Story by Nicole Cooke, for The Muleskinner
The UCM American Marketing Association hosted Robb Heineman, CEO of Sporting Club, the parent company of soccer team Sporting Kansas City, on campus Thursday, Sept. 27.
Heineman was part of AMA’s Executive Day, giving students the chance to listen to his presentation on the history of Sporting Kansas City and what the future holds for the team and company.
Many of the students in attendance were there for the marketing and business aspect of the presentation, whether they were in marketing classes or members of AMA, but a large section of the audience was covered in Sporting Kansas City blue.
Supporters of Heineman and Sporting Kansas City came just for a chance to learn more about their favorite team.
“I found out about it through one of my friends that was going to it for a class,” said student and Sporting Kansas City fan Ben Svatos. “I am a huge Sporting KC fan and I wanted to have an opportunity to hear Robb speak and to get the chance to meet him after his presentation.”
AMA adviser and marketing professor Scott Smith said he was impressed with the turnout.
“It was pretty amazing that we pulled students, faculty and staff, and other folks from the community to hear Robb,” Smith said. “I’m biased and feel that everyone is in marketing to some degree, but he definitely was concerned with identifying a viable fan base and creating a product that would resonate and generate excitement in that target audience.”
After meeting with Lamar Hunt and a few trips to Wizards games, Heineman signed on to be the CEO in 2006. He worked to get a stadium specific to the team so they no longer had to share space with the Chiefs, or more recently, the T-Bones.
After a lot of setbacks, the Kansas Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the plan for the 18,467-seat Livestrong Sporting Park in January 2010.
Warren Buffet, the owner of Sporting Park’s neighbor, Nebraska Furniture Mart, donated the land because he saw how successful the team was becoming and wanted to help.
Atmosphere Adds to Experience
Heineman also worked to create an atmosphere unlike any other Major League Soccer team. He and the Sporting Club have helped Kansas City’s soccer team go from last in MLS merchandising, when the team was still the Wizards, to third in the league.
Kansas Sampler now sells more Sporting Kansas City merchandise than the Royals and the Chiefs.
The company built a $5 million training facility, which made it the nicest in the MLS. The company also worked on creating a new mentality for a team that only had 800 season ticket holders and made $3 a ticket, although many tickets were given away for free.
Heineman talked to the players to see how the company could help them.
“These professional athletes’ biggest response was if the company could pitch in $100 to help pay for snacks for the locker room each week,” Heineman said. “We had players that didn’t feel they were treated as though they were major league players. We knew we needed a complete cultural shift.”
Wi-Fi Adds Dimensions to Game
Every step of the way, Heineman said he was thinking of the fans. When building the new stadium, the seating was created so the first row was right on the field, just feet away from the action. The park is also the only one in MLS that has Wi-Fi.
Sporting Kansas City launched the construction of the park on Facebook and actively uses Twitter to update its fans.
Now that the team is established and is a championship-winning team, smartphone applications and other types of technology are now becoming a major part of the Sporting Kansas City experience.
Of those fans with a smartphone, 90 percent engage with the smartphone application, which allows you to watch live, rewind, read statistics, and post to Facebook, for 81 minutes per match.
“You have to know what your business is all about,” Heineman said. “For us, fans are all that matters.”
Youth League Reaches Children
Sporting Club also has a juniors program league to help encourage kids to play soccer. The company pays for coaching and travel.
“The coolest thing for us would be for us to look out at the field and have half a dozen of them be Kansas City kids,” Heineman said.
Technology Co. Delivers Fan 360
Heineman is not only the CEO of Sporting Club, but he also works with Sporting Club’s own company, Sporting Innovations, which creates technologies to enhance the fan experience.
One of their biggest creations is Fan 360, which is a “multi-dimensional platform, which encompasses a wide array of technology services and solutions to deliver fan centric, engaging and profitable experiences,” according to the Sporting Innovations website.
The technology started at Sporting Club, but has spread all over the country, and all over the world.
While Livestrong Sporting Park is the “living lab” for all these new technologies, the company’s client list includes the NFL, NBA, particularly Madison Square Garden, Manchester United, Manchester City, and every stadium in the country of Turkey.
“I knew their Fan 360 platform was a pretty big deal, because I knew about all of the awards they have won over the past couple of years, but I had no idea just how big it had gotten,” Svatos said. “When he said that the entire country of Turkey was being outfitted with the Fan 360 stuff, that just blew my mind.”
Sporting Innovations and Sporting Club won six awards at The Stadium Business Awards this past May, making them the only company to win more than one.
The awards included a product innovation award for Fan 360, Venue of the Year, Executive of the Year for Heineman and the community award.
Fan Support Develops App
Heineman and Sporting Club have created such a fan-centric company that even their fans want to help make it better. Earlier this year, Sporting Kansas City put on a contest called “Makin’ it ‘Appen,” which allowed fans to submit ideas for smartphone applications.
After the presentation, Heineman was awarded the AMA Distinguished Marketing Executive Award.
To . receive the award, the recipient must be an executive who has made outstanding contributions to the discipline of marketing, as well as to his or her local community.
Additionally, the recipient’s firm provides a key product regionally, nationally or internationally. The winner of this award is a special contributor to the marketing discipline, now and in the future.
Past recipients include Jonathan Cleveland, founder & principal of Cleveland Design, in 2011; Mark Schupp, president of Schupp Company, in 2010; and Christine L. Pierson, vice president of U.S. Sales, Animal Health Division, Bayer HealthCare LLC, in 2009.
“The students were really interested in Robb’s story and how he built Sporting KC from the remnants of the Wizards program and created a winning entertainment experience in the Kansas City market,” Smith said.
“The strategies they used to drive fans to the stadium and to participate with the team via smart phone and technology interaction was also well received by the students.”
AMA encourages and provides academic and professional enhancement opportunities for all students at UCM.
“We strive to provide our members with opportunities to participate in activities, programs and networking events,” Smith said. “In addition, members can gain essential real world experience to enhance both their personal and professional lives.”
While the organization is primarily made up of marketing students, Smith said they welcome any student to join.
AMA meets every Thursday in Ward Edwards 3403 at 3:30 p.m.