Nearly 20 years ago, players for the Kansas City Wizards were greeted by roughly 70,000 empty seats each time they took the field. In 1997, just one year into their stint as the professional soccer club of Kansas City, Missouri, average attendance had plummeted by more than 4,000 fans from the previous year. Ticket prices quickly followed, dropping to as low as $4. Enthusiasm for the team became so anemic that frisbee-catching dogs were ultimately dispatched for the halftime show, a last ditch effort to entice bodies into the cavernous stadium. Soccer in Kansas City, Missouri, was failing fast.
During the same period, however, neighboring Kansas City, Kansas—often viewed as the meek little brother of Kansas City, Missouri—was undergoing a rapid transformation that would indirectly shake up the region's (and ultimately the country's) soccer scene.
Citizens of Kansas City, Kansas, and the adjacent Wyandotte County voted in 1997 to unify their governments. The reasons had very little to do with soccer. The real goals were to boost tax revenues, streamline business opportunities, and create new tax-free zones. Kansas City, Kansas, was desperate to increase the land base it could offer potential investors. The towns that made up Wyandotte County, meanwhile, were too small and poor to generate business interest. Unifying the government, their citizens believed, would be beneficial for both jurisdictions. Now, more than 15 years later, Kansas City, Kansas, is reaping tremendous benefits from the decision.
This fall, construction is expected to begin on a projected $75 million "National Training and Coaching Development Center," which will make Kansas City, Kansas, the unlikely epicenter of American soccer. The project is ambitious: When completed, it will feature 16 soccer fields, state-of-the-art conditioning facilities, and a 125-room hotel for visiting teams and fans. "This gives me chills to have this opportunity to do this [project] in Kansas City [Kansas]," Rob Heineman, CEO of Sporting Club, said at a recent press conference.
The project, with an anticipated completion date of June 2016, is indicative of a resurgent soccer culture in the area. In 2011, the Kansas City Wizards relocated across the border to Kansas City, Kansas, built a new stadium, and the move was labeled "a great success story" by the commissioner of Major League Soccer. Now known as Sporting KC, average attendance for the team's games has skyrocketed to 107 percent thanks to wild demand for standing-room-only tickets.
"Before they unified, both the city and county weren't going anywhere. They were dying," says Roger Barrett, senior project manager with SK Design group, a civil engineering firm based in the Kansas City, Kansas, metropolitan area. Barrett has overseen urban-development projects on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas border, but he sees Kansas City, Kansas, as the leading frontier for regional business.
This newest training facility—and the Kansas City Wizards' decision to relocate across the border—did not arise organically. Village West, a town on the border of Kansas City, Kansas, was nothing more than rural countryside at the turn of the millennium. The post-1997 unity government, however, issued Village West-specific STAR bonds, a loan paid back through sales-tax revenue generated by the new commercial enterprise to private companies willing to make a risky investment in the city's outskirts. Village West has since become the commercial center of Kansas City, Kansas—and the future site of the fancy, new national soccer facility.
“They saw the power of joining forces and floating bonds and creating tax-free zones,” he says. “Kansas City, Kansas, was always the step-child to Kansas City, Missouri, but now it’s become the new kid on the block and is teaching the old man a few tricks.”
Beyond the planned national soccer facility, however, is an even larger commercial endeavor that has quietly made a move into the city. In 2011, Google Fiber—the multinational corporation’s foray into the field of ultra-fast internet—chose Kansas City, Kansas, to be its first operation site after a nationwide application process. The city’s central location in the middle of the country made it an ideal starting place as Google gradually tries to re-wire America’s internet infrastructure.
Imagine, if you will, June of 2018, when the next World Cup begins. Millions of Americans could be streaming matches using an internet service that launched in this small city. Moreover, the U.S. squad’s performance will hopefully be improved as a result of the new training center. Russia may be the site of that future World Cup, but any hope Americans might have of winning it depends heavily on Kansas City, Kansas.
"We're not used to being this impactful in the big game of life, let alone soccer," says Barrett. "We're used to being a sleepy little city."
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Sporting Club CEO Rob Heineman. We regret the error.