Sporting KC's culture transformation rooted deep in fan understanding of the game

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

A personal story of how Sporting KC turned one apathetic soccer fan into a club enthusiast, and how the club's transformation stems from something deeper than just the flashiness of a new stadium or brand.

As Grammy-nominated artist Neon Trees would say: "it started with a whisper."

Sporting KC's "disease" did that for many people early on. Rebranded in a league that, at the time, was receiving negligible exposure outside of David Beckham and LA Galaxy, Robb Heineman and company were faced with the daunting task of creating a culture of soccer that was previously inattentive, if not nonexistent altogether. However, a foundation was laid in 2010 and 2011 that, by a series of whispers, transformed into 28 straight sellouts and now the honor of hosting MLS' prestigious All-Star match versus AS Roma. Many have reported on this resurrection story of sorts - the flashiness of a new stadium, logo and European likeness - but today I write as the product of a whisper that won over and formed not only a fan, but also a soccer enthusiast.

Like many that fill the seats of Sporting Park every week of the MLS season, I have not been a longtime supporter of the club. I wasn't a "Mystic" or a "96'er." I didn't tune in to see the club win its only MLS Cup in 2000 at RFK Stadium. And the only "Bravo" I knew related to the club were my compliments towards their shiny new stadium that I saw on the television once or twice a year. So what makes me qualified to sit here today and write to you about this club, their history and the vision for the future?

It's very simple, actually, and perhaps a little clichéd, but it's the silent Sporting KC effect; an infection that's DNA is molded into the flashiness that came with the opening of Sporting Park. For me it struck in 2011. I had heard that a winning atmosphere was brewing in Kansas City, and as a deprived KC sports fan that had far too long griped about the ownership groups of the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs, I had to see what this Sporting KC hoopla was all about. I went to my first match, and to be honest I can't tell you what happened during those 90 minutes on the pitch, as I was glued to the stands and the people that filled them. I was fascinated, yet in a way I had not experienced before.

My next match at Sporting Park was on a warm, June night against Chicago in 2012, and it was then that I recognized what this club was doing to me: I wasn't just drawn to the prettiness of Sporting Park, the pre-game fireworks that depicted a battle scene before the first pass, or even the chants that the Cauldron echoed with a piercing attitude. No, I was admitted into the culture of soccer, and it brought out the supporter in me.

I stand firm in my belief that Sporting KC's surge in popularity is less about the flash of Sporting Park and more of the culture that surrounds such place. You see, on that 2012 summer evening, I saw enthusiastic observers who had knowledge of the game that was being played out in front of me. That knowledge has indisputably matured and has cultivated fans that comprehend and appreciate the artistry, and at times grittiness, behind what's being played out on the pitch. This is what makes the support more expressive and significant. This is what makes the Cauldron's chants so special. Above all else, it's what makes Sporting KC, well, Sporting KC.

Kansas City's understanding of the game hasn't gone unnoticed either. At the MLS All-Star Game press conference, Michael Bradley, midfielder for Roma and the United States Men's National Team, touched on the type of fans that fill the seats of Sporting Park every home match, which continues to eliminate all doubt of a mere fabricated, band-wagon experience contingent on the club's record.

"The people in Kansas City understand the game. They come out to support their team, [and] their national team, so I think in all ways it's one of the best places to play in the United States."

This evolution of soccer culture in Kansas City has provided many with an unspoken answer to the typical American sports fan that asks, "Why is soccer so loved around the world?" Culture speaks for itself, and Sporting KC's does so in a way that pyrotechnics, new jerseys or unified chants could never do on their own merit. This newly found, newly recognized culture brings out the enthusiast in us and makes Sporting KC and Sporting Park such an exceptional place to be every time our club takes the pitch.

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