The Rise of Sporting KC’s In-House Design

Chad Reynolds remembers when he alone signified the entire creative department for the Major League Soccer (MLS) club in Kansas City. Now, as the creative director with a marketing department of 17—the creative team makes up 12 of those slots—Sporting Kansas City has one of the most robust, vibrant and forward-thinking in-house teams in the league.

Sporting Club, the parent company of the team, features more than just a successful MLS franchise, also owning eight event spaces, a USL team, a stadium, a bar, a brand-new $80 million training facility and youth soccer complexes. “We are an in-house agency out of necessity,” Reynolds says. “When you take all of that and try to imagine how you would even manage that through a traditional agency relationship, you can only imagine what the costs would be.”

Keeping everything in house—photo, video, design, creative, you name it—keeps the team humming, but the work for the main soccer club, Sporting KC, serves as the pinnacle and most public-facing aspect of the work. Along the way, the creative team gets its hands into every imaginable aspect of stewarding the brand and its story. Whether the annual campaign built around each season or flying to Portland, OR, to work with Adidas on future kit designs, Reynolds says he puts a focus on helping the public accurately understand who Sporting KC is and what the brand promises to the city and to soccer.

“We are in a really, really cool spot in that our ownership on down is big on understanding who we are and what we are and telling that story,” he says. “They understood how important brand storytelling is and how to tie everything back.”

That tying back always comes as a way to promote “brand pillars” of wanting to perform at a world class level, having a vision behind change and a connection to the community and fans in Kansas City and the Midwest. “If we can tie everything back to those ideas,” Reynolds says, “it keeps the whole club going in the same direction.”

For the 2018 season campaign, the team settled on “For Glory, For City” as its mantra. Working in conjunction with the main supporters group for the team, The Cauldron, the design group harkened to a banner The Cauldron displayed in 2012 with similar wording. One of the club’s most iconic photos comes from that U.S. Cup game with all 11 players walking toward the banner. In the time since that photo, the team has won four trophies in the six years, but has also gotten knocked out of the MLS playoffs in the first round the past two seasons, producing a tension around the club, Reynolds says, that has players, coaches and staff digging in to find success yet again.

“We have this standard of excellence,” Reynolds says. “We keep doing this to keep winning trophies for the fans and for the city. This is our commitment to the city, our fans our teams. It is grit, determination and sheer will to continue this tradition of excellence.”

With that thought process behind the effort, the 2018 campaign looks gritty. It has a “street level” feel to it. For example, the For Glory, For City campaign will never include a wide shot of the city skyline, instead featuring more abstract photography, recognizable places in Kansas City taken from angles normally unseen or cropped and zoomed in a unique way. “It is all about feeling like you are actually in the city rather than observing the city,” Reynolds says. The lead television shot—which the team designed the concept for, wrote, edited, shot and produced, all in house—shows the players training, getting back to work. And not in fancy, shiny gyms, but on their own as the sun comes up.

While the For Glory, For City campaign takes this “gorilla” approach to the season, Reynolds knows that it can’t be a one-design-fits-all approach for every medium, a change in approach in recent years. As social media moves past simply posting the same item across all platforms, the philosophy allows the design team to treat each opportunity differently. Instagram serves as a front door to the Sporting KC brand, the easiest visual representation of the club with a style that gives behind-the-scenes access. Fans will see players walking in before the game with families, or players take over the story for a day. Recently, Daniel Salloi, a 21-year-old player, taught Instagram followers Hungarian, showing a side to the player most likely didn’t know.

Twitter has a timely aspect that features more direct engagement and a more fun—not silly, yet snarky—attitude. Facebook allows the team to play with longer-form videos, almost akin to a traditional marketing channel of 2018, telling a broader version of the story.

Reynolds, who can’t speak highly enough of his “talented” team, says that working in the MLS does allow for innovation. Whether in Vancouver, Toronto or Kansas City, “everyone is trying to push themselves and that pushes each other.” While watching what everyone else is doing, the MLS is out there working to feel different than the NFL, MLB or NBA (Reynolds praises the NBA for its targeting of Gen Z).

That push includes keeping the annual campaign fresh. With a nine-month season, the creative team must always look for Campaign 2.0, an effort to offer timely updates to the theme, evolving design along with the season’s storyline.

“The rules are there are no rules,” Reynolds says. “That makes design a little easier as you try to freshen it up because you haven’t put yourself in a hole.”

Tim Newcomb covers sports design for HOW. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

In-House Designers, These Judges Await Your Work:

  • Meghan Newell, senior art director at Lyft
  • Mike Rice, creative director at Amazon, former senior creative director at Whole Foods, former global design director at PepsiCo, former global creative director at P&G 
  • Viet Huynh, communication designer at Slack

HOW In-House Design Awards Early-Bird Deadline: May 7, 2018!

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