In March 2011, with Lance Armstrong present, the top brass at Sporting Kansas City christened its soccer stadium under construction.
It was a groundbreaking move in more ways than one. Until then, newly constructed sports facilities commonly displayed corporate titles. But a charitable foundation attaching its name to a pro sports stadium was a new phenomenon. Sporting Kansas City promised to donate a portion of its revenue through ticket sales, concessions and souvenir apparel to Livestrong.
“I don’t know what the average naming rights deal is in our league,” said Robb Heineman, the CEO of Sporting Club. “ It’s probably 2.5 to 3 million bucks a year. But that’s not really the way we looked at this. For us, we wanted to do something that helped define the community, allowed us the opportunity to drive social change and raise money in something that we absolutely believe in.”
Armstrong, a cancer survivor, founded Livestrong in 1997 with fellow survivor Doug Ulmer, who was appointed the foundation’s CEO. At Livestrong Park's opening press conference, Armstrong was under suspicion for cheating in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He talked, but strictly about Livestrong, not cycling.
“The one cool thing that we’ve always tried to do at the foundation is we’ve looked for different ways to tell our story,” Armstrong said. “In reality it’s all about us, me, Doug, any cancer survivor out there, a family member of a cancer survivor, it’s about sharing our story and we’ve always encouraged people to do that.”
Since that press conference, Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles by the International Cycling Union. The Nike Corporation, which sponsored the distribution of yellow wristbands in support of the cause against cancer, cut its ties to Armstrong. Armstrong is no longer Livestrong’s chairman, though he remains on its Board of Directors. But Heineman, who declined an interview request, has given no indication that Sporting Kansas City will prematurely end its association with Livestrong.
“They are not overly concerned about what Lance did or did not do during his cycling career,” said Tod Palmer, the Sporting KC beat reporter for the Kansas City Star. “From their standpoint, it’s a unique partnership where over the course of five years they’re giving $7.5 million to a charity to fight cancer and that’s always been their focus.”
Lance Armstrong’s image is shown on the video board before each Sporting KC home game, then a cancer survivor seated in a Livestrong yellow seat is introduced.
According to Palmer, these touching moments have become awkward.
“I think that the fact that he was there on opening night and they made such a big deal about it. They talked about how his connections could help bring attractions, be it concerts, to the stadium as well. The fact that they’ve got him in their video montage every week. I think all those are things that they wish they could scrub from their history. It would make things a lot less dicey.”
This season, Livestrong Park drew more than 18,000 for each home match, making it one of the toughest venues for visiting teams. The challenge, according to Sporting fan Crystal McLeod Baker of Kansas City, is getting beyond the tarnished image caused by Lance Armstrong’s past association with the Livestrong foundation.
“I think the biggest way it’s affected us is obviously people have an opinion about our park now,” she said. “But I think the two are completely separate and independent of each other and it’s a great organization.”
Livestrong CEO Doug Ulmer declined an interview for this story, citing the current need for strategic planning for the Livestrong Foundation. But based on the opinions of soccer fans such as Christian Gerwien of Lawrence, Kan., the future of Livestrong appears promising.
“The whole foundation has moved on. They have done so much good and I think ‘Live Strong’ still is a good slogan. Some people nowadays who get in contact with Livestrong won’t even remember that Lance Armstrong was the guy who founded it.”
This segment aired on November 10, 2012.