the pitch, where Sporting Kansas City is riding an 11-match unbeaten streak against MLS teams. Omar Bravo and Matt Besler were recently selected as All-Stars, and Brazilian standout Jeferson arrived this week from Brazil as only the third designated player in club history.
He’s expected to debut Wednesday night when Sporting plays a friendly against Premier League club Newcastle United, which has embarked on a preseason tour of the United States.
“I feel very fortunate to be in Kansas City, where the infrastructure is laid out for you,” said Jeferson, who had offers to play for other clubs in other countries but chose Sporting in part because of the facilities. “Myself and many other players in Brazil don’t have that available to us.”
It wasn’t long ago that players in Kansas City didn’t have it available to them, either.
The club was successful almost from its start in 1996, with charismatic players like Preki carving out a niche among local soccer die-hards. But despite winning the league title in 2000, the franchise was always a bit of a red-headed stepchild on the city’s sports landscape, taking a back seat to the Chiefs and Royals — regardless of the fact neither of those teams was consistently competing for championships.
Things started to change in 2006, when a group of five local investors purchased the club from Lamar Hunt for about $20 million and made a commitment to keeping soccer in Kansas City.
They immediately set about upgrading the infrastructure, which included the construction of a new training facility in Swope Park and the financing of a new stadium near Kansas Speedway, pouring into the franchise the kind of money that Hunt was reluctant to spend — and with the kind of passion that had so often been missing.
“I think being local means a lot to our community,” said Robb Heineman, a venture capitalist and one of the five principal owners. “People are buying in. Even if they’re not necessarily soccer fans, they’re fans of what we’re trying to create, and they’ll give us a chance to make them soccer fans.”
That’s been evident in the spinning turnstiles at Livestrong Sporting Park, which Heineman believes will “define the American-soccer experience” by combining the unique intimacy of soccer-specific European stadiums with premium seating and upscale amenities that have become the norm in the United States.
Throughout the facility, Cisco Connected Sports Solutions offers high-definition video, interactive fan services and digital content. There are more than 150 WiFi access points and 330 high-definition televisions, as well as the ability for fans to order food and beverages without ever leaving their seats.
The result has been a significant uptick in attendance.
After averaging 10,287 fans for 15 home dates last season, when games were played in the cramped confines of a nearby minor league baseball stadium, Sporting Kansas City has averaged 18,107 through the first five games in its new digs. And for the first time since 2004 — and the second time ever — the club is averaging more fans for its home games than for those played on the road.
Former player and current coach Peter Vermes believes those figures illustrate a couple of points: The franchise has established a consistent and growing fan base in Kansas City; and people no longer view the team as just another entertainment option, but as a must-see attraction for even the casual sports fan.
“When I came as a player in 2000, if someone would have told me back then we’d have a training facility like we have, a $200 million stadium, we’d be bringing players from different parts of the world like we are now, I would have said you’re absolutely nuts. There’s no chance,” Vermes said. “The progression that soccer has made in this city from the youth all the way up is absolutely incredible.”
It doesn’t hurt that the club has found some success between the white lines.
After getting off to a dismal start and at one point losing five straight games in April and early May, the club has been nearly unbeatable over the past two months. Sporting’s only defeat since May 21 was to the Richmond Kickers in the U.S. Open Cup, and it has climbed into fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
The club plays 10 straight home games beginning Wednesday night, and 12 of the next 13 at their sparkling new stadium. That includes a high-profile visit from Landon Donovan, David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sept. 5, and a matchup with the conference-leading Philadelphia Union on Sept. 23.
“As an organization we’re all jelling,” Heineman said during a visit to the team’s training facility Tuesday. “We have the stadium, and our performances on the road the last month have been much improved. All of us are trying to march to the beat of the same drummer.”