KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When the players take the field for Thursday's opening game at Livestrong Sporting Park, they will walk from the locker room through the Field Club.
Fans there will get an up-close look at Sporting Kansas City's players, which is one of the nice touches about the new stadium.
It would have thrilled Lamar Hunt.
Hunt, the former Wizards owner who died on Dec. 13, 2006, loved the whole game-day experience. But he would be especially thrilled that the Major League Soccer team he started in Kansas City has a steady local ownership group and a sparkling new stadium. That was the goal when he put the franchise up for sale on Dec. 9, 2004.
"He very much wanted the team to stay in Kansas City," said his son Clark Hunt, the Chiefs' chairman and owner of FC Dallas and the Columbus Crew. "I think he knew long term it would take a soccer-specific stadium to make that a reality. The OnGoal guys were the perfect group to develop a plan for a stadium and get it executed.
"We couldn't be more excited about the OnGoal group and its owners and we're equally excited about this incredible stadium they've built for Sporting Kansas City. We think it's going to be one of the jewels of the league, and we really believe it is going to help the sport of soccer continue to grow in Kansas City."
Nearly 16 months after Hunt announced he was selling the team, it was bought on Aug. 31, 2006 by OnGoal, which is composed of Robb Heineman, Pat Curran, Greg Maday and Cerner executives Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig. Last year they changed the team's name from the Wizards to Sporting Kansas City.
But Sporting has not forgotten Hunt's contribution to Kansas City soccer. There is a tag inside the back of every Sporting Kansas City jersey that reads "Lamar Hunt: Legendary Sportsman And Entrepreneur. Forever Our Founder."
In a way, the 18,467-seat Livestrong Sporting Park is a testament to Hunt, who insisted a stadium plan be in place before he would sell the team. While it wasn't built where originally planned, Sporting's owners knew the importance of having a place to call home.
"That was the main thing we learned from Lamar," Heineman said in 2008. "You've got to have sports-specific assets to take your sport to the next level."
Is there a next level for soccer? While some think the sport will always stay on the fringe of the American sports fan's consciousness, Hunt always believed its day will come.
"Those who don't think it's going to happen with soccer," Hunt said in 2006, "I think are going to be wrong."
Of course, the Wizards weren't thriving financially in Hunt's time as owner. Playing at Arrowhead Stadium saved the team on rent, but opening up the nearly 80,000-seat stadium cost the team a pretty penny, whether it was paying workers or the electricity bill.
The team simply didn't generate a lot of revenue.
"With Kansas City showing a negative all the time, they don't pass the negative back to the league," said Bobby Davidson, who was an MLS consultant while the team was being sold. "They pass the profits back, but not the negative. They were flipping the bill. I think the Hunt family, just by my estimation alone, was losing several million dollars a year."
That's why Hunt cut costs where he could while the team was being sold. A team dripping in red ink can be a tough sell, but Hunt still was able to convince OnGoal that soccer was a sound investment.
OnGoal's purchase of the team was relief to soccer fans, who feared the team would relocate. While Hunt entertained offers from outside the area, he always held out for a local ownership group.
"Lamar and Clark stepped in a number of times and said this team is not going to get sold right now," said Curt Johnson, who was general manager from 1999 to 2006. "Lamar and Clark would dig in their pockets deeper and deeper and had multiple opportunities for that to be off their bank account and for that team to be moved to other places, but they loved that city and they felt like it was the right thing to do for the fans and the organization.
"There were easier routes for them from a financial standpoint, whether you're talking about Rochester or Philadelphia or the others. But I know there were more than a couple of phone calls I received and said, 'No, we're not doing that. We're not moving.' "
Clark Hunt said his father's ties to the area were too strong not to exhaust every effort to keep the team here.
"Obviously, our family's five-decade association with Kansas City made it important for both of us that we find an owner who would be committed to keeping the team in Kansas City," he said.
While the team was up for sale, Hunt was working with MLS to find a stadium location in Kansas City. Hunt believed that would make the Wizards more appealing to a local owner.
So Johnson and others with the Wizards organization assisted in that effort, and now their work is being rewarded, even if some of those people are no longer in Kansas City.
"It's fantastic," Johnson said of the new stadium. "There are so many people who have spent so many hours to get the organization where it was. ... They are no longer with the organization but were integral parts of where it is.
"You know of all the people who put so much time in: players, coaches, front office, the fans, obviously, in less than ideal circumstances at times, but mostly Clark and Lamar. There is not a question that it would not have happened if it were not for them."
Johnson, who is now president of the Carolina RailHawks, will be at Livestrong Sporting Park for Thursday's opening celebration. The shame of it, he said, is that Lamar Hunt won't be there. But Johnson is certain of one thing.
"I know Lamar will celebrate somewhere on June 9," Johnson said, "because that is exactly what he wanted to happen."