Meet the Mark Cuban of MLS

Robb Heineman admits his unorthodox approach to sports franchise ownership means he has "taken a few shots" from fans and critics.

Yet it takes just a few minutes of talking to the Kansas City Wizards president to realize he probably has a thick enough skin to handle the flak. Actually, he doesn't mind dishing out a few shots of his own.

Heineman's plan for rousting out the inherent malaise that grinded the Wizards organization to a halt before the OnGoal ownership group bought in 18 months ago was to strip away his ego and play dumb.


Kansas City Wizards
Kansas City Wizards

2007 RECORD:
11-12-7 (40 points), fifth in Eastern Conference, eighth overall. Lost to Houston in Western Conference finals.

KEY MAN: Claudio Lopez. The Argentinean striker's pedigree speaks for itself and K.C. desperately hopes he is still capable of showing his best form.

NEWCOMER: Chance Myers. The Wizards believed enough in Myers to trade away experienced defender Nick Garcia in order to draft him No. 1 overall. Myers may not become a big star, but he should have a long and productive career in the league.

OUTLOOK: Things were not looking great for much of the offseason, but that all changed with the arrival of Lopez, who gives the Wizards a genuine go-to guy. If Lopez and new Colombian Ivan Trujillo hit their form, Eddie Johnson, who left for England, will be forgotten.

"I didn't want to talk it up and pretend I knew what the fans wanted – because I didn't," he said. "There was a pretty severe disconnection between the fans and the club at the time and the only way to fix it was to get out there and get the information firsthand."

In a move that would cause the old boys club of traditional sports owners to choke on their cigars, Heineman, a 33-year-old Notre Dame graduate and private equity investor, took a step out of the boardroom and leaped into cyberspace.

Throwing himself into the world of online fan forums and chat rooms left him open to criticism, suspicion and probably some sneering glances from the established clique of U.S. sports owners. But that provided him with some intrinsic insight into the mindset of his supporters.

Updates on the Wizards' new home – a thankful departure from the soulless and drastically oversized (for soccer) Arrowhead Stadium – comments on new signings and even the team's performance have and will continue to be topics of discussion.

A quick look at the blog titled "Hillcrest Road" reveals that Wizards fans appear to be generally appreciative of the opportunity to chew the fat with a high-ranking club figure. But it has not all been smooth sailing.

One post on a soccer website which Heineman titled, "Please help me, I don't know what I'm doing," was designed to be a catchy way to generate valuable feedback. Instead, it backfired.

"I was accused of degrading MLS and people questioned what I was all about," Heineman said. "But I figured at least people cared enough to take shots, at least they are talking about us. The negativity was actually a feather in our cap."

In an era when many sports owners are routinely accused of being out of touch with their fan base but have neither the will nor the inclination to address the situation, Heinemann is proud to buck the trend. He prefers to look to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for inspiration, rather than the oak-paneled, country club set of yesteryear.

"Cuban has done a pretty good job of being a fan first and an owner second," Heineman said. "He is obviously at a much different level to ours, but I don't know why this sort of thing is so frowned upon.

"It is a good idea to be a fan of your own product – why wouldn't you be? If you don't want to interact with your fans, then go into the manufacturing business or something, not sports. You have to live and die with your team. I felt we had to immerse ourselves in the fandom."

The Wizards have got people talking ahead of the new Major League Soccer season. Argentinean World Cup star Claudio Lopez has arrived as a designated player, headlining a series of interesting new signings that also include Colombian Ivan Trujillo and No. 1 overall draft pick Chance Myers.

Although not a big soccer fan until his involvement in the group, Heinemann is now fully committed and buoyant about the sport's future in America. He knows that MLS is moving forward at a significant pace, and teams from less fashionable markets such as Kansas City need to keep up in the transfer stakes.

"People thought we wouldn't do anything until we were in our new stadium, but we are trying to win today," he said. "Kansas City is dying for a winner and we can go beyond what the Chiefs and the Royals have been doing.

"We can do things differently to other sports, which have reached their pinnacle. Soccer hasn't. I firmly believe soccer can be the No. 2 sport in the country in 20 years, behind NFL. Every other sport is in the crosshairs if we do things right."