KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Wizards president Robb Heineman has overseen growth in Kansas City since OnGoal purchased the team from the Hunt Family in 2006.
Though they fell seven points short of the playoffs this season, Heineman and manager Peter Vermes believe the resources are in place to make the Wizards a regional brand, complete with brand new stadium and a marquee player in Chivas de Guadalajara legend Omar Bravo.
MLSsoccer.com caught up with the Wizards president by phone to talk about the 2010 season. In part one of a two-part series, Heineman evaluated the season and discussed his vision for the team moving forward [READ HERE].
In part 2, Heineman talks about his expectations for Bravo, gives the latest news on the Wizards' new stadium and reveals his long-term vision for the club.
MLSsoccer.com: Finishing and set pieces are obvious places where the Wizards need improve, and it seems like DP signing Bravo, who is scheduled to join KC for the beginning of the 2011, is a guy whose skills fit in a lot of the key places that need improvement. Is everything still on schedule with him? Where do you see him fitting in?
Heineman: The thing that we liked about Omar, in addition to him being a proven goalscorer, is that he can smell it. He is one of those guys that has some moxie that we feel can help manage games for us and provide some maturity on the field that some of our guys don’t always necessarily have.
We think that his presence is something that can be very helpful there. There were some times this year that we needed a guy to step and make a play during those five- or 10-minute lulls, and it didn’t always happen for us. That’s what we hope Omar can bring.
Now, there’s been some chatter around Omar and whether or not he wants to be in Kansas City. A lot of that I think is comments taken out of context, but we are going to spend a bunch of time with him between now and training camp to make sure he wants to be here. If for whatever reason he doesn’t want to be, then we’re not going to bring him in. We’ll make sure we do our due diligence and everything is great before we bring him in.
MLSsoccer.com: How would you describe his current status with the team right now?
Heineman: He’s under contract and out on loan.
[inline_node:320590]MLSsoccer.com: Switching gears to the new stadium, how is construction progressing and when do you expect the doors will officially open?
Heineman: Early June. Everything is on schedule and, knock on wood, we’re on budget, so all those things are lining up pretty well. I guess we are just hopeful that nothing over the winter changes that. When we designed the stadium and went through the plans, we thought it was going to be really neat. Now that’s it’s actually going up, I think it’s going to be a very special stadium.
The good news and bad news of it taking us four years to get this done is that we had a lot of time to think about what we wanted it to look like. I think there are a lot of great spaces. I think the bowl is going to be really special with how the roof is going to serve as a sound barrier. That’s going to be great, and then there is going to be all sorts of hospitality. It’s going to be an authentic-style stadium with a bunch of American hospitality. It’s going to be a fun place.
We’ve tried to keep the prices in a range that everybody can afford it. There are a couple categories that we raised the prices, but fundamentally there are a whole bunch of $14, $18 and $20 tickets in the building so you should have the opportunity to go to the matches if that’s something you really want to do.
MLSsoccer.com: It seems like many of these new stadiums are coming online in the summer and teams have to deal with that prolonged period of being, in a sense, homeless for part of the season until construction is complete. I’m sure discussions are ongoing, but what are your options and what are you leaning toward as far as best-case scenario until the stadium is ready?
Heineman: Arrowhead [Stadium] would be an option, so we could go play one or a number of games there. We haven’t had any detailed discussions with the Hunt family about that, so we don’t know necessarily what their opinion would be at this point. We’ve obviously done games there though in the past, so obviously there is openness to the thought.
We’ve talked about strategically looking at a game in conjunction with our training facility in Arizona. That would be something we would only do if we though it had some real, long-term value for us, so we are looking into that a bit. Then there is the option that we just play all of our games at home in the new building. As of this moment, that’s the plan. We haven’t moved any games yet. The wear and tear that that creates for the team over the back half of the season may not necessarily be the best thing competitively.
We’re going to look at a bunch of this stuff over the next couple months and try to make educated decisions.
[inline_node:320676]MLSsoccer.com: Seeing how teams played you at home and on the road, it seems like the bigger field really benefits that pressing style. CommunityAmerica Ballpark was a place to rest your head, but the game did become more compact on the smaller field. Do you expect that it will be easier to maintain your style and a run of form over an entire season when you have a surface that you know you can be successful on week in and week out?
Heineman: The best way I can put it is that we are really excited to be playing on a full-size field. I think it’s something that all the guys are looking forward to. We’ve tried to build the team around athleticism and speed. We are going to continue to do that in the offseason, and the big field will be good from that point of view.
MLSsoccer.com: When OnGoal came into the league, it was at a point where it was treading water a little bit. Next season is going to be exciting for the club with Bravo arriving and the stadium moving forward. In general, the league is taking big steps. How exciting is it to see MLS moving forward and clubs becoming ingrained in their communities?
Heineman: It all starts at the top. [MLS Commissioner Don Garber] does a great job. He’s set quite a vision for us over the last five years and ongoing into the next five or 10 years as well. I think we are all excited to follow Don to where we think it’s going.
Obviously, these soccer-specific stadiums change everything for us, and I think as owners that we’re all focused on now is how to continue making the product on the field attractive and exciting so at the end of the day we can draw television ratings.
At the end of the day, TV is going to be the barometer on whether this game goes to the next level or not so that’s a big focus for us. But you are right. When we came into the league, the Adidas deal was relatively new. The ESPN deal was not signed yet. There have been a lot of positive changes since we’ve gotten involved and our league has grown quite a lot. It’s exciting to see Seattle enter the league, and the groups in Vancouver, Portland and Montreal are all great guys. Now you are also seeing the success of an expansion team like Real Salt Lake coming in and winning a championship after a couple years. It’s been a fun ride.
MLSsoccer.com: You talked about a five- or 10-year vision. As president of the Wizards, where do you hope to be in that time? How big of steps would you like to take and how realistic are some of those things?
Heineman: Our goal internally is to be a dominant sports brand in the Midwest. We’re going to try to do that with our play on the field, some of the things we are doing with intellectual property online and offline and how we present ourselves to the community. I think we have big aspirations for this organization, not only as a prominent Major League Soccer property but also a real regional force. We now almost have the assets in place to go do that. That’s kind of what we’ve been waiting for so its going to be an exciting time for us. We’re going to try a whole bunch of stuff and hope more of it than less of it works.
MLSsoccer.com: One of the big talking points with fans is rebranding. Obviously, that goes along with the idea of making this regional and turning the club into a Midwestern brand. Where are the conversations with that, and what would prevent the Wizards brand from accomplishing that?
[inline_node:120409]Heineman: What we are trying to do is be quite literal about where we want the future to be, and the future for us is as a vertically integrated sports brand. We want to make sure our name matches that. We’re giving a lot of conversation to whether it’s Wizards or any other name. But we want to make sure that it’s something that’s transitional, has longevity and means something to the city and to us. We are spending a lot of time on it. There are going to be opinions both ways whether we keep it or go away from it, but I don’t want anyone to think we aren’t thinking through it. We certainly aren’t doing anything until it’s thought through thoroughly.
MLSsoccer.com: The stadium must be a big part of that branding process. When do you expect this process to play out?
Heineman: I’m hopeful that we can have a kit sponsor announced before the first of the year. I’m not trying to suggest that we will or we won’t, but that is obviously the goal for us. When we announce the kit sponsor, it would make sense that they know who they are sponsoring. That’s really the goal is making sure we get all that wrapped up here. If we could announce a kit sponsor tomorrow and have all the brand stuff released, that’s probably what we would do, but just aren’t quite there yet.
MLSsoccer.com: What are the plans when it comes to the stadium’s naming rights?
Heineman: We’ve had a lot of really positive discussions about it. Again, we want to make sure that it’s something that fits with our brand. We don’t want it to be any old name. That might sound overly picky, but we do want to make sure that everything – to a degree – makes sense to our fans. That’s not to suggest that everything we do is going to be right, and all the fans are going to love it. I know that is not going to necessarily be the case. But at least we want there to be a story. We want there to be a narrative associated with everything we do and why we are doing it so at least people can say they understand what we are doing but disagree. We don’t just want them saying they have no idea why we would do that.
MLSsoccer.com: Where are you searching for these sponsors? Is this a local and regional search? National?
Heineman: I think it is different for all different categories. If I was to speak, for example, about our food service and concessions, a lot of it is local entrepreneurs. We’re trying to use some of the big, local brands and not just barbecue, which is paramount here in Kansas City. Local brands that do burgers or pizzas or whatever it may be. For us, being the only locally owned team here in Kansas City, having a connection to all these local entrepreneurs makes sense.
For different products, that usually means different things. The kit is usually a national sponsor that you are going after and who is most attracted to it. Every category is different, but one thing that is really important to us is the ties to Kansas City and having a connections with locals so you can be sure that will be a thread that runs through what we do.
Ready to launch: MLS Matchday 2010, The new official MLS iPhone app. It's FREE! Download it here!