KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- On a glorious summer day not long ago, Sporting Kansas City president Robb Heineman stopped the tour he was giving me of his jaw-dropping new soccer stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park, and picked up his handheld radio.
"Can I get my Hotel California test?" he said to the person on the other end. "Crank it up, too."
Within seconds we were hearing in remarkable booming, bass-lined clarity what seemed like a live performance of the Eagles. The 37-year-old Heineman, one of the cutting-edge 30-something owners in MLS -- Portland's Merritt Paulson is another --flashed a proud smile. "We were out here a couple nights before the opening with a few friends," he said, "just sitting here drinking a couple beers with nobody in the stadium, listening to this and saying, 'Wow, this is awesome.'
The word awesome came into my mind as I toured the $200 million stadium, but not in the typical way. MLS's newest monument to the sport literally provokes awe everywhere you turn. Five years ago I never would have predicted that my hometown, an MLS graveyard for years, would ever have the kind of ambitious local owners that it has today, much less a facility that can legitimately claim to be the finest soccer stadium in North America.
What's the coolest aspect of Livestrong Sporting Park? There's a lot to choose from. Maybe it's the seats that are right on top of the (natural-grass) field, all the way around, from the $14 seats behind the goal for the Cauldron hardcores to the premium suites and field-side chairs. No wonder Kansas City's season-ticket holders have risen from 460 when the new owners took over in '06 to nearly 12,000 today. "We don't have any premium seats left," says Heineman. "Everything's gone."
Maybe it's the food-and-drink options. There's a spacious pub in one corner of the stadium where fans can get a burger, chips and a beer for $4.50, hang out after games until after midnight and even come on non-gamedays to watch, say, Champions League matches. There's the Shield Club, which offers sushi, Mexican food, sausages and Kansas City barbecue (with more than two dozen different sauces). And on the highest end there are the all-inclusive suites (tapas, tacos, drink mixologists) and the Sporting Club Victory Suite, which has a pizza oven and a wine cellar with names like Petrus, Silver Oak and Camus. "We're all kind of foodies," Heineman says.
Or maybe it's all the details. The $20 million roof that holds in all the sound. The restaurant that has direct views of the postgame news conferences and the players as they enter the field. The fieldside ball stand that was used in last year's World Cup. The distributed antenna system that allows everyone's cellphone to work. The 200 Cisco wifi access points in the roof (compared to the four Cisco put in Wembley Stadium for the Champions League final).
"We knew we needed to build more of a social place to be than just a soccer stadium," says Heineman. "If we'd put up a nice version of Crew Stadium [in Columbus] or Pizza Hut Park [near Dallas] I don't think it would do well over the long term. So we overinvested in the building. Not just in the architecture, but we tried to start with the experience first. What's the experience that we want to deliver in each one of these spaces with a bunch of different constituencies? There are different neighborhoods all over the building the way we've designed it. We really want this to be a place to be."
Or as David Ficklin, Sporting's vice president for development, said: "We had to overdeliver after 15 years of underdelivering in this market. This was our chance to reset everyone's expectations."
And not just for the fans, but for the players. The home locker room (modeled after the one at Arsenal's stadium) feels like something out of a science-fiction movie, including high-tech ergonomic seats that cost around $5,000 each.
It's the kind of investment that makes you wish Sporting could spend this much money on players instead of being governed by the league's salary cap. Maybe someday they'll be allowed to do that, but for now it's enough to be impressed that they spent big to invest in a stadium.
"Is it a big risk? Yeah, of course, it's a huge risk," says Heineman. "But the thing that has changed since the [1980s] is Kansas City has been in the top five per capita in soccer participation since that time. Now that generation of fans is in their mid-30s. I'm 37. My peers are starting to buy season tickets, and the moms have usually played soccer. So it's a different opportunity. We're also the only locally owned team. The Chiefs and Royals aren't. The five of us [owners] are very visible in the community, and generally people are going to give us the benefit of the doubt. If we deliver on the experience, I think we have a great opportunity to grow -- as long as we f---ing win."
And guess what? The winning is coming, too. After a miserable start that saw Kansas City in last place in the East as recently as June (thanks largely to an all-road schedule while the stadium was being finished), Sporting is one of the hottest teams in the league. The owner of a 14-game unbeaten streak, KC is 4-0-4 in its new stadium, one of two MLS teams along with Los Angeles to be undefeated at home. Based on points per game, if the playoffs started today Kansas City would have an automatic bid.
There are a lot of big nights in LSP's future. World Cup qualifiers are a certainty. The 2013 MLS All-Star Game is almost guaranteed -- it would have been the '12 event if the K.C. Royals weren't hosting the MLB All-Star Game. And if things keep heading in this direction, MLS playoff games won't be far behind.