Stadium study a start for Wizards?

KANSAS CITY - On Dec. 9, 2004, investor/operator Lamar Hunt announced that the Kansas City Wizards were for sale. What Hunt predicted would be "a fast moving subject" has been anything but for all who have a stake in the outcome.

But last week The Kansas City Star reported the completion of a $105,000 update of a 2002 feasibility study done by Minneapolis-based Convention, Sports and Leisure International regarding the practicability of a soccer-specific stadium and MLS franchise, the need for youth soccer fields, and the possible ways the project could come to fruition in Johnson County, Kansas, located on the southwest side of the Kansas City area.

This study's results, deemed "very favorable" by Kevin Gray, the president of the Greater Kansas City Sports Commission, could be the wedge for movement from a potential local ownership group that will ensure the future of the Wizards in Kansas City.

Currently sharing Arrowhead Stadium with Hunt's NFL Kansas City Chiefs, the Wizards are looking for their own home.

And although the Wizards have, according to midfielder Chris Klein, "been treated remarkably well during our time there," having to move games to Friday nights as happened two weekends in August to make room for the Chiefs has had an impact on the side's quality of play.

"There are a lot of little things that come into effect when you share a stadium; it's not just the playing field on a game day," said midfielder Diego Gutierrez. "In a perfect world, you'd like to have a stadium of your own, a practice facility of your own, a locker room of your own, a staff of your own, a groundskeeping crew that will do exactly what you want them to do with the field without having to think, 'Who's going to be on it next?'"

Still, it's the business side of the equation that holds the most weight. Wizards general manager Curt Johnson cited a number of scheduling and promotional conflicts that arise in their current situation.

"It is my belief that the success of MLS teams and the sport itself will be dependent on and linked closely to the development of appropriate playing facilities. ... These stadiums ... probably most importantly provide freedom of scheduling and revenue potential," he said.

"The positive impact on success for MLS teams now playing in those types of facilities has proven to be significant."

And thus Hunt's stipulation that a "doable" plan for a soccer-specific stadium must be a part of any purchase.

The as yet unidentified potential local ownership group seems intent upon fulfilling Hunt's demand as, according to the Star, they put up part of the money for the updated study along with several Johnson County municipalities and the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.

The proposed complex would include a 20,000-plus seat stadium in the midst of 20 to 30 youth soccer fields, which are in short supply around Kansas City.

"Kansas City, depending on who you ask, is number one or number two in per capita participation. And I would say it's not even in the top 20 in terms of facilities for youth soccer," said Johnson. "And without a doubt, the youth soccer heads, no matter what county they are from, recognize that. Specifically in Johnson County, I have met with a lot of youth soccer officials over the past couple of months. They are very excited about the prospects of a facility coming there."

With a plan being worked on in concert with various communities that will bring in monies due to youth tournaments that could be enticed to the area, the local group apparently has the inside track on purchasing the Wizards franchise.

"Our goals are still the same," Hunt said to the Star in August. "We would prefer to keep the Wizards in Kansas City."

Sam Pierron, president of the Heart of America Soccer Foundation that has been working closely with the local ownership group, believes news to that end could come soon.

"I think most parties involved see the study as something likely to bring a positive result, so they've been operating under the assumption the study will find that this project is feasible and economically beneficial to Johnson County," said Pierron. "I see it as one of many pieces in the puzzle, but one that will likely trigger more news due to the public nature of the study."

Perhaps even the identity of the ownership group will finally be unmasked. But as Pierron said, the important fact is not the appearance of the group but the composition.

"The key thing is that there are people involved at a variety of levels. There are those involved because they're primarily interested in the synergy that the complex would lend on the retail side, there are people who have expertise in youth soccer, and people with expertise in pro soccer," he said.

To Gutierrez, Klein and the rest of the Wizards and their fans, the completion of the study leaves them waiting for the dominoes to fall, hopefully in the direction of completion of an agreement that would see the Wizards' presence assured in the K.C. area for years to come.

"The enthusiasm is there. I do think that the amount of time that this has taken has distracted emphasis from that with the uncertainty surrounding the team. And it's taken such a long time, now people just want to know," said Klein. "If it happens with the local group and we're going to stay here, we're going to be very excited."

Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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