Philadelphia sports fan Chris Long owns the Kansas City Current team in the NWSL championship game

WASHINGTON — Growing up in Hazleton, Chris Long made many trips to Philadelphia for Big 5 winter nights at the Palestra and Phillies summer nights at Veterans Stadium. While learning how to become a sports fan, Long also learned how sports teams build communities among players and in the stands.

“The Big 5, you think about tradition, multi-generational, something that becomes part of the fabric of your community,” Long told The Inquirer. “We want to do that with the women’s side in Kansas City, and we’re already seeing it.”

Long got the opportunity to build such a community from the ground up when he brought an NWSL team to Kansas City last year. And in just two seasons, Current has become a huge success.

As well as their performance, the club surpassed the previous local attendance record for a women’s football club three times, with a peak of 10,395 in mid-August – miles above the minimum 1,312 who attended former Kansas City FC’s last game in 2017 before give up this winter.

Now there’s a new $18 million practice facility in Riverside, Missouri, that opened this summer. In 2024, the team will open its own $120 million, 11,500-seat stadium — the first stadium built specifically for an NWSL team — on the banks of the Missouri River, just north of growing downtown Kansas City.

And on Saturday night, the Current will play in the NWSL championship game (8 p.m., CBS3 and Paramount+), coming off playoff wins over No. 4 Houston and No. 1 Seattle.

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Long’s co-owners include his Kansas City-born wife, Angie, whom he met at Princeton, and Brittany Mahomes, a public figure in town who is also the wife of Patrick Mahomes.

They’ve put their money where their mouth is, and nowhere is that more true than the team’s facilities. Many NWSL teams play in nice stadiums, but Current will be unique in having one that is truly their own.

“We’re having conversations all over the world about bringing players to Kansas City,” Long said. “What do you want to be if you are a professional athlete? You want to want to get better and you want to win. And it’s hard not to when you don’t have the right facilities.”

Long values, centering players, partly because he was one himself, but not in football. He played basketball at Princeton in the mid-1990s and still remembers the duels with St. Joseph’s and La Salle at Congress Hall and Penn’s dynasty on 33rd Street.

So he knew he had to focus on something many NWSL teams neglected: having a high-level practice facility. Even now, expansion candidates talk a lot about stadiums and fan bases, but not much about practice facilities.

“Not providing a proper training environment where athletes can feel a sense of ownership is a huge competitive disadvantage,” Long said. “The fact that we can give players the opportunity to work out, go and hit the weights, recover, go to the server and get their food, have the lounge after they’ve hung out with your team — they literally spend almost out there all day honing their craft — that’s a big advantage. And I think what you’re going to see over time is that people are going to see that expressed on the field and on the field.”

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Indeed, multiple players pointed to the team’s 9-2-4 record since the Current’s facility opened in late June.

“They put in everything we needed,” said midfielder Kristen Edmonds, a North Jersey-born veteran of three NWSL teams and two European teams. “The only thing we have to worry about is getting on the pitch and performing. … Just focusing on being a professional athlete is amazing.”

Goalkeeper AD Franch, a former Thorn with 10 caps for the US national team, agreed.

“Chris, Angie and Brittany wanted KC to be a place where players wanted to come,” said Franch, a Kansas native. “The investment they’re making – and they’ve already made – is a standard that should already be in place. And I think they realize that and with that they try to help.

It was also shaped by the knowledge that FC Kansas City had two sets of owners who fell into scandal. The franchise then became the Utah Royals, which also fell into scandal. So how did Long pitch to the Current players that he was going to fix things?

“These are investments in facilities. It’s transporting the players’ families to certain games,” he said. “Make sure you take care of every ounce of medicine [work] that the player needs, right in our backyard and spare no expense. We really put the players at the forefront of everything we do from a decision-making perspective.”

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Then there are the waves of abuse allegations that have rocked other NWSL teams. When Long met with other team owners, he knew some were named in the Yates investigation as complicit — notably Portland’s Merritt Paulson and Chicago’s Arnim Whistler.

Long did not directly criticize other owners. But when asked if he favors more transparency in the league, he didn’t hesitate to say yes.

“It was a disturbing time reading these reports,” Long said. “Our mission – that’s clear, it’s everywhere – is to be the best women’s football club in the world.

“We cannot do this without being transparent. Whether it’s sharing information about how we’ve made our facilities, whether it’s sharing best practices around finances, whether it’s about workplace safety and making sure everyone feels comfortable going to work everyone day, we want to be at a leadership level in this regard, not a follower. “

Long also promised that his staff would lead efforts to continue raising player salaries.

“We are big supporters of continuing to raise the level of compensation [and] benefits,” he said. “If you have a player-first mentality, you have to think in that direction because that’s where it’s going. “

If the Current succeed, they’ll likely have fans far beyond Kansas City cheering them on.

» READ MORE: US Soccer vows action after Yates investigation reveals details of abuse and sexual coercion in NWSL

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