KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Leaning against a countertop overlooking LIVESTRONG Sporting Park’s immaculate playing surface, Sporting Kansas City CEO Robb Heineman looks happy, but tired.
The smile stretched across his face and the satisfied posture of a man squarely in his moment disguise Heineman’s fatigue, but the dark circles under his eyes betray him. And, really, who could blame him for feeling a little worn out?
Sporting officially open the doors to their new stadium on Thursday against the Chicago Fire in front of a national audience just 16 months after construction began. After spending the past seven years of his professional life building up to this moment, in many ways, Heineman’s job is just beginning. The stadium is built, the team is rebranded, but the work is nowhere near done.
MLSsoccer.com sat down with Heineman to talk about the process of building and opening LSP and plotting out where the club goes from here.
MLSsoccer.com: When will all of this truly feel real? When Thursday comes? When the first fan comes through the doors? Or when that first whistle blows?
Heineman: When we win a championship in it is probably the best answer to that. But really, we need to deliver on the fan experience now within this building. That is really important. The architecture is great … but now we need to deliver on the fan experience both from a service standpoint and then put a better team on the field. When we get all that stuff together, that will be the moment.
MLSsoccer.com: This is quite a structure and it’s clear that a lot of thought was put into every detail. Does the finished product live up to the stadium you had bouncing around in your head when this process started?
Heineman: It actually wound up better than we thought it looked on paper. We knew it was a good building and there were a lot of really good aspects to it, but now, when you walk through it, there is a lot of diversity in different areas and it’s generally what we set out to do.
MLSsoccer.com: Obviously, there will be a lot of focus placed on the on-field product, but what is the next step for the organization from a business perspective?
Heineman: Profitability. We’ve had great investors, obviously, in Mr. Neil Patterson and Mr. Cliff Illig, who are very committed to this and have been incredibly involved in the operations and put a lot of money in it. Now, it’s time for us to start figuring out how to get some of that money back. It’s driving a profitable business operation and part of that is completely linked to the performance on the field. You have a good team and there are more butts in seats.
MLSsoccer.com: Is it any more satisfying to see the finished product knowing there were a lot of times when it seemed like it would never happen?
Heineman: That’s really a testament to the shareholders. They were unwavering around the fact that we weren’t moving the team, we were going to make this happen. … When you have that sort of support, it was never a matter of if we were going to get it done. It was just when.
MLSsoccer.com: When fans walk through those gates for the first time, what do you want the overriding thought to be?
Heineman: I want them to have a sense of pride around the fact that there is a stadium here in Kansas City that is quite different. I want people to think, ‘Hey, I haven’t ever been in a place quite like this before.’
Obviously, the architecture is one thing, the fan experience is another. I think over time what is going to evolve is how we deliver technology to people. That’s probably one of the next big operational phases for me personally now – how we utilize technology in this building.
MLSsoccer.com: What do you hope to accomplish with all the time and effort you are putting into making this facility as cutting edge as possible?
Heineman: We want to try to connect fans in a different way and have them have a different sort of relationship with how they engage with the team. I want it to be a very personalized experience for people. I want them to match how they would like it to be, whether that’s different camera angles, access to different content, knowing what’s going on with a player’s physiology, ordering food in a different way or collecting points that allow you to redeem them for something you would like. I want the fans to feel more engaged and have a much more customized experience with what we have at this venue.
MLSsoccer.com: Most, if not all, of the players said the stadium will immediately become one of the best facilities in MLS, if not the best. Is that what you wanted to accomplish when you set out to build it?
Heineman: That was the goal. If you remember when we bought the team, we said we wanted to have the finest stadium and fill it with the finest fans. That’s been on the brain since the beginning. Whether or not we succeeded, I don’t know. But we like it a lot and we think it’s a great home for our fans.