Sporting Kansas City’s pre-World Cup green mission
When the FIFA World Cup last took place in the US, Bill Clinton was just a year into his first Presidential term, Jeff Bezos was getting a little-known start-up called Amazon off the ground from his garage, and Michael Jordan thought his sporting future lay in baseball rather than basketball during an unexpected hiatus from the Chicago Bulls.
A lot has changed since 1994 – in politics, life and sport. As preparations accelerate for the return of the World Cup to the US in 2026 – along with co-hosts Canada and Mexico – it is clear that the showpiece will give stakeholders in football’s biggest event an unprecedented opportunity to drive the sustainability agenda.
At least, that is the case for Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City.
While Sporting KC was just an idea in 1994, the club was founded the following year as Kansas City Wiz. The side has played in the MLS since the inception of the league in 1996, becoming Kansas City Wizards in 1997.
Since 2010, to coincide with its switch to a new home stadium in Children’s Mercy Park, the franchise has been known as Sporting Kansas City.
The club shares its DNA with other major US sporting franchises, including the National Football League’s (NFL) Kansas City Chiefs – as both were founded by Lamar Hunt. The businessman was also key in establishing the American Football League, which merged with the NFL, as well as Major League Soccer and its predecessor, the United Soccer Association.
Almost 30 years since its foundation, Sporting KC has its eyes set on optimising its sustainable credentials ahead of the 2026 World Cup. While Children’s Mercy Park is not a stadium that will be utilised during the major event, its previous home Arrowhead Park will undergo a revamp to host matches.
Sporting KC’s current sustainability mission began in 2018, with conversations around improving its own stadium to become more green.
“With the World Cup approaching in 2026, our aim is to achieve major advances in our efforts to ‘greenify’ the stadium, by marking the world’s biggest sporting event as our event horizon for what’s achievable in the next four years,” Mark Handler, Account Manager, Partnership Marketing for Sporting KC, tells Global Sustainable Sport.
“As a club, we feel a pressing responsibility for our product to be a guidepost for sustainability, not only in Kansas City, but in the world of sports."
Most of the focus has been on switching prominent stadium lighting to LED systems that reduce energy output. Handler explains that the work on this has taken place during the current off-season.
“As a club, we feel a pressing responsibility for our product to be a guidepost for sustainability, not only in Kansas City, but in the world of sports. We have a great opportunity to show how stadiums not originally built to be zero-waste, zero-carbon, etc. can still achieve game-changing progress when it comes to environmental responsibility,” he added.
Sporting KC and Children’s Mercy Park’s initial plans focus on waste management. Handler collaborates with Manager of Partnership Marketing Kellen Smith on the franchise’s budding sustainability platform, working to transform the club’s green efforts.
“A natural evolution for any arena is to begin with food waste,” says Smith. “Creating an environment where composting and recycling are readily available works two-fold: we are able to eliminate our major waste output at the stadium by giving fans opportunities to act responsibly in enriching ways.”
Children's Mercy Park was lit up in green for Green Sports Day, in partnership with Green Sports Alliance
This particular mission has been boosted by multi-year partnerships with Missouri Organic Recycling, Waste Management, Ripple Glass and packaging company Huhtamaki. By collaborating with each of these partners, the club is aiming to create a circular system within the stadium that allows for the post-match collection of plastics, organics and glass that can be recycled or turned into mulch.
“The most unique part is that Huhtamaki has provided us with custom packaging that fans are able to recycle and compost within the stadium,” explains Handler. “Now, fans are enjoying custom Sporting KC packaging for nearly all of their concessions items and contributing to the health of Kansas City.
“It’s even possible for the compost we generate to return to our facilities and be planted in garden spaces, which means creating circularity between our partners, the matchday fan experience, and the overall health of our stadium.”
In this area, Sporting KC is currently redesigning its concessions packaging for 2024, to further educate fans on matchdays on how and where to dispose their waste.
“Much of the power to influence positive decision-making lies in providing resources for our fans to act responsibly."
“We recognise the first point of contact is often the food they’re holding, and want to position our fans to make the best decision once finished with their food and beverage,” says Handler.
Even something as simple as increasing the size of the font and choosing the right script for product labels can translate into higher recycling and composting rates.
“We think this will do a lot of work to promote composting and recycling at the point of disposal. When coupled with matchday messaging on our LED and Videoboard screens, we hope to break our waste diversion goal early next season,” adds Handler.
Appealing to fans is an integral cog in Sporting KC’s sustainability machine, with a reminder to look after the environmental everywhere supporters look.
“Much of the power to influence positive decision-making lies in providing resources for our fans to act responsibly,” says Smith. “The concessions products are very important, but so are the other storytelling elements around the stadium. This year we were proud to hoist up a 30-foot-long living moss wall in the Huhtamaki Shield Club. As one of our largest stadium features, the giant green wall retells our sustainability story to more than 40,000 fans who pass through the space each year.”
Sporting KC's compostable Huhtamaki packaging
Elsewhere, the franchise has been working with the University of Kansas to gain a better understanding of how fans make waste-disposal decisions when attending events at Children’s Mercy Park. This is being carried out as part of an ongoing research project within the university’s economic department. When it is finished, the club will have a deeper insight of what makes for successful messaging around sustainability.
Indeed, aside from environmental sustainability, Sporting KC takes its responsibility to the local community very seriously. The club has dedicated Victory Project and Community Impact teams, which work on programming and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) strategies.
The Victory Project sponsors ‘Soccer for All’ which sees the sport shared with underserved communities, either through its Emerging Sports Leaders Scholarship, the club’s Special Olympics team, or providing community centres with equipment.
Handler explains that Sporting KC is currently researching ways to report on its progress, to keep the club on track and to inform fans of its initiatives.
“At the moment, we are in conversations with prospective third-party consultants and data providers that can work with the club to provide feedback and accurate reporting on our annual sustainability efforts,” he says.
“This is something we would like to do once we can accurately tell the story of our progress to our fans and the city. We are careful to avoid any temptation to greenwash our achievements as a club and encourage any team to advocate for transparency in their sustainability efforts.”
Eventually, the report will be available on the club’s website, after the team gains a full understanding of the stadium’s outputs.
So while the soccer community gears up once more to host the world’s greatest show, Sporting Kansas City will continue to write its own story on sustainability.