Caption: LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. Attrib: ramseymohsen
I have never been much of a soccer fan. I get World Cup fever every four years, but I've never really fit the soccer fan mold. I don't have a European team that I follow, I'm an MLS newcomer and I am still trying to understand the intricacies and tactics of the game. What I do have is a long and well-established history of supporting pro sports teams in Kansas City.
Although this was my first season as a Sporting Kansas City fan, it ended in a familiar way: in disappointment, like all the seasons for all the teams I've witnessed in town. As I was driving home after watching another Kansas City team suffer a season-ending loss, I was having a hard time distilling how I felt. Although the sad emotions I felt about the game were familiar, my emotions about the season were altogether different. I felt success.
Success is a funny thing. Most of the time we measure it in sports through wins and losses, championships, trophies, maybe a post season appearance. Sporting KC could measure their success through a Conference Final berth, but I think their success was far greater. They succeeded in tapping into something deep. They succeeded in getting my commitment.
What has kept soccer in Kansas City from being embraced in the past? It has nothing to do with the soccer. It has everything to do with commitment.
As a US sports fan you are asked to spend time, money, and emotional toil on something that represents your city, your place. Time and again we are challenged to prove our fandom and devotion to a team and we respond wholeheartedly. Still, this is Kansas City: a community that has been repeatedly asked to commit to a team and then seen them turn around and leave. If not a baseball team in the '60s, it's a hockey team in the '70s, a basketball team in the '80s, or a Royals team threatened less than ten years ago. If we don't prove our commitment to the team, then the team will skip town. To add insult we've been told our city is second-rate in the sports world. No Super Bowl without a dome, no more Final Fours, no more NCAA headquarters.
Here were the Wizards, a second-rate team from a second-rate league wanting us to commit to them. No thanks. It may be an entertaining product, but I couldn't commit emotionally to something that I felt could be taken away from me and just reinforce the stereotype of a second-rate town.
So what happened? It starts with an ownership group that had the audacity to believe that I could become a fan.
They impressed me. Bring in Manchester United to Kansas City and beat them? Done. Dare to build the finest soccer facility not only in the country, but arguably in the entire Western Hemisphere in Kansas? Done. Name that stadium to support a cause that affects the health and welfare of millions instead of to the highest dollar figure? Done. Name the team not after something easily marketable, but stunningly aspirational: a Sporting Club, a place where people can commit to the celebration of health. Done. Dare to break down the distant and drab "corporate personhood" we see in sports everywhere and actively engage with fans? Again, done. Create an environment in sports where a person feels valued more as a guest and less as a wallet waiting to be emptied? Done.
I don't know the Sporting Club ownership group, never met them, never took a dime from them, so know that this comes from the heart: I think they are the most incredible sports ownership group in the world. If they continue on their path they could be the most important sports ownership group of the 21st century. If I could give them a free hot dog and beer I would, because they have faith in this great city when few would bother.
When I wander into LSP I feel a place that has committed to me. It's everywhere: in the long-time followers of the KC Wizards accepting new fans like myself with open arms, in the players trying their hardest when they were at the bottom of the table, in the manager that crafted a team that was a perfect reflection of his tenacity and desire. I didn't even bother asking for it. Regardless, I thank you. It has been wonderful.
I don't think I'm alone in feeling this way. I've been checking twitter while I type this and I keep seeing words like "heartsick" and "love" and "appreciate" from fans and players. I don't think it's just because we lost and the season is over, but because the experience is over. We've been living with this team. Maybe we feel a bit of what those stereotypical European cabbies feel when they say they "live" football instead of just "loving" football.
However the season ended, we know that this 2011 experience will return again in 2012. If that's not success, than I don't want to experience it.
Until then, live a Sporting Life.