This afternoon, Orlando City will take on New York City FC at Yankee Stadium for the fifth time in the past four years. NYCFC’s use of the Major League Baseball stadium has been derided by fans throughout the league, with opposing fans mocking the narrow field and poor sight lines. However, Yankee Stadium isn’t the first baseball stadium used by an MLS team.
The growth of Major League Soccer, and soccer in general, in America over the past eight years has been nothing short of astounding. In 2010, you’d have trouble finding a bar in any major city airing a World Cup game, but now Champions League group stage games are regularly shown in every sports bar. One of the best representations of how far the sport has come is the rising of soccer stadiums around the country. The team that best represents that growth is Sporting Kansas City.
An original MLS team when the league was founded in 1996, the Kansas City Wizards — originally the poorly-named Wiz — began their existence playing at the cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs. With average attendances at the stadium ranging between 8,000 and 15,500, the 79,451 capacity facility looked almost empty during games. The lack of atmosphere and poor aesthetics of an empty stadium proved the club needed a change.
In 2008, the Wizards finally left Arrowhead Stadium and moved into CommunityAmerica Ballpark. It would be the first time that an MLS team played the majority of its home games at a baseball stadium. Home of double-A baseball team the Kansas City T-Bones since its completion in 2003, the minor league baseball stadium held a capacity of just 10,385 for soccer. While the venue was small for major league standards, it was more than enough for the Wizards.
The setup at CommunityAmerica Ballpark was what you would expect from a lower league club, not the top level in the country. Some fans sat on a berm behind one of the goals, which was behind the outfield fence during baseball games. Others sat along the advertising boards in center field.
The Wizards’ tenure at CommunityAmerica Ballpark is a good reminder of where American soccer was just eight years ago and how much it has grown in that time. The team rebranded in 2011, becoming Sporting Kansas City, and moved into its current home of Children’s Mercy Park. It was the rebirth of the team and of soccer in Kansas City. Once a team that couldn’t fill a minor league baseball stadium, the current 20,000-seat stadium is in need of a additional seating to satisfy the high demand for tickets.
While playing at a minor league baseball stadium may not have been ideal for SKC, getting out of Arrowhead Stadium was key to the club’s future. Playing at the ballpark made it obvious that they needed their own soccer-specific stadium to call home. The new venue turned Kansas City into one of the most difficult places to play in MLS, and a model for future MLS stadiums.
The growth of the sport in America means that many MLS fans today don’t realize that SKC once called a baseball park home. Looking back at the club’s tenure, there is a reminder of when MLS teams were looking for anywhere to play, regardless of the stadium’s shape. For most of the league’s clubs, that’s a distant memory as they’ve been able to build beautiful soccer-specific venues. For teams like the New England Revolution and NYCFC, having a stadium worthy of a first–division club is still a dream; one that MLS hopes will be realized sooner rather than later.