ON THE RAIL: CPKC Stadium, branded for a railroad company, opens Saturday for the NWSL’s Kansas City Current, the first purpose-built venue for a women’s pro sports team. (Courtesy team)

NWSL stadium anchors riverfront development

Angie Long remembers her high school days playing soccer in Kansas City, wearing jerseys handed down from the boys’ junior varsity team. Long, co-owner of the Kansas City Current, a National Women’s Soccer League team, never dreamed of competing in the first purpose-built venue for a women’s pro sports team, but here she is, poised to make history with the opening of CPKC Stadium, a landmark project on multiple levels.

The $117 million facility, designed by Generator Studio and built by JE Dunn Construction, teaming with Monarch Build, a woman-owned contractor, opens Saturday with the Current playing host to the Portland (Oregon) Thorns FC. It’s the first of 13 home dates for the Current in their shiny new digs, playing their fourth season in the NWSL.

“It’s going to change the mindset for millions of young girls in this country and their potential, what it means to play professionally and what that’s like to be in a first class facility with all the fans who are there cheering for you,” she said. “We can serve as that opportunity to change the way female athletes see themselves.”

Over the past five years, Long, who went on to become an all-American rugby player at Princeton and a Wall Street executive, and her husband, Current co-owner Chris Long, founder of Palmer Square Capital Management, a financial services firm with $30 billion in assets under management, made that dream true after purchasing an NWSL expansion team with the vision to construct a new stadium for the club.

In 2021, about 10 months into their ownership, they announced the development of a privately funded, 11,500-capacity stadium to be built at Berkley Riverfront Park, along the Missouri River, an historic but long neglected stretch of land that sits a few miles south of downtown Kansas City.

CPKC Stadium, branded for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which bought naming rights to the building, is the city’s newest public assembly gem. The Midwest community is going through a rebirth with many parts of downtown going through redevelopment, and the possibility of Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals building a new ballpark on the edge of the central business district.

PITCH PERFECT: The Pitch Club at CPKC Stadium, influenced by premium spaces at MLS venues and Madison Square Garden. (Courtesy team)

On their own, the Longs believed elite women athletes deserved their own sports venue, a core tenet behind their investment to own an NWSL team.

At the same time, the financial decision to pay for it on their own was tied to unlocking revenue streams that previously were not available to women’s teams, such as concessions, parking, naming rights, founding partnerships and premium seat income.

“Those items gave us a lot of confidence that this was the right path,” Chris Long said.

In terms of total seats, CPKC Stadium is a small building, relative to MLS venues, but it represents something much bigger, as Angie Long mentioned. Revitalizing a piece of Kansas City that had long been dormant, is another plus.

As the stadium takes shape, there’s other construction underway down the street, including The Origin Hotel, a 118-room boutique property, and a new beer hall and restaurant called 2 Birds 1 Stone Beer Garden, both of which open this summer. Those businesses join hundreds of apartments that have opened along the riverfront, with more units coming online over the past nine months, keeping Bar K busy, a dog park, bar and restaurant that opened in 2018 at the far end of the waterfront development.

Most of the remaining undeveloped land surrounding CPKC Stadium, controlled by the Longs’ real estate company, is being master planned, said Tom Proebstle, Generator Studio’s co-founder and design director.

It took the Longs’ commitment to build a stadium by the Christopher S. Bond Bridge, a relatively new KC landmark that opened in 2010, to help spur additional riverfront development. Chris Long said they always wanted the stadium as part of an urban setting, and when they learned land was available along the Missouri River, it all came together in a nicely wrapped package.

Kansas City was essentially born on the river 175 years ago and “we owe our history to it,” he said.

“The riverfront was abandoned for decades,” Angie Long said. “I grew up here and it’s been a question we’ve asked for years. Why haven’t we done more to embrace that (natural resource) as we’ve seen other great cities in the world re-embrace. This is a catalytic project for the whole area, being so close to the river with an incredible view back downtown.”

RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: The Missouri River, a historic piece of Kansas City,  is part of the landscape tied to CPKC Stadium. (Courtesy team)

Standing as the first stadium of its kind for professional women’s soccer, the Longs found themselves visiting the newest Major League Soccer stadiums in St. Louis, Missouri; Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and Columbus, Ohio for inspiration, as well as in Kansas City, where they played the past two seasons at Children’s Mercy Park, home of MLS Sporting Kansas City.

The mesh seating products at Q2 Stadium in Austin and the field-level clubs in St. Louis and Nashville were among the takeaways for developing CPKC Stadium. Outside of MLS, the bunker suites and high-end hospitality spaces they saw at Madison Square Garden, which are essentially studio apartments, them ideas for designing the pitch club in KC.

“Similar to them, we have an authentic approach, where everything we did is (native) to Kansas City,” Chris Long said. “It’s a representation of our history and where we’re going on a progressive basis. Every aspect of those visits gave us something we ultimately implemented.”

The Longs also toured Chase Center in San Francisco and took notes on the high-end concession offerings at the Golden State Warriors’ arena, where Bon Appetit, part of Compass Group, runs the food service.

At CPKC Stadium, there’s a full roster of local restaurant brands as part of the food lineup, extending from Joe’s Kansas City BBQ, Boulevard Brewing Co. and High Hopes Ice Cream to Room 39, Martin City Brewery pizza, Amigoni Urban Winery and healthy fare from Billie’s Grocery. In a city that prides itself on its BBQ, Joe’s will serve its signature Z-Man brisket sandwich, named for local sports talk radio host Mike Zarrick.

Levy, another Compass Group subsidiary, runs the food at CPKC Stadium, branding the overall operation as the Riverfront Collective.

REGULAR JOE: Joe’s Kansas City BBQ’s signature Z-Man sandwich is part of CPKC Stadium’s concessions fare. (JoesKC.com)

For Scott Jenkins, the Current’s vice president of facility development, CPKC Stadium represents the fifth building he has helped open over the past 35 years, including most recently, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. MBS tenants include the MLS Atlanta United FC, which has drawn up to 70,000 fans in a building they share with the NFL Atlanta Falcons.

CPKC Stadium is a far cry from a building that set MLS attendance records when it opened in 2017, and that’s a good thing. Small translates to intimacy, with all fans sitting close to the pitch. The furthest seat is 94 feet from the field, with the 13 concourse suites cutting that distance by two-thirds, according to Jenkins. Proebstle said are 12 different premium seat products, including loge boxes at the north and south ends, a large assortment considering the size of the venue.

“It’s all premium,” Jenkins said, referring to the proximity of the seating bowl to the pitch. “Everybody always says there’s not a bad seat in the house, but in this stadium, it’s true.”

Last September, Jenkins sat with a corporate client for a Current game at Children’s Mercy Park. As a stadium manager, Jenkins doesn’t typically sit down and watch sports events, even if he buys a ticket. He’s too busy walking around observing fan behavior to see how the building functions as a whole. For the NWSL contest, though, he sat in the front row off the pitch and realized what a fast and powerful game the women play.

“The intimacy of our place is going to make for a great experience,” Jenkins said. “It’s not the size of the venue, but the meaning of it that’s special. We’ll have a train horn that blows when we score goals (as part of CPKC’s activation), which will be fun. It has the gritty feel of being on the river. There are four active rail lines within a few hundred yards of the stadium. It’s a real crossroads of transportation.”

The Longs acknowledge that the new stadium has already served as inspiration for other NWSL teams with plans to build their own stadiums, such as the Chicago Red Stars and the Seattle Reign, which is part of a local effort to repurpose an old football stadium into a soccer-specific venue. International clubs have also reached out to the Current about their project.

“It serves as a model for what others are going to do,” Chris Long said. “There will be more investment and expansion with facilities. It’s about putting that bar out there that everybody is going to have to leap over to be part of the best women’s soccer league on the planet.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.