The Heartland Soccer brand builds the youth soccer community in KC

When people hear the names of some of the most popular brands, they have an intuitive idea of exactly what those brands represent. They don’t have to be told that Nike sells shoes, or Starbucks coffee. In the Kansas City area, the same can be said of the Heartland Soccer Association and youth soccer.

The two have become virtually synonymous in the region, with more than 30,000 girls and boys ranging in age from 8 to 19 in recreational and premier soccer playing league and tournament games.

It wasn’t always the case. Heartland Soccer began modestly enough, with just a few hundred teams playing at one location. Branding is an important part of Heartland’s growth.

Through the guidance of Heartland Soccer Association executive director Shane Hackett, the Heartland brand has expanded.

“Heartland is kids out on the soccer field, playing at all different levels, for all different reasons,” he said. “But, they all like to get out and compete.”

Greg Cotton, president of PG,LLC and a partner with Hackett and former Chief Deron Cherry in the Gateway Sports Village project, echoes that.

“The brand of Heartland is everybody has an opportunity to play soccer, at any level, either gender, any age, whether you are an elite competitive player, or a recreational player,” Cotton said.

Making the game accessible to players, while keeping it fun, has been an important catalyst for Heartland’s success.

“You’re going to be able to have competitive games,” Cotton said. “You’re going to have a good time and you’re going to fall in love with the sport. All of those things that are so important, Heartland delivers. They have kind of this ubiquitous brand where everybody can participate.”

Cotton worked closely with Sporting KC CEO Robb Heineman as the club was re-branded from the Kansas City Wizards, evolving into one of the most successful sports franchises in the MLS.

Cotton sees the same natural abilities in Heineman and Hackett with how they build their brands.

“Those two guys really get it,” he said. “Shane has kind of a personal brand that is very attractive even to people who are not interested or don’t understand youth soccer. Shane has this way of explaining things. It’s what we call it ethos. You want to be Shane’s buddy from the moment you meet him. He’s got the ethos thing down.

“He’s very genuine, very authentic. He’s the reason Heartland has grown from several hundred teams to several thousand teams over the past 13 years.”

Hackett enjoyed watching his own kids play soccer.

“To go out and watch these young girls on up into high school, to watch how they interact on a social basis, it is heartwarming to see the camaraderie and how it all fits together,” he said. “So, what we try to do is tap into that. But, how do you sustain that for people?

“That’s sort of our vision. Our challenge is also to be able to explain it but also to be able to convey the message, and that becomes the brand itself.”

Building the brand has been hard work and Hackett hasn’t done it alone.

“When you get down to it, it’s the incredible people,” Hackett said. “When you think about how Heartland’s been around for these 40 years and kind of where it started and where it’s grown, Heartland is really a reflection of the youth soccer community.”

Said Cotton, “Brand is really reflective of the ethos of the company, the people that run the company, the people that believe and have the big vision of the company. Shane deserves an absolute ton of credit for that, but he would never take it for himself. He has a great team that works for him.”

Heartland Soccer scheduler, Richard Davies, is one of the people behind the scenes.

“That guy is the epitome of everything we’ve talked about with Heartland,” Cotton said. “He’s completely independent, yet he’s extremely adaptable.”

When out-of-town teams come to play in Heartland’s leagues, Davies helps them with widely flexible scheduling to keep them from having to journey hundreds of miles for the games.

“There are teams that come in from Omaha or Oklahoma City and play in Heartland’s leagues,” Cotton explained. “The Heartland guys will make sure all of their league games get played in a couple of weekends so they don’t have to come up ten times; they come up twice. It’s a great example of the flexibility. It’s consistently applied. It’s fair, but at the same time, they’re very accommodating.”

Flexible scheduling makes the game more accessible to more kids across a wider area of the region and serves to further improve Heartland’s brand.

“The Heartland Soccer brand is everybody can play and everyone can get the very consistent and quality competitive soccer experience,” Cotton said. “And then there’s this layer of quality and responsiveness and thoughtfulness that goes with everything they do. The kind of openness and transparency they have around that process is very unique in soccer.”

Another example is the Heartland Soccer referee training program.

“That is completely unique in youth soccer in the United States,” Cotton said. “That is more like a professional league. They have really professionalized youth soccer. I would even say they’ve professionalized youth sports. They have provided a blueprint for any youth sports league to adopt, based on the kind of methods and processes. They’re doing it to benefit the kids and to benefit the sport. And it shines through because everybody sees that.”

As the brand has grown, more companies have become interested in linking their own brands to Heartland. Dick’s Sporting Goods, Minsky’s Pizza and HCA Midwest Health have partnered with Heartland.

Still, Hackett faces important challenges in continuing to build the Heartland brand.

Connecting with players and parents is a different challenge.

“Now there’s so many different avenues that you can connect and you can tell your story,” he said. “We’re doing that in remarkable ways. Now with social media we can connect in so many different ways and share different things. Facebook is an example, but if you look at the demographics, it’s more parents than it is kids.

“The kids are using Instagram and Snapchat. They’re sharing videos and messaging. We’re really looking to connect with the players and connect with the parents.”

In order for youth soccer to continue to grow, there has to be community involvement, from the business sector and from government.

“The business community really plays an important role in what Greg Cotton has termed Soccer 3.0,” Hackett said. “When we can actually have the business community play a role in sponsoring and subsidizing the soccer side of this, then we’re more able to bring on these world-class soccer complexes, whether it’s businesses or our local governments, for the city of Kansas City for Swope Soccer Village and Overland Park for the Overland Park Soccer Complex and the Unified Government for Wyandotte County Sports field.”

A combination of players, parents, businesses and government are needed to create first-rate soccer venues.

“It takes collaboration,” he said. “Part of this has been for the business community and the local government side to see what soccer looks like at this next level.

If it isn’t about a competitive level, it’s about how does everything come together.”

It comes from the Heartland brand, but ultimately, it is the kids who benefit.

“We’ve got all these kids that are exercising and can play this game and have fun,” Hackett said.

For more information about Heartland Soccer Association, visit heartlandsoccer.net.

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

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Article by Marc Bowman

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