There was a time when seeing a soccer jersey on the streets of Kansas City required an explanation — “Yes, the Wizards are still a team.” At best, in a rare meeting of two members of the same clan, fans might share a knowing nod — “You too? Cool.”
Now, as the Cult of Sporting Kansas City grows, soccer jerseys are nearly everywhere — at bars, concerts, bus stops and grocery stores across the metro.
Last year, according to John Moncke, Sporting Kansas City’s vice president of stadium and brand revenue, the No. 1 MLS team in merchandise sales was Seattle, and it has 45,000 people coming to each match. Sporting KC, which averaged 19,709 fans a game, was a close No. 2.
Compare that to 2010, when Kansas City was in last place among all MLS teams (and even the general MLS brand) in merchandise sales.
Sporting Park, which opened in 2011 and has become one of the best stadiums in all of American soccer, was packed last year with sellouts at all 34 MLS games.
The surge in sales and popularity can mostly be attributed to the team’s success on the field.
The Cult of Sporting Kansas City has been growing since the team’s rebranding in 2010, culminating in the team winning the MLS Cup at Sporting Park in December.
A key component of KC’s success off the field has been the transition away from dealing in just sports apparel and toward what Moncke, who was a buyer of men’s fashion before joining the club, calls a fashion and lifestyle brand.
“We wanted to treat this club as a fashion company,” he said. “We focused on fit, fabric and the right trends. I think that is what’s helped the club outperform some of the bigger-sized markets in the league.”
This starts with the most consistent and important piece of fashion the team sells: the jerseys.
Buying a jersey for any sport is a big emotional investment. You are marking yourself to those around you as a fan of that team. It’s a fairly large financial investment, too.
Soccer jerseys aren’t cheap and, following much of the fashion world, are constantly changing. This year, an authentic MLS jersey (designed by Adidas, which has an exclusive contract with MLS) will run you about $130 without any lettering on the back. Adidas changes the design every two years, so if you want to stay current, it’ll cost you to keep up.
A jersey that can be worn on and off the field adds versatility to that investment.
“When you look at our three kits, they are all very different from each other, but together they look like a collection,” Moncke says.
A kit is a fancy soccer term for the entire uniform. The team has three uniforms, a primary, secondary and third. Generally, the primary kit is for home games, the secondary for away games and the third if the opponent’s uniform is too similar to the primary and secondary.
The newest addition to Kansas City’s collection, its secondary kit, is a horizontal-striped jersey with alternating bars of Kansas City’s light Sporting Blue and dark indigo colors. Stripes are fairly traditional in the world of soccer.
Kansas City unveiled the rest of the collection in 2013: a two-toned primary jersey with the same blue colors in a pattern designed to resemble the state line dividing Kansas and Missouri and a collared all-black third kit with an argyle pattern across the chest in the team’s colors.
This last jersey, dubbed Pitch Black, was Kansas City’s first full fashion-forward offering. It looks more like a preppy polo shirt than a jersey and was designed to look as good with denim as it does on the pitch.
The jerseys were incredibly hard to find by the end of last season and because the team can wear them for only a limited number of MLS games, expect to see them in other competitions like the Champions League and Open Cup.
Moncke didn’t want to give specific numbers but said sales of the Pitch Black jerseys reached five digits last year.
Earlier this month, almost 2,000 fans filled a hangar at Charles Wheeler Downtown Airport before the season started for the unveiling of the new secondary kit. Players modeling the jerseys emerged from a small airplane parked nearby, and it wasn’t an accident that almost all of them were wearing jeans, too.
“This new jersey is about as soccer as it gets,” said Chad Reynolds, Sporting KC’s creative lead, who worked with Adidas, Moncke and others to create KC’s jerseys. “But we can also make it look cool. You saw the guys walk off the plane with jeans. It looks awesome with jeans.”
Initial response was positive. A poll at KansasCity.com showed overwhelming support. At the end of the unveiling, the shelves at the pop-up shop holding the striped jerseys were bare.
Beyond the jerseys, the club is attempting more stylish ideas. This includes a women’s line coming in April that Sporting KC worked on with Adidas.
“There’s a huge hole for women who want to come to the game and look nice,” Moncke said. The line will be more like something you’d find in the fashion section of Nordstrom’s, he said.
Adriele Dixon, a political consultant, stylist and author of fashion blog StyleAssisted.com, agrees that there is a gap in options for women but says Sporting KC “has done an amazing job of providing non-jersey options for females.”
“I was just in England a few months ago, and many EPL teams don’t have a large selection (if any) of female merchandise,” she said in an email.
Dixon is a fan of Sporting KC’s new jersey. “It combines a classic look with an updated design. As a rule, horizontal stripes aren’t known to be the most flattering on some body types, but keeping in mind that these jerseys were designed for incredibly fit professional athletes, I think that they are perfect.”
Reynolds said the team has already begun work on the next primary kits. Whether there will be a third next year is still to be determined.
“We’re a next level club. Best team on the field, best fans, and we want to have the best kits, too,” Moncke said. “Fashion is an important part of our brand. You’re definitely going to see fashion-focused jerseys that continue to escalate over the years.”
Charles Gooch is the front-page designer for The Star. He also covers Sporting KC and soccer for The Star’s soccer blog, The Full 90. Follow him at twitter.com/TheFull90