On the Pitch: Sporting KC Focuses on Firing Up Limited-Capacity Crowd at Children’s Mercy Park
The pandemic also allowed the production team to dive deep into the club’s history
The past 10 months have been a whirlwind for Major League Soccer. After last summer’s MLS Is Back Tournament in the Orlando bubble and the eventual return to empty home stadiums, the attendance of some clubs in the league are returning to pre-pandemic levels. Much like At the Ballpark, On the Gridiron, On the Hardwood, and At the Rink, SVG’s On the Pitch takes you into the control room with in-venue crews to understand what their job is like before, during, and after the official’s whistle is blown.
Sporting KC is off to an impressive start in the 2021 season: second place in the MLS’s Western Conference and third-best team in the league with 13 points in seven games. For its four home games, the club has entertained a limited capacity of 6,500 fans, with a production plan that includes engaging videoboard prompts, digital and social content, and natural sound from supporters in the stands.
“It has been exciting to have more of our fans back,” says Blake McFarland, senior manager, match presentation and esports, Sporting KC. “Our jobs are getting more fun every time we’ve added more people to this building.”
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Setting the Foundation: Team Goes Back to the Drawing Board for Upcoming Season
As with any season, the club re-evaluated the effectiveness of its strategy during the offseason, but, with number of fans in the stands increasing, the staff had to come up with a plan that both blended the new ideas of COVID-era production and returned to more-traditional standards. After meetings, rehearsals, and constant testing, the club found a sweet spot that hit all areas of necessity.
“When it comes to the energy inside the stadium, we want to make 40% capacity feel like 100% capacity,” says McFarland. “We took the time to audit what we were doing and asked ourselves what we wanted to change and how to get better from this situation. We found some ways to do that.”
Over the past year, the team has experimented with a handful of ideas to get their supporters involved from afar. During the MLS Is Back Tournament last summer, fans could watch matches as a community through Virtual Watch Party presented by Continental Tire. The activation leveraged the functionalities of a normal video call on Zoom. Now pre-match shows are being live-streamed on social media and also shown live on the videoboard at Children’s Mercy Park. Building on these features, the team aims to enhance the in-venue experience with age-old practices that integrate sponsorship as well as catered material through digital platforms.
“It has been a great opportunity for us to take things like PA announcements that everyone loves to listen to and turn them into engaging content pieces,” says McFarland. “We’re learning how to become more gamified and digitized.”
Away from the pitch, the club’s digital team is generating a connection with fans still unable to return to the venue. After returning to Kansas City in fall 2020, the organization dedicated a four-episode series, Become One: Sporting Kansas City, to chronicle the team’s journey through the pandemic. Also carried over into the current season is Behind the Shield, a cinematic recap of recent activity on the pitch and the storylines surrounding each of the club’s matches.
Back on the stadium side, the club wanted to proceed with health and safety protocols in mind for those that can grab tickets and head to a match. With ever-changing advice from the CDC and other medical professionals, the in-venue personnel needed to adapt with the changes, which also meant highlighting individuals in the crowd who promoted the desired behavior.
“The challenge of showing our fans doing it as much as we can while making sure that they’re following the correct safety protocols, like the 6 ft. of social distance and mask,” says Stewart Pirani, director, stadium and video production, Sporting KC. “Being at a limited capacity is a bit of a downer for our [match-day] environment, but we’ll continue to create engaging and exciting content for our fans.”
New Start: Pirani Reflects on a Season in a Pandemic
During the pandemic, many creatives and other professionals in the industry have taken a leap of faith and transitioned into new roles. Pirani took on a new role right before the sports-world shutdown, joining the club in December 2019. He set high expectations for himself and the content that he was ready to work on, but, after the delay of the season, he relied on the relationship that he forged with McFarland.
“In January and February,” he says, “I had grandiose plans because I was about to start my first MLS venture in a new stadium with a new crew and fanbase. Working with Blake has helped me tremendously, and [the postponement] gave me time to reflect on the club’s needs and culture.”
From the onset of the pandemic ’til now, Pirani has been able to dust off the history books and get a chance to learn about the club’s roots, which extend to 1995. The history lesson not only helped him bond with the city but also enhanced his storytelling abilities.
Says McFarland, “I’ve forced him to take a deep dive of certain moments, like when we scored a goal in the 94th minute on Aug. 15, 2015, and mentioned how it would be great for an intro video. If we were in the grind of a normal season, he would have known only the guys that were on the 2020 roster.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: Shoutout to Sporting KC’s Production Team
Two weeks ago, Sporting KC received some great news for local and state officials: on May 29, Children’s Mercy Park will return to full capacity for matches. It’s a great sign for two individuals, In-Venue Host Hartzell Gray and PA Announcer John Dale, who have kept energy levels high despite a sparse crowd.
“They’ve been phenomenal with adjusting on the fly,” says McFarland. “They haven’t made any mistakes, and we wouldn’t have as much as energy as we do without them.”
Pirani will finally get a chance to see a sold-out crowd at Children’s Mercy Park. It’ll be a surreal moment for him after being with the club for 1½ years, but it’s one that can’t be celebrated without recognizing the hard work of his entire team.
“I can’t put one person over another because my whole crew is making everything work,” he says. “They’ve done and continue to do an amazing job.”
Sporting KC returns to Children’s Mercy Park to host the Houston Dynamo on Saturday, May 29 at 8:30 p.m. ET.