12:01am

Thu June 9, 2011
Sports

'Livestrong' Stadium Tries To Dodge Doping Drama

Lance Armstrong and members of the Livestrong cancer research foundation are in Kansas City, Kan. this week for the opening of a new soccer stadium that will bear the Livestrong name.

In a bold marketing move, owners of Kansas City's Major League Soccer team gave naming rights to the stadium, and plan to donate millions of dollars to the foundation over the next five years. In return, they hope the popular Livestrong brand will not only attract new fans to soccer, but also help promote a number of related enterprises.

However, some say it's a risky gamble given the controversy currently swirling around Armstrong about allegations of performance-enhancing drug use.

Stadium Embraces Livestrong Lifestyle

When Lance Armstrong was in Kansas City for the news conference announcing the partnership between Livestrong and the city's Major League Soccer team, he poked a little fun at the sport.

"Is soccer that sport where they fall down and roll around and pretend their knees hurt?" he asked.

But what followed was a detailed explanation of an innovative experiment by both Livestrong and the team, which goes by the name "Sporting KC."

Team owners, led by the founders of The Cerner Corporation, want the new stadium to promote more than soccer. Cerner is a leader in the electronic medical records field and its executives say they want to build a destination and community around those affected by cancer and embrace the healthy lifestyle Livestrong represents.

All Press is Good Press?

But on May 22, 60 Minutes aired what Ad Age magazine called "the most damning interview yet" about the allegations of doping against the seven-time Tour de France winner. Armstrong's teammate, Tyler Hamilton, said the celebrity athlete helped him get performance-enhancing drugs, and that he'd seen Armstrong use them, too.

None of the bad press that followed slowed construction on the Livestrong stadium site or ticket sales, which executives say have exceeded projections. All 400 of the most expensive field-side seats sold in a few days, and more than half the stadium has been sold to season tickets holders.

A two-acre plaza outside will have restaurants, a hotel, and office one day, according to the team's Vice President, Dave Ficklin.

"We're gonna work to make it the living room of this whole area. It's a gathering space," Ficklin says. "It's gonna be part of the fabric of this whole area."

The 'Lance Issue'

Club owners know the "Lance issue," as they call it, is a potential problem. But CEO Rob Heineman says the Livestrong stadium won't suffer, even if charges are brought against Armstrong.

"You have to look him straight in the eye and say 'What if?'" Heineman says. "But I think we're very comfortable with where the conversation is and if should something internally should pop up, we'll deal with it."

Owners won't say if their contract protects them should any of the allegations against Armstrong be confirmed — or if he settles his case. But most experts agree a judgment against the iconic athlete would further tarnish his image, and therefore his brand. That, in turn, inevitably reflects on the Livestrong Foundation and the stadium.

University of Missouri Kansas City marketing professor Gene Brown says in everyone's mind, Lance Armstrong will always be the face of Livestrong. And according to a Neilsen marketing rating, his brand is already beaten down.

"So Lance Armstrong, that brand, impacts Livestrong, and the two together impact Sporting KC," Brown says. "So that should be Sporting KC's concern at the moment."

Armstrong's many fans believe his heroic comeback from cancer and the foundation he created will always outweigh any alleged misdeeds.

Investors in the Livestrong stadium are just hoping that kind of support will endure.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.