Kansas City: The Sports-Design Mecca

Question: How did the 26th-largest city in the nation in 1970 emerge, half a century later, as the undisputed global center of design excellence in sports architecture?

If you boil it down to two words, Earl Santee says they might be “Ron Labinski.” Or “Kivett & Myers.” The architect and the firm that hired him changed the very face of sports stadiums with the two-facility Truman Sports Complex in the early 1970s. Because of their work, the multi-sport facilities that disappointed so many fans of both baseball and football would become relics of a design era passed.

That positioned this city to become an incubator of the world’s greatest concentration of sports and large-venue design talent. Santee, managing partner at Populous,  believes there might be 500 designers in that niche working in this market. The family tree of firms tracing roots to Kivett & Myers includes HNTB, which acquired K&M; Labinski’s next venture, Devine, James, Labinski and Meyers; HOK Sports Facilities Group, which became today’s Populous; global giants like AECOM, with its sports practice here, and smaller firms like Manica Architecture, with a comparative handful of employees but a portfolio of venues worldwide.

They have combined to build facilities on six continents, Olympic venues, outdoor stadiums and enclosed arenas—it’s a long list. One reason for the region’s prominence, Santee suggests, is that firms like Populous hire so many people who are themselves sports nuts. “They are people who love the idea of designing buildings that their heroes would play in,” he says. 

The best part for this region, perhaps, is that there’s still room for the niche to grow.

“There are now firms like Dimensional Innovations with sports work, graphic firms with sports work, other architectural firms that do sports work—as society continues to change, there will be more and more opportunities for startup companies,” Santee said. “There are a ton of opportunities across the world.”