SBJ/October 29 - November 4, 2007/This Weeks News

Wide-open style working for Wizards group

Kansas City Wizards owners Cliff Illig and Robb Heineman barreled through the underbelly of RFK Stadium after their team’s season-opening 4-2 victory over D.C. United last April. The owners and their four partners blew past everyone on their way to their team’s locker room — even MLS legend Marco Etcheverry.

“We were too pleased to notice — not that we would have anyway,” Illig said. “We’d just beaten one of the league’s premiere teams.”

That energy and enthusiasm comes naturally to Illig and his five partners, who bought the team in August 2006 with capital they had generated from various entrepreneurial ventures. And over the last year the team has adopted an attacking, wide-open style of play reflective of its owner-operators’ entrepreneurial spirit.

The Wizards’ risk-taking style has secured a playoff spot for its new owner-operators and returned the team to the postseason for the first time in three years. They play at Chivas USA on Saturday in the second game of a two-game series.

OnGoal, as the ownership group is known, didn’t naturally gravitate to MLS as an investment opportunity. Heineman led them there.

Heineman first spoke with Hunt Sports Group, which owned the Wizards, in 2004 about investing in a project to build a soccer-specific stadium for the club in nearby Lenexa, Kan. But what began as a development opportunity became a business opportunity when Wizards owner Lamar Hunt put the team up for sale in 2005.

Heineman’s research into the Lenexa project had given him just enough exposure to MLS to make him interested, and he took the idea to his venture capital partners, David French and Greg Maday, at Rock Island Capital.

K.C. Wizards owners, from left: David French,
Pat Curran, Neal Patterson, Cliff Illig,
Robb Heineman, Greg Maday

“At first the guys looked at me crosswise and thought I was crazy,” Heineman said. “Then we started to peel back the onion a bit and looked at who was involved in the league. None of them were dummies.”

Heineman convinced them that shifting Hispanic demographics and a soccer-specific stadium complex made it a worthwhile investment. Rock Island investor Pat Curran joined them, but the group needed additional investors.

Kansas City civic leaders Neal Patterson and Illig were the first people the group approached. The two had deep Kansas City roots and strong entrepreneurial backgrounds as the founders of Cerner Corp., a health care technology company with more than $1 billion in revenue.

Patterson and Illig met with Hunt for a three-hour dinner at Capital Grille that December to learn more about ownership and soccer. Over steaks, Hunt shared the lessons he learned from his failed investment in the North American Soccer League, in which he owned a team from 1967 until 1981, and why he believed MLS would succeed.

“As he described it to us, it just made good sense,” Illig said. “And he was so forceful about the macro factors [like globalization and shifting demographics] that would drive the popularity of the sport in this country.”

It took their group more than seven months to purchase the team. No sales price was reported.

OnGoal has reorganized the front office and hired more staff. Business operations and soccer operations have been separated, with OnGoal’s lawyer, Greg Cotton, taking over team business and technical director Peter Vermes and coach Curt Onalfo handling soccer operations.

The new owners invested heavily in the team, expanding the staff from 17 employees to 45, doubling the team’s advertising and marketing budget and building a $3 million training facility that was completed this summer.

Despite the investments, attendance at Wizards games remains the league’s worst. It averaged 11,586 fans for the regular season, up 4.5 percent from last year.

Heineman is optimistic that will change if the team is able to complete its $943 million development project that will include a soccer-specific stadium, hotel, soccer fields and retail and office complex by 2010. The group is seeking approval and support for the project from Kansas City, which would offer tax increment financing under the proposal.

“We’ve made a big investment in this organization and will continue to,” Illig said. “We know it’s a long game, and every year we hope to get a little better with it.”

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