Cooperative competition brings success for Heartland Soccer Association

Heartland Soccer

April 2017 – How Kansas City became America’s youth soccer capital is rooted in a unique idea by the Heartland Soccer Association which was born of both competition and cooperation.

The competition component is obvious: it is seen on the field by every kid who plays the game and by every coach.

What makes Kansas City’s youth soccer experience unusual is the cooperation between clubs which has allowed local soccer clubs, led by Heartland Soccer Association, to build world class facilities and operate some of the largest tournaments and leagues in the country.

“The one thing that we have in Kansas City that doesn’t exist in the rest of the country is that you have all of these soccer clubs that form Heartland Soccer,” Heartland Executive Director Shane Hackett said. “All of our clubs are financial beneficiaries of all that happens because Heartland’s a non-profit umbrella.”

What has happened elsewhere is a single large club tends to dominate youth soccer within a city or a region.

“Typically, what you see around the country is that every club has their own facility,” Hackett said. “Because of that, the club can only afford so much. Overland Park Soccer Complex was initially a $38 million build. But, a conglomerate of clubs, along with a city and the right financial backing and kind of vision can do it. That’s why (Heartland) is the largest one in the country because it has all those things.”

While competition on the field is healthy, it can be detrimental to the long-term health of the soccer clubs.

“What we don’t want is to have the soccer community competing against each other,” he said. “Working together, they can get that added value. That’s where we have Sporting Blue Valley and KCMO that did Swope Soccer Village together. All along it was ‘How can we do this in conjunction with the rest of the soccer community?’ We did the same thing with KCK and the National Training Center. There are a lot of conversations that happened with Sporting KC and all of the soccer clubs about how can we do it all in conjunction, and that’s part of what Heartland does.”

The club cooperation benefits were initially realized when Heartland was formed in 1977 and used their combined financial might to build Heritage Soccer Complex. Later, they used that strength to create the world’s largest all-turf soccer complex: Scheels Overland Park Soccer Complex.

“That was, really, an incredible vision from the mayor and the city council of Overland Park to create and build the largest soccer complex in the world,” Hackett said. “It was an enormous amount of money that the city invested.”

The complex’s tenants – Blue Valley Soccer Club and Heartland Soccer Association – had to make it work financially.

“It was our fiduciary duty to make sure that it ran at a profit,” he said. “With the league play and the tournaments, everybody was sharpening their pencils trying to figure out if they could make soccer turn a profit. There were a lot of questions. One of the big questions was would people, families like ours, pay the rental rate that’s necessary to support the facilities. We didn’t know because it had never been done before.”

The success of this cooperative venture was no sure thing.

“We wondered: can we make the huge financial commitment to be able to make these complexes break even,” Hackett said. “In retrospect, yes we could. There were some scary times; there was some worry that we could make it stretch to make it work. The good side is that it did work and was wildly successful.”

There were no models for Heartland’s member clubs to follow. Other cities tended to have a single large soccer club which made financial decisions without regard to other soccer, and other youth sports had the same structure.

The closest analogy was at the professional level, where the NFL is comprised of competing member clubs who also combine their efforts to be financially successful as a group.

That similarity was not lost on former Chiefs All-Pro safety Deron Cherry.

Cherry, who was a limited ownership partner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and is one of the founding members of Gateway Sports Village, the new state-of-the-art complex under construction in Grandview.

“I’ve heard him tell the story a couple of times now, where he listed what Heartland Soccer does where it has all of these members very much like how the NFL does with their franchise system,” Hackett said. “All of the teams compete, but ultimately all of it kind of helps everyone out because the NFL needs to be strong. They all work together even though they’re all trying to get the best players on the field (for their team).”

The whole idea of competitive clubs cooperating runs counter to the basic nature of sports.

“Just in the inherent nature of soccer it’s competitive,” he said. “There are tryouts at every level. Everybody is vying for kids to play for their clubs. But, at the end of the day, you need the overall teams to be very healthy. Then they get out and compete on the fields.”

The idea has blossomed into one of the largest youth sports organizations in the country with more than 30,000 youth players on 2,500 teams, along with 4,000 coaches and 1,300 referees.

Heartland Soccer Association’s success and the overall popularity of youth soccer has created an increasing need for playing space.

This has has led to the opening of Swope Soccer Village and new fields at the National Training Center in Kansas City, Kansas, with Gateway Village also set to open for league play in the fall.

The growth won’t stop there.

“I’m having discussions with a lot of different governments and communities,” he said. “I’m talking to them about what it looks like for their community, what it looks like for the greater Kansas City area, and what it looks like for the region.”

While most of the metropolitan growth has been to the south, Hackett, who resides in the Northland and has coached Northland-based soccer teams, is working hard to bring soccer kids from north of the river under the Heartland umbrella.

“Platte County is taking a really strong leadership role,” he said. “I’ve had seven meetings talking about various places. We’re exploring different pieces of land and trying to figure out how all that can come together.”

Hackett considers bringing it all together as part of Heartland’s mission.

“Part of my job is when there are discussions around building new facilities, we’re considering the local community and how we can call in the different investments,” he said. “I can give them different perspective in how they can make this work financially.

“Our goal at Heartland Soccer, our mission, is to work with all the different soccer communities to get them to play together. That’s how we were originally founded, with that vision, so that’s how we continue to work on that vision.”

For more information about Heartland Soccer Association, visit its website: www.heartlandsoccer.net

For more youth soccer coverage visit http://kcsportspaper.com/category/youth-sports/youth-soccer/

Article by Marc Bowman

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