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September 19, 2014

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Las Vegas can learn from Kansas City’s failures, recovery

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The good news is that Las Vegas would be joining MLS at a much better point in the party than Kansas City.

Believe it or not, we’ve had a team here since 1996. You might not even know that MLS existed in 1996. That’s OK. A lot of folks here in Kansas City didn’t know it at the time, either.

The infant, toddler and even most of the adolescent years of Kansas City’s MLS team were not anything you’d want in Las Vegas. They actually began as “The Wiz.” After too many bathroom jokes — especially when the Wiz played the Dallas Burn — they changed to the Wizards. Still, nobody noticed much.

The team was owned by the late Lamar Hunt, a giant here in Kansas City and founder or co-founder of the AFL, Chiefs, MLS and more. In practical terms, the team was run as an afterthought and in the shadows of the Chiefs. You couldn’t miss the symbolism when the soccer team played in front of 70,000 or so empty seats at Arrowhead Stadium.

If you went to a game, you likely were either a dyed-in-the-wool soccer nut or you were given free tickets and had other plans that fell through. The direction and marketing of the team was as focused as a fruit fly — American sports fans one year, Hispanics the next, soccer moms the year after that. The team had a fair amount of success, even winning the MLS championship in 2000, but never made much of a dent in the local sports scene.

If Las Vegas landed an MLS team, the first decade or so of the Wiz(ards) is a good lesson in mistakes to avoid: carve your own place both physically and figuratively, and know the audience you want to attract.

Toward that end, the last eight years or so have been a lesson in what Las Vegas would do well to copy.

Local men who made their billions in medical technology bought the team in 2008, built a gorgeous soccer-specific facility in a growing part of town, rebranded the franchise as Sporting Kansas City, and have basically been flawless in building a successful team and strong relationship with fans.

Their most relatable triumph is in the brand building. Where the franchise was constantly confused about what it wanted to be, the new ownership group was clear. They wanted a young fan base that could grow with the brand. Win the hearts and minds of young professionals today, and you’ll have them as they grow older and have more disposable income tomorrow.

They did this in a few specific ways. First, they went hard after passionate soccer fans. This might sound intuitive, but the old regime sometimes took the hardcore fans for granted, and in return, some hardcore fans didn’t take the franchise seriously. They followed European leagues instead.

The rebranding positioned Sporting as cutting edge, particularly with technology. The new stadium has all sorts of bells and whistles that appeal to a younger demographic that has grown up with Wi-Fi, high-definition video boards, state-of-the-art sound systems and apps that make being a fan easier. The team joins with local brands and beers for marketing promotions and regularly hosts concerts before games.

There also is a personal part of this. The team CEO often announces news through Twitter, taps kegs in the parking lot and asks for fan advice on major decisions like player acquisitions and where to play friendlies against foreign teams.

The transformation has been remarkable. The team has gone from a niche afterthought to a legitimate player on the mainstream sports scene here. They are working on more than 40 consecutive sellouts in a stadium that seats more than 20,000, with very few giveaways and a season ticket waiting list.

Developers in Las Vegas would have to decide how much of this is compatible with the market there, but the principles behind what Sporting has done are transferable: know what you want to be, market efficiently and value the customer.

Of course, it helps if you win the league championship, too.

Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star.

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