How Kansas City’s NWSL stadium project sends resounding message of identity, inclusion

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Just over two years ago, Chris Long and one of his daughters spent nearly a month in Paris for the Women’s World Cup. They were joined by his wife, Angie, and their other three children for a week.

The Longs were riveted by the competition, of course. But they also were dazzled by the pulse of the event, the fervor for the women’s game itself and the way it captured the imagination of their children. They were struck by the premiere facilities, including a notion that they were paramount to the advancement of the women’s game.

And they were intrigued by the scope of the world-wide audience — including, as it happens, how television kept flashing to the scene in the Power & Light District back in Kansas City, for what Chris Long called “fanfare at its best.”

In all this, they could feel what Angie Long called a “tipping point” in the enthusiasm for and momentum of the game. The feeling was somewhat like she had perceived in 1999, when the World Cup had been in the United States, but now it came with a more global sense of scale and trajectory.

Those days in Paris became the impetus for the visionary couple, the two principal owners of Palmer Square Capital Management, to bring a new National Women’s Soccer League team to the “Paris of the Plains.”

The fact they ventured forth in the middle of the pandemic, last December, testified not merely to their eagerness but also to their imagination and resolve.

That was illustrated on another tier entirely with the announcement on Tuesday that they plan to privately finance an 11,000-seat, $70 million stadium that will be the first women’s soccer-specific venue in the NWSL, and certainly among the first in the world built for a professional women’s team.

The proposed stadium, to be built in the Berkley Park riverfront on the south bank of the Missouri River, between the Kit Bond and Heart of America bridges, looms as a spectacular win-win-win-win-win scenario.

Start with a part of the city, as Port KC president and CEO Jon Stephens noted, where “Kansas City was born” and with the help of rail stood at the “literal crossroads of America” … only to be later cast aside.

Just out the window from the Port’s offices, he reminded, was an area that had been relegated to a literal dumping ground, perhaps most memorably with the debris from the 1979 Kemper Arena roof collapse. Now, at a time when the area has been “reclaimed and reimagined” with development, this bold initiative will make for a remarkable draw for women’s soccer, but also for other sporting events and concerts … and soon will be more accessible as part of the Kansas City streetcar extension.

“It’s really important for us to be here, on the riverfront, in the heart of the city, where Kansas City was born and where all parts of this region come together,” said Angie Long, speaking at a news conference also attended by co-founder and part-owner Brittany Matthews.

Noting the unique size (and potential to add capacity) of the horseshoe-shaped concept that will be open toward the river, Angie Long later added, “It’s just going to be a dream place to play.”

But there are other profound statements being made in this endeavor, for which the Longs expect ground to be broken sometime next summer or early fall, and will be designed by Kansas City-based Generator Studio with construction partners including JE Dunn and Monarch Build.

For instance, while it may or may not specifically be part of Kansas City’s bid to be a host city for the 2026 Men’s World Cup, you can bet that it makes another resounding point about soccer-mania in Kansas City in the days after FIFA’s site visit and only a few months from the decision being rendered.

With or without the World Cup, though, it becomes another element of our city’s revitalization: a new airport on course to open in early 2023, the streetcar expansion underway and a prospective new downtown ballpark for the Royals.

The ripples of this stadium in itself were evident when this particular stadium announcement earned headlines nationally, caught the attention of a friend of Mayor Quinton Lucas’ via television in South Africa, and was celebrated during the broadcast of a U.S. Women’s National Team match.

On social media, the news was shared with a heart-eyes emoji from soccer superstar Alex Morgan (with 3.8 million followers on Twitter) and tennis icon and advocate for equity and inclusion Billie Jean King: “Incredibly exciting and a testament to the growing influence and popularity of women’s sports.”

Such reactions, Chris Long said, left him “humbled and honored and blown away.”

The truth is, though, that the Longs have blown us all away with what they are doing here. We pause here to say they are nothing less than a gift to the city … and they’re just getting started. The team will conclude its inaugural season on Saturday with a halftime reveal of its long-awaited permanent name.

They are striking a vital example in many ways, so much so that Lucas compared the Longs’ and Matthews’ fidelity to the community to the likes of Lamar Hunt and Ewing Kauffman.

That commitment is amplified by financial ramifications: The stadium announcement was made just a month after the Longs unveiled plans to build a privately funded $15 million training facility for their KC NWSL team in Riverside … and as the Royals are exploring construction of a downtown stadium that would figure to cost between $500 million and $1 billion and come with hard and heavy questions about how it would be financed.

Asked if their own stadium project might allow for broader lessons about building a downtown ballpark, Chris Long laughed and said, “I think today we’ll just focus on this one idea.”

But asked later why it was important for them to finance the new NWSL stadium using only private funds, Angie Long said, “When you’re moving at the pace that we are, it’s important also just to be able to make the right decisions and control the right decisions. And I think it’s as much about wanting to do something that’s right for the community in all ways and be able to do it quickly.”

For everything else this enterprise establishes and implies, though, perhaps nothing is more resonant than the heart of the message.

Asked why establishing a stadium of their own was necessary when they can play in a facility such as Children’s Mercy Park (as they will in 2022 and 2023 after completing this season at Legends Field), Angie Long summed it up deftly.

“When you’re the primary tenant in a stadium, everything becomes about that team first, right?” she said. “The branding, the way that it’s laid out, how it’s designed, who the sponsors are, (control) of your schedule. So I don’t see any reason why this team should be the secondary tenant in any stadium.”

And so we’ll always have Paris, in the form of this potential new tipping point ... for the NWSL, and women’s soccer, and perhaps beyond in other sports and unforeseeable ways.

Certainly, it helps convey a specific message: Secondary no longer is the acceptable standard for women’s sports. And it sets a tone that Angie Long reckons will mean “lots to follow” around the league … and, in turn, lots of young girls who can find inspiration and motivation in a new frontier for equality and inclusion.

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