Sporting Kansas City host the San Jose Earthquakes in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals tonight (8:30 pm ET, stream on sportingkc.com). So to mark the occasion, we decided to revive our occasional series detailing how various MLS sides got their names.
In the beginning, the MLS franchise in Kansas City wore perhaps the most abstract of the abstract noun names in vogue for the new league — the Wiz. Within a year, however, legal action from New York-based electronics retailer Nobody Beats the Wiz led the Lamar Hunt-owned franchise to alter course slightly and become the more conventional Wizards.
“Lamar claims it had nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz,” says Rob Thomson, SKC’s Executive Vice President, Communications and Digital. By virtue of being with the organization since 1997, he's the club’s invaluable font of institutional knowledge. He also notes that claim from Hunt was “curious,” given the team’s ties to (Dorothy’s) Kansas and the (somewhere-over-the) rainbow color scheme that made the team’s early jerseys stand out.
But in 2006, five entrepreneurial families purchased the team from the Hunt Sports Group, and put a plan in motion to rename the team, which eventually took place in November 2010. And in changing the team name to Sporting Kansas City, they really changed the name, initially puzzling even their most ardent fans.
“We knew we wanted something inclusive, something that suggested that this was an organization with members, something that people could have an emotional connection to,” Thomson says. He also adds that they also wanted an identity connecting both the Kansas and Missouri sides of their immediate fan base.
Thomson recalls that the ownership group took the renaming project seriously, and Heinemann recalls it being a “relatively exhaustive process” that brought them many possibilities on the way to the eventual name. The Sporting name, a nod to the idea of a sporting club, came out of internal discussions involving co-owner Robb Heinemann.
Initially, though, they found it easier to know what they didn’t want, as opposed to what they did want. “We met with one marketing group around the time of the 2007 draft,” Thomson recalls. They did a presentation where they thought, because it was the state insect of both Kansas and Missouri, that the Bees would be an apt new mascot for the club.
"Fountains" was another possibility, due to a plethora of those in the city, but Heinemann notes that that also didn’t “hit the bullseye of what we were trying to do,” he says. “If we were going to switch to a name like that, why don’t we just stay Wizards and try to make the best of the Wizards?”
The concept around Sporting encompassed more than soccer. They entertained the idea of what Heinemann dubs horizontal as well as vertical integration, branching out into rugby and lacrosse, in the spirit of European clubs (including Barcelona and Real Madrid) fielding teams in basketball as well as soccer that share the club name.
“Sporting started floating around, and we talked about 'Soccer Club' and other sorts of names, but I thought Sporting had the best ring to it," he says.
Though several European teams use the "Sporting" naming convention, most notably Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon, Heinemann insists that they weren’t riding the crest of a Eurocentric wave that brought FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, and Toronto FC to the league.
“Everyone said, ‘Hey, you’re trying to do a European ripoff,’ and that really wasn’t a motivating factor at all,” Heinemann said. “I think the narrative behind some of the European names made a lot of sense to us. It’s not just one team, it’s a collection of teams, and there’s membership in the club. We definitely learned from some of those European and South American influences that use 'Sporting.' But we weren’t trying to follow an MLS brand trend. We made the decision in a vacuum.”
“In our market, you have the Chiefs and the Royals, which are such strong brands,” he adds. “For us to just be the plural of some noun just didn’t seem like the right way to go. We needed to do something that was a little edgier and was a little more risky.”
It proved a bit challenging to get everyone on board — Heinemann notes that five ownership families means “30 different opinions” — and even though they reached consensus, Heinemann notes that there was a lot of uncertainty from the ownership group. “But the one thing we always tried to do as an ownership group is take some chances,” he says.
“We were working with a market research group, and the leader said, ‘We’d like to do some testing on the name, and see how it goes.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know why we’d even bother; we know it’s going to come out that people are going to hate it.’ But our belief was that if we could deliver on the promise, and connect with the community and do things right, people would buy into the name. And I think that’s happened.”
The rebrand also involved a color scheme change, from the rainbow-on-black look that wasn’t moving the needle for jersey sales, to the distinct “Sporting blue” and indigo that has helped distinguish them. The blue, according to Heinemann, comes from co-owner Cliff Illig, a University of Kansas graduate who wanted to include a touch of Jayhawk influence to the new brand.
There’s also been a recent trend —in part fueled by the club itself in games this year and last — in embracing the rainbow and the club’s Wizards past. And, of course, the club’s conglomeration of supporters’ groups all still gather as the Cauldron, a vital accessory for the club’s original namesake.
“I think it’s worked out really well,” Heinemann says of the celebration of the original brand, even though fans have embraced the new. “We take the perspective that the team belongs to the fans. We want the club to be what the fans want it to be, and the fact that the Wizards name and colors are a bit in vogue, it’s great for us.”