Sports Excellence Starts in the Middle

From pro football, soccer and baseball to college football and basketball, NASCAR and more, the heart of America brims with superior results on the field, on the court or on the diamond.



Six stinking inches. Dee Ford’s hand is placed six inches back across the line of scrimmage, and the Kansas City Chiefs are in Super Bowl LIII in February 2019. 

But because the now-ex-Chief nudged over the line and drew that offsides penalty, a Chiefs interception of Tom Brady was nullified. New England went on to score the touchdown that effectively  led to a sudden-death ending: Patrick Mahomes never got the chance to lead a winning drive against the soon-to-be world champion Patriots.

Ford left town in a trade to San Francisco just weeks later, and probably won’t be either forgiven or forgotten by sports fans here. But he’s now part of the rich lore of Kansas City sports. That sports history at times has produced excruciating pain, at others uninhibited joy, but always a sense of energy and excitement among one of America’s most engaged communities of sports enthusiasts.

Some will point to the flagging attendance of the Kansas City Royals since more than half a million people jammed Downtown to celebrate the 2015 World Series title. Or the seas of empty red seats that defined football at Arrowhead Stadium during the 1980s. They will cite those as evidence that we’re a collection of bandwagon-hoppers who get behind our teams only when they’re winning.

An alternate viewpoint is that fans here are among the nation’s most discriminating when it comes to choosing where they’ll spend their hard-earned dollars—and if one organization is letting them down, there are plenty of other venues calling those fans out. But let’s start with where the most intense fan experience is: Arrowhead. 

 Things were tough in the 1980s, yes. Then Marty Schottenheimer arrived in 1989. After just one season, he changed the face of pro football here. On-field wins generated consistent sellouts and created game-day tailgating experiences that have become social events in themselves.
Fans packing Truman Sports Complex have earned recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records as being the loudest in the world, with a record noise level of 142.2 decibels—enough to cause some permanent hearing loss, if exposed for long periods.

Count on this: If Chiefs Kingdom is bound for Super Bowl LIV—and we think we will be—it’s gonna get louder.

The Kansas City Royals

With the prospect of a new owner for the Kansas City Royals, there is hope that John Sherman’s purchase
of the team from David Glass will herald in a new era of on-field success. Sherman, the long-time energy executive who has founded and sold a pair of highly successful natural-gas companies, will have to divest his minority ownership stake in the Cleveland Indians  and get approval from Major League Baseball’s other owners to complete the deal.

But the prospects of change are excellent, and expectations are rising among fans. Will that translate into increased attendance at Kauffman Stadium? Perhaps. But even with some of the team’s struggles over the last couple of years, the fan support has been stellar. The shine of 2015 has dimmed, attendance as Kauffman Stadium has flagged. But keep something in mind when you see half its 42,000 seats empty on game day. The New York Yankees have averaged slightly over 44,300 fans a game since the start of the 2000 season.

While that’s twice the 21,822 the Royals have averaged over that same span, it’s in a market with a population base nearly 10 times larger.
Even if you factor in the drag on Yankee attendance by the crosstown Mets (average since 2000: 33,000 and change), you’re still talking about a huge enthusiasm gap between the Big Apple and Kansas City fans. And KC is on the right side of that argument.

It took 30 years to follow up the 1985 Series championship with another trophy, but fans here are always ready to fill the seats with royal blue when the team’s commitment to winning translates into just that: Wins. It’s tough to demonstrate that when the payroll is No. 23 out of 30 major-league baseball teams. (It’s less than half of those damn Yankees, who trail only the Boston Red Sox for payroll.)

And what have those extra billions in spending yielded New York since 2000? A 2-1 lead over Kansas City in World Series championships. Game, set and match, KC fans.

Collegiate Sports

One positive element of a state line bisection of the population base is the number of Division I sports programs that compete for fan loyalties. In these parts, the past couple of decades have yielded national-champion caliber basketball at the University of Kansas, and
even No. 1 rankings for the football programs at Kansas State University, and the University of Missouri.

All three programs were off a bit the past year or so, but fans in Lawrence are looking forward to another winning basketball season for the Jayhawks. Football fanatics from Mizzou perennially build on hopes for a bowl appearance and to compete in the Southeastern Conference championship. And both KU and K-State have new football coaches with national-championship victories on their resumes.

NASCAR

Since is opening in 2001, the Kansas Speedway and its introduction of NASCAR racing to this market have proven game-changing, and not just for sports fans. Some economic analyses have shown that the 1.5-mile oval (originally with seating for 82,000, but since reduced to 48,000), generates roughly a quarter-billion dollars in economic activity for the greater Kansas City region each year. Within that are more
than 5,000 jobs tied to track operations or businesses that have been built up around this beautiful race track in western Wyandotte County.

The Kansas Speedway hosts two major NASCAR races each year, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, held in both May and October. 
The new events were announced around the time a $2-billion acquisition was in the works between the track’s former owner International Speedway Corp., and NASCAR Holdings. That deal closed in October 2019. ISC, now a NASCAR subsidiary, owns or operates 13 major motorsports tracks, including such well-known tracks as Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and Watkins Glen. Construction of Kansas Speedway was completed in 2000.

The track’s ownership group also controls the adjoining Hollywood Casino through a JV partnership. Though the local properties have a new owner, ISC will remain close to the France family. Jim France, the son of NASCAR co-founder Bill France, is the still entity’s chairman.  However, the acquisition called for the France family to transfer their ISC holdings to NASCAR, while other shareholders are to receive $45 a share. 

The consolidation occurs as NASCAR officials are dealing with a decline in interest for the sport. In 2018, ISC said that admissions revenue
dropped $9.6 million, or 10.7 percent, for NASCAR Cup events, compared with the previous year.