The Value of Design: Q&A with David Ficklin, Vice President of Development, Sporting Kansas City

Sporting Park and Sporting Kansas City have been called by Don Garber, MLS Commissioner, “one of American sports’ great success stories.” The stadium has now been open four years and it’s safe to say it has transformed the way an entire region views soccer. Jon Knight, designer of Sporting Park, sat down with David Ficklin, Vice President of Development at Sporting Kansas City, to talk about the importance of the process, the value of design and what it has meant for the city.

Jon Knight (JK): Let’s get right to it. What would you tell teams who are designing new stadia or undergoing major renovations?

David Ficklin (DF): I would say first and most importantly, do not delegate to someone else. This is YOUR brand and the most critical thing you can do is find the time to be involved. At the end of the day, this building is a reflection on you, your team, your brand, your passion. This is your one, monumental chance to start from scratch, to get a second beginning and to define yourself with every detail and decision. If you invest that fully, fans will see it. They will feel it. They will BELIEVE in it. And I’ll also say that our process really was completely unique. Very few teams or people have senior executives – presidents and ownership of a team (one of which – Neal, is Vice Chairman and Co-Founder of a Fortune 100 company) who are willing to devote four hours a week every single week for two years to meetings about the building. But the amazing thing was that Cliff understood from the get go that in order for this to really work, he had to be fully present in the process. He had to intimately know the building and share in the vision.

I’d also say that being involved in that capacity is what gives a building the potential to be about something much bigger than a team. That’s when a stadium or ballpark becomes the fan’s building… and that’s ultimately what we all want, right? We want our fans to take ownership of this place and when that happens, like it has at Sporting Park, there is something magical that transcends the team or on field success or anything else. It’s interesting because we’ve talked so much publicly about the success of the building and the impact, and done thousands of tours for media and team owners, but I’m not sure anyone has asked about the process. And here’s what I’d say about that. The success of the building is in the secret sauce… which is the process. Without the process we went through… without the involvement of our ownership… without the buy in from each and every individual in those meetings, we might not have had the building and impact we have had today.

Sometimes I’ll hear folks say that they don’t have the money to build a Sporting Park. But in that, they’ve missed the plot completely. We did have money and we did spend it well, but it’s about the thought process and design process that can be applied to any building of any size with any budget. If you focus on budget first and program second and expect the vision to follow, you’re missing what matters. I think owners start with the budget because it is tangible… but it is honestly so secondary to what made us successful. You have to be financially responsible, especially with public funding, and sure you can be cognizant of budget and program, but you have to start with a grand vision first so you can weigh each and every design decision against that vision. It completely changes the approach and the building itself. When you’re approaching with that lens, you figure out what you are willing to sacrifice and what you won’t make concessions on. That is the secret sauce. You can’t take the emotion out of the process, there is no greater disservice you can do to yourself or your team or your fan base or your future.

JK: There is always conversation about ROI and how to justify those iconic design elements when budgets are tight and the going gets tough. How would you articulate the value of good design?

DF: We had worked with another site for a year and  spent a full year going back and forth about minor features. There was no big vision. There was no plan. There was no consensus on the design or why it was important. It was like a twig in a whirlpool.

But when we moved sites and approached the project with Populous, we had this ambition to create the first authentic American soccer stadium. We didn’t want a European replica. We wanted to define every piece and moment of the American soccer experience. That meant that a roof, not a canopy, became key to the process. That was our iconic and defining element. The roof was the fundamental decision that I think made the project a success… it was the feature that saved us. It was accepted by everyone and we built around that. We weren’t willing to even consider getting rid of it, even when the budget seemed tight, because it was so instrumental to the vision that we had. We couldn’t separate that notion of American soccer and the beautiful game from the roof that was designed.

Part of the reason the roof survived, though, was because early on in the design process, everyone was on board. Everyone bought in. There was something simple and elegant about the notion of the first authentic American soccer stadium. Our story was about the body, the ball and the beautiful game.

JK: I remember that meeting where we presented the body and the ball concept and Cliff said, “I love it… can we add the beautiful game?” and we all were like, “Yes, yes we can. That’s perfect”

DF: Exactly. He got it. It resonated and made sense. It was a turning point. Because there was a compelling story and a shared vision, everyone – Turner, our lighting guys, our engineers, the team – we were all measuring decisions against “how do we meet our design objectives?”

JK: Because they were authentic and real objectives.

DF: We had engineers sitting in meetings talking about the vision and big picture and design objectives with passion. That is just really indicative of how much the entire project team valued design and really understood what it meant for the guest experience. To be honest, we didn’t have any idea the project would resonate in the way it has with fans, but we did hope that people would fall in love with it. It’s the people, after all, who transform it from a building to a place.

So here’s what I’d say about valuing design: don’t be afraid of having a big vision first and foremost… Lead with a focus on the guest experience and good design naturally follows. And don’t be afraid to make hard decisions that put design first! Trust your gut.

JK: That’s so interesting. So how did that shared vision impact operations and programming?

DF: Once we articulated what we wanted to be, everything followed. The value of design for us, from the beginning, was in driving the guest experience and being authentic to who we had decided to become. We did a lot of research on our current fans – which at the time was a very small group – and then on who our fans could be by evaluating the market, and what would make them come out to a game. That shaped the way we programmed the space. We essentially did an Olympic overlay – showing the paths of every group who would enter the stadium to help wrap our head around why the design needed to be the way it was. While it isn’t necessarily the sexiest part of the design, we knew that if we blew that it might be a cool building, but we’d have to spend money on gameday personnel to solve the problems of the building layout. That is why it’s important to have executives who understand that and architects who understand that. If you don’t understand who is using the space and how they are using it, you can ruin a building completely.

JK: One of the really unique things about the opening of Sporting Park was it coincided with a massive rebrand. Talk about how you all viewed that opportunity and how they impacted one another?

DF: We said “let’s start with the premise that no one in Kansas City has ever seen a soccer match in a real soccer venue.” They’ve watched it in baseball stadiums, at Arrowhead, on high school fields even, but the experience we create will be the first time they see American soccer as it should be. It was our second chance to make a first impression. We looked at it as an opportunity to reframe everything about what Midwesterners knew about soccer and change the perception of the team and sport itself. We thought about every detail and how we could emphasize that THIS is soccer. It was a convergence of honoring, highlighting the team and educating on the sport. That level of detail is apparent. For example, we selected a seat that had a subtle soccer ball-like pattern. It was different, and it wasn’t the cheapest option, but it spoke to our desire to reinforce that this was a soccer stadium. We would sit in these different seats, during meetings. I kid you not, we wanted to know, intimately, how that seat would feel for 90 minutes. That level of attention to detail allowed us to change fan’s perceptions so that everything they saw, felt and touched reinforced that this stadium was for them.

Honestly, it just made sense to go through the rebrand at the same time. It was an opportunity to change everything about ourselves and do it concurrently. Rebranding allows you learn things about your brand that you never could otherwise because you’re asking hard questions about your identity, your fans and your aspirational goals constantly. We just kept asking ourselves “who do we want to be?”  When we first talked about doing a new stadium – a proposal which eventually fell through – we didn’t know enough about ourselves at that moment in time. We needed to go through the rebranding and stadium design process again to really get to the root of it. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity looking back and there was a magic about it.

JK: So it must be incredible to hear people have become soccer fans at Sporting Park?

DF: It’s not only that they have become soccer fans, they’ve become passionate soccer fans. They are buying season tickets and raving about the experience. It’s the greatest feeling. There’s nothing better! It feels like my life work is complete.

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