Sporting KC Uses Fan Research to Guide Decisions

July 25, 2013 by Mike Goff

It may be hard to remember, or even fathom, but for one 30-day period almost 20 years ago this summer, the U.S. was the focal point of the world—not just sports…the world.

In 1994, nine U.S. cities hosted matches as part of World Cup USA 1994, the most-watched sporting event in the world on a quadrennial basis.  Beginning with the opening in Chicago on June 17 and culminating in the Brazil-Italy final a month later in the Rose Bowl, American stadia hosted sellout crowds and boisterous fans from across the globe.  The U.S. squad even pulled off a stunning upset, beating Colombia 2-1, in an early round match.  Players like Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda and John Harkes were stars of that U.S. roster and the grand plan, for the U.S. Soccer Federation, was to use the success and visibility of the World Cup to propel soccer to its rightful place as a major American sport.  Major League Soccer was formed in 1993 and the league used World Cup as the forum for reaching out to prospective sponsors and key media.

It’s been a long 19 years since that heady time of ’94.  MLS sputtered out of the gate in the post-World Cup world of American soccer and only recently has found growth given the construction of soccer-specific venues across the league, and the success of franchises in markets like Seattle, Portland and…Kansas City. 

“Kansas City” you say!?  Yes, here in the good ol’ Midwest, none other a media outlet than The New York Times has realized the success story of Sporting Kansas City and Major League Soccer as the fourth professional franchise in town.  (Kansas City boasts the NFL Kansas City Chiefs, Major League Baseball Royals, and two NASCAR events each season at Kansas Speedway.)

The article in the Times, written by Sam Borden, correctly identified the key strategic move made by the owners of Sporting Kansas City—define your target, i.e., the 18-35 young professional demographic, and intentionally reach out to that technologically connected audience.  It helped, of course, that this audience was one who had experienced little to no postseason success via the Royals and the Chiefs.

Sporting engaged with this connected audience via social media to determine likes/dislikes and to help guide franchise decisions.  That fan data helped influence the naming and branding decisions of the club.  And, the local owners designed a venue, Sporting Park, that began to address the needs of those attending live events today—strong WiFi, social media connectivity during the match, and advanced camera systems for appealing videoboard activity.  It’s that sort of fan experience that is so appealing to the young professional demographic that Sporting covets.

Have there been missteps along the way?  Of course, with the Livestrong naming rights being one questionable move coupled with issues raised by some season ticketholders about customer service.  Overall, though, the franchise has been a roaring success off of the field coupled with the quality of play on the pitch over the past three seasons.  The success story has enough across-sports appeal that 200 different franchises have sent executives to Kansas City to see Sporting Park and to talk to the team’s ownership and management team.

Next week, Kansas City will host the 2013 AT&T MLS All-Star Game, a fitting tribute to the work of this very successful local franchise and ownership group.  It will be a time to acknowledge what’s been built here in Kansas City and also to reflect back on that seminal worldwide event of 19 years ago and think “finally.”