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Volume 20 No. 42
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Small-payroll teams rise to MLS Cup berths

Proving that any club with strong management can contend for a championship in Major League Soccer, MLS Cup 2013 on Saturday between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake features teams from two of the smallest markets in the league.

“We don’t view ourselves as a small-market club, but it says a lot about MLS that any team can compete and you don’t necessarily have to spend big money on players,” said Robb Heineman, CEO of Sporting Club, the parent corporation of Sporting Kansas City, and one of five principal owners of the team. “It’s also a testament, for both us and Real Salt Lake, of the virtues of great coaching.”

Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi celebrates at Sporting Park, which will host MLS Cup.
In Nielsen’s rankings of the top television markets, Kansas City is 14th, Columbus is 15th and Salt Lake City is 16th among MLS’s 16 U.S.-based franchises. While the New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders spent more than $9 million in player payroll this season, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake were two of the league’s 12 clubs to spend less than $4 million on player salaries.

“We’re proud to be in this with KC because it’s two teams that do it right,” said Real Salt Lake President Bill Manning. “We both have top-of-the-line soccer stadiums and front offices, and we’ve both shown that developing players can lead to great results.”

The championship match, set for 4 p.m. Saturday and televised by ESPN and UniMas, along with TSN2 and RDS in Canada, will be held at Sporting Park in Kansas City because SKC had the best regular-season record of the two conference champions. (Before last year, MLS held the title game at a predetermined neutral site.) Kansas City has not seen a championship captured at one of its home stadiums since the Royals won the World Series in 1985.

As a result, MLS Cup is a hot ticket in town.

“The requests are coming from everywhere,” said SKC Chief Revenue Officer Jake Reid. “It’s impossible to take care of everyone.”

The math is simple, according to Reid: Sporting Park holds just more than 21,000, and 14,000 of those seats have been taken by team season-ticket holders. An additional 1,000 went to Sporting Kansas City partial plan holders who bought ticket strips for the entire postseason. MLS requires about 2,000 seats to take care of league and club officials, sponsors and VIPs. As the visiting team, Real Salt Lake is entitled to 1,000 for its supporters.

Fewer than 3,000 MLS Cup tickets, priced by Sporting Kansas City in consultation with the league office from $50 to $135, were available for public sale and were expected to sell out immediately.

For MLS and its partners, the match is a return to Kansas City a little more than four months after Sporting Park was the site of the 2013 AT&T MLS All-Star Game.

“There’s certainly a familiarity in Kansas City with local vendors and with the host club that makes producing the event a bit easier,” said Jen Maurillo, MLS vice president of special events.

MLS will use downtown Kansas City as a hub of activity, including a concert. On Friday, SKC and MLS will host a viewing party for the FIFA World Cup draw at Sporting Park for fans that will include appearances by U.S. men’s national team players. Soccer Celebration, the league’s activation zone for sponsors adjacent to Sporting Park, will take place in the hours leading up to the game.

For many league and U.S. Soccer sponsors with deals through Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm, MLS Cup is a third trip to Kansas City in barely four months after the All-Star Game on July 31 and the U.S. men’s team’s World Cup qualifier there Oct. 11. After activating at MLS title matches in Los Angeles the last two Decembers, sponsors are preparing for the cold weather in Kansas City.

“We’re a part of many of these events in the winter and we know to be ready,” said Tracy Drelich, associate manager of promotions and sponsorship for BP Lubricants USA, which owns Castrol, an MLS sponsor. “We had some rain in Los Angeles at the last two MLS Cups. The response from fans is not diminished by the weather. It might have been nice to activate in another city so we could reach different consumers, but we’re very happy to be back in Kansas City.”