Perhaps it was the classic case of the pre-emptive breakup. One partner sees it coming and turns the tables. ESPN reported Tuesday night that Sporting Kansas City was terminating its stadium naming-rights deal with famed cancer charity Livestrong. The network reported that Livestrong had initiated the separation by complaining about money it was supposedly owed by the soccer team, and Sporting finished the split and went public. Sporting had been stalwart in keeping the bright-yellow Livestrong sign on its stadium, despite the charity's association with founder and shamed cyclist Lance Armstrong.
But with Armstrong slated to spill his guts to Oprah Winfrey in an interview airing Thursday and Friday, it looks as though Livestrong read the tea leaves: Sporting couldn't wade any further into this cyclone of crappy PR. (Although nobody has ever publicly said that Sporting wanted to end the relationship prior to Tuesday night.)
"We were not expecting the foundation to treat a partner in this manner, especially given the tumultuous environment they have thrust us into over the past year - while we staunchly defended the mission of the foundation. Our faith and trust in this partnership has been permanently damaged; therefore we are terminating our agreement with Livestrong immediately," Sporting CEO Robb Heineman said in a statement Tuesday night.
Whatever the true cause, Livestrong's ugly split from Sporting Kansas City is the sorry end to a brilliant idea. On a rainy day in March 2011, Sporting called a press conference in the still-being-constructed soccer stadium to unveil the building's new name. Unlike the team's new moniker and logo, which had leaked before the official unveiling, the team and Livestrong had kept the deal a total secret until that morning.
Press conference attendees were issued hard hats before climbing the stairs to an unfinished room for the announcement. Extension cords stretched across the concrete floor under white folding chairs arranged for reporters and VIPs. A few feet from a squat stage, construction workers in vests halted work and milled around. Soon, Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman, Heineman and Armstrong (a tan, muscled, inspiring stick figure in a Livestrong T-shirt) took the stage.
The announcement was incongruous to all other stadium naming-rights deals at the time. Heineman explained it: Rather than selling the name, Sporting would donate a portion of all stadium revenue, including ticket sales and concessions, to Livestrong. The plan was for the team to ultimately send $8 million-$10 million to Livestrong.
For Sporting, it was a masterstroke of marketing. The team already had a new visually striking stadium that was generating buzz. It had a bold new name and look, and a solid core of fans waiting to break in their new home. Now, Sporting had goose bumps.
Ulman called it "the first-of-its-kind partnership with an athletic venue that's core mission is social change."
Heineman acknowledged that the team was giving up potentially millions in naming revenue. But, he said, this was about more than money.
"I think everybody's natural reaction is that this is crazy," he said. "And that's OK. But I think they aren't sort of inside our heads and what we're really thinking we want to do with this organization in the community."
The team said one of the reasons behind the choice was that just about everybody knew somebody who had fought cancer or died from it. I remember after the press conference, when Heineman was doing quick one-on-one interviews with reporters, one pulled him aside and shared his own family's history of cancer with him. Everybody in the partially constructed stadium seemed to agree that this was a big deal and a good deal.
Ulman also predicted that "within 24 months" we'd see another stadium copy the Livestrong deal. We're almost there, and it hasn't happened.
All the excitement and gauzy good feelings of that soggy day are now washed away. This falling out is the second major disruption for Livestrong in the wake of Armstrong being stripped of his Tour de France titles. (The first was Armstrong's cutting of all ties to his charity.) But it certainly won't be the last. Frankly, I would not be surprised if disgruntled Livestrong donors tried to sue the organization by arguing that the only reason they donated to Livestrong or bought a yellow bracelet was because they were inspired by Armstrong and wanted to further his work. The entire Livestrong model does sound fairly fraudulent now that the athlete is admitting to doping.
In the end, this split with hurt Livestrong more than the local soccer team. Heineman has told reporters recently that the team is close to signing a shirt sponsor. And what decently sized company with local ties - Sprint, Cerner, H&R Block, etc. - wouldn't want to plaster their logo all over the gleaming building now called Sporting Park?
The sad thing here is the broad ripple effect of Armstrong's failure. The man grinning at that press conference, shown in a stadium pregame stadium video attending the first game, is responsible for triggering the end of a useful partnership.
In some ways, this story reminds me of one I wrote on Tuesday, before the Livestrong news came out. I was in federal court for the sentencing of Daniel Meredith, a con man The Pitch reported about last year. Meredith had a disturbing addiction to gambling. He lost $555,000 on blackjack between 2008 and 2011. He conned people out of their money to feed his illness. At the sentencing, a victim who looked to be in his 60s told the court that he was living with his wife in his parents' basement. Did Meredith intend for this man to move home? Probably not. But he wanted his money.
Armstrong similarly has an addiction to being idolized and praised. Although things were looking bad for Armstrong two years ago when he came to Kansas City to name the stadium, his reputation was still somewhat intact. This naming deal was one more way to ladle adoration and credibility on him. Now the jig is up, and he's playing the only card he has left to save his name: the admit-guilt-and-apologize card. Did Armstrong intend for this deal to go sideways? Of course not. But the driving reason behind his confession is that he hopes to compete again after receiving a lifetime ban. In other words, he's hoping to save face and once again be loved by the masses. And this deal's end is just one more victim of that compulsion.