It's a happy anniversary for Sporting Kansas City and their fans today as it's the 10th anniversary of OnGoal LLC purchasing the Kansas City Wizards from Lamar Hunt. It was also the start of what would be one of the more remarkable turnarounds of a franchise in sports as Kansas City went from a poorly attended, often forgotten also-ran in MLS to a model franchise in the league with arguably still the best soccer specific stadium in the country. The club has gone from getting next to no media attention both locally and nationally to receiving regular coverage not only in the paper but on radio, not just with updates of the scores, but with broadcasts of the games. The same is true for television locally. Nationally, because of their success on the field and the atmosphere created by the fans at Children's Mercy Park, Sporting KC has become a regular on national television over the past few years.
It really is amazing to think back on the despair that I felt about the potential of Kansas City being able to retain the team that I loved back when Hunt put the team up for sale after the 2004 season. The thought running through many of the few fans that Kansas City did have at the time was "when's the announcement coming." When will the announcement come that the Wizards are moving to Tulsa, San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Diego, or a number of other rumored locations that came up during the almost two years the team was for sale. During that time the Heart of America Soccer Foundation was founded with the goal of helping to find new owners for the club, similar in set up to Soccer Silicon Valley, which had attempted to save the San Jose Earthquakes. Then came the emergence of OnGoal LLC, the ownership group including Neal Patterson, Cliff Illig, Greg Maday, Pat Curran, and Robb Heineman. The group purchased the club late in the 2006 season and the rest has become history.
Just a couple weeks ago Kerry Zavagnin had come out to the Cauldron tailgate to thank the fans for their support ahead of his induction as a Sporting Legend at half time of Sporting KC's 2-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. A few of the fans that have been around the club since his playing days, myself included, got to have a good discussion with him about the development of the team. One thing he'd asked us was what the biggest change that we've seen with the club. My response to him was the professionalism of the club, from the top down. While I appreciate everything that Hunt did for the team in creating it and not immediately selling it off when the team was for sale, the team didn't feel as professional as it does now. It doesn't feel like an afterthought, not just by the ownership, but by the fans and other people in the city. It's treated like a legitimate team that is to be taken seriously, not a dog and (mini) pony show that is to be enjoyed and then move on with your life. Now, while it still hasn't fully reached the level of the Chiefs or the Royals, it is viewed in a positive light and while maybe not enjoyed by all, has at least earned more respect than the Wizards did in their early years.
The professionalism is reflected in almost every aspect of the club's off the field work, but especially in advertising where the club doesn't market just to families and children, it's pushed itself towards real sports fans and soccer fans. Success on the field under OnGoal has certainly helped that as well, especially at a time when both the Royals and Chiefs were struggling on the field. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the club's attendance, where the club has sold out over 80 straight home MLS games at Children's Mercy Park. Instead of drawing numbers in the low five digits or high four digits, KC is regularly getting over 20,000 instead of CMP for games. The most obvious change comes when reviewing the club's average attendance, under the Hunt's, Sporting averaged around 11,060 per game and had five seasons where the club averaged less than 10,000 people at game at Arrowhead Stadium. Since 2007, the club has averaged almost 16,000 a game, and that includes three years playing at Community America Ballpark, where capacity was just over 10,000. Since the opening of CMP, the club has averaged over 19,400 fans per game, a stark contrast from the Hunt years that have made Sporting KC one of the envies of MLS teams.
On the field, Sporting Kansas City have won an equal number of trophies between the two different ownership groups with the club winning three under the Hunt's (2000 Supporters' Shield, 2000 MLS Cup, 2004 US Open Cup) and three under OnGoal (2012 US Open Cup, 2013 MLS Cup, 2015 US Open Cup). But Sporting has accomplished those feats in a much different and much more competitive MLS than there was under the Hunt's. In the Hunt's last year owning the club, MLS had just 12 teams, it's since grown to 20 and will be expanding to 24 in the next couple years. Even factoring in the stronger, bigger MLS, Sporting KC has been more successful on the field under OnGoal than under the Hunt's, in 11 seasons under the Hunt's Sporting made the playoffs seven time, a number equaled by OnGoal in nine seasons (and will be passed if KC holds onto a spot this year). In terms of wins, Sporting has racked up 128 in 318 league games while KC got 140 in 339 under the Hunt's, KC has averaged 1.46 points per game under OnGoal, while averaging 1.31 under the Hunt's (I'm putting the 2006 season all under Hunt since there was really no opportunity for OnGoal to make moves that season).
In the end while many fans get frustrated with the way the team performs on the field a lot of that comes from the high expectations that not just the fans have put on the club, but the expectations that the club have put on themselves from the success that they have had since OnGoal took over the club. As MLS continues to expand and MLS continues its transition from MLS 2.0 to MLS 3.0, OnGoal and Sporting will need to continue to evolve the way that they go about business with the team to keep the team competitive. But based on what they've done with the club so far I have faith that they can build it successfully forward.