Kansas City, Kan. –
UPDATE: Sporting KC advances to Eastern Conference finals on Sunday.
Since the formation of Major League Soccer, it has been an uphill battle for the Kansas City franchise to carve out a niche in the local sports market. From the team's inception, its nickname has been a sore spot to some. But a literal change in landscape has transformed its newest brand - Sporting Kansas City - into one of the city's hottest tickets.
Long before his rise within the ranks of the Kansas City Chiefs, Clark Hunt's game was soccer. Before the inaugural season in 1996, he revealed the name for the Kansas City entry into Major League Soccer: the Wiz.
As marketing specialists like to say, the Kansas City Wiz displayed the cutting edge. But only one year later, they evolved into the Wizards. After the Hunt family sold the team five years ago, the new ownership retained the name until this year. Team CEO Rob Heineman - one of the team's five owners - figured it would take awhile for fans to warm up to Sporting Kansas City.
"We thought that a lot of the criticism would be around, It sounds too European. I don't get it. Why not just a traditional nickname?' Honestly, we were prepared for that and we were okay with that," Heineman said.
Winning over fans of the new name stalled with Sporting Kansas City's play in the first two-and-a-half months of the season - all on the road while construction crews applied the finishing touches on Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Sporting Kansas City won its season-opening match on the road, but tied or lost its next nine.
Once the pristine new soccer stadium opened, the regular season continued almost as if the early stretch of matches were a dress rehearsal. Injected with new life from the comforts of home, Sporting Kansas City vaulted from worst to first in the Eastern Conference. Now they're conference's number-one seed in the playoffs.
Can a new home field mean that much?
Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler, who grew up in Overland Park, thinks so.
"Gosh, I can't even describe it. Really. I've only been on the team for three years," Besler said. "I can honestly speak for guys who've been on the team for ten years because this is the best home field advantage we've ever had."
The franchise has come a long way from the days when Besler first followed the team at the age of nine.
"I went to the first game, actually, in 1996, at Arrowhead Stadium when they were the Wiz," he said.
In 2000, the franchise's lone championship season, the Wizards drew an average of 9,100 fans a game and ranked 11th among the 12 MLS teams.
This year, as Sporting Kansas City, the team played before five sellout crowds and averaged close to full capacity in a venue that seats more than 18,400. That success at the gate and on the field, in Rob Heineman's opinion, has helped smooth over some of the rough edges.
"I think it's given people the opportunity to connect more with the Sporting brand more quickly and readily than I think they thought they would. So I think a lot of the naysayers have swung the other way," Heineman said.
The proof is at the cash register. At Dick's Sporting Goods stores, a retail partner of MLS, Sporting Kansas City merchandise ranks second among sales. And not just in the Kansas City area - nationwide.
The top-selling team is the Philadelphia Union, a second-year team in the league. Ranking third behind Sporting Kansas City is Los Angeles, which features international superstar David Beckham.