World Cup Kansas City

In the early 70s there was a remarkable economic development boom in Kansas City. Can we repeat the performance 50 years later?

By Joe Sweeney

The opportunity is here. Kansas City has been selected as one of 16 North American cities to host the World Cup.

This is a big deal. The Economic Impact for a host city for the World Cup is absolutely massive. Held every four years, the World Cup is easily the most watched sporting event in the world. Millions of eyes will be on Kansas City, possibly billions. We will be on the world map once again. The “I” in KCI may actually begin to have meaning.

Perhaps as kids we took progress for granted. I was a 7th grader at St. Elizabeth’s in 1972, the year Arrowhead Stadium hosted its first Chiefs game. The following spring Royals Stadium opened across the parking lot from Arrowhead at the spanking new Truman Sports Complex. Kansas City International Airport also opened in 1972, as did the start of construction on KC’s then state-of-the-art Bartle Hall Convention Center.

These public improvements were accompanied by many extraordinary private projects including the Hunt family’s Worlds of Fun amusement park which opened in the spring of 1973. J.C. Nichols Company’s flagship hotel Alameda Plaza, now the Inter-Continental Kansas City, opened in 1972. Crown Center followed in 1973. Kemper Arena was completed in 1974, just two years before KC hosted the Republican National Convention. Everything was up to date in Kansas City!

Most readers will remember the MLB All Star Game and festivities in 2012, but how many remember the first All Star Game ever played in Kansas City in July of 1973? The Kansas City Royals played their first game in 1969 and put their stamp on the future by drafting George Brett right out of High School in 1971. I’ll never forget meeting many of the players in the lobby of the Alameda, including Johnny Bench of the Reds. I saw Mr. Bench years later at a conference in Chicago and asked if he remembered me. “Of course,” he replied. Kids are easily influenced, especially by sports celebrities, and the opportunities for Kansas City area kids today are extraordinary.

I am a believer that history tends to repeat, and while my mindset as an adult is obviously different than it was as a teen, the memories of the Chiefs winning Super Bowl III in January 1970 against the Vikings, the All Star Game in ’73, and the Royals winning the World Series in 1985 remain as fresh today as they did then.

It’s once again an exciting era in Kansas City as there’s a healthy resurgence of public and private investment throughout the region. Our real strength as a region is our location at the nexus of North American Trade. Kansas City’s centrality, coupled with the biggest boom in logistics in American history, brings this region to the forefront of North American commerce. Public projects such as the $1.5 billion state-of-the-art new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport that will open in 2023 give us a chance to highlight our strengths. The airport will open just in time for the 2023 NFL Draft which will attract tens of thousands of important visitors to the area. Now, with the World Cup arriving in four short years, Kansas City has a chance to shine.       

Kansas City’s bid—co-chaired by Kansas City Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt and Sporting Kansas City principal owner Cliff Illig—was led by KC2026 Bid Director Katherine Holland with the support of an Executive Committee comprised of a group of sports executives, government officials and civic representatives from across the region. Together, the bi-state effort delivered a strategic vision for securing the largest event in Kansas City history in collaboration with many key stakeholders, including proposed training sites, hotel partners and Fan Fest locations. 

It’s been nearly a decade of anticipation for the big announcement that rocked Kansas City Live at the Power & Light District the blazing hot afternoon of June 16. There were 44 North American candidate cities that bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup and 16 remained standing in the end, including 11 US cities as well as three from Mexico and two from Canada. Hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup will be a boon for Kansas City. The Economic Impact for a host city for the World Cup could be around $700 million. In 2018, a combined 3.572 billion viewers watched the World Cup and an estimated 6.8 million tourists visited host cities. The 2026 World Cup expanded to include 48 nations, after previously taking place with 32. Eighty matches will be played to crown the world champion.

Kansas City has always punched well above its weight. It emerged as the smallest but arguably the fiercest dog in the fight to host the World Cup in 2026. Other larger cities bid to host the event, and many fell by the wayside. For KC to earn a spot as a host city was a major accomplishment. Rankings for the 16 host cities by MSA population are noted in the map—Kansas City is clearly the smallest city by population to host the World Cup. 

The Kansas City area has invested $600 million in soccer facilities over the last 15 years and has earned recognition as the Soccer Capital of America. KC’s championship-winning teams have hosted several international competitions, and the soccer community and investors have strategically aligned to develop a growing collection of world-class soccer facilities and venues.  

Sporting Kansas City is the big dog in our soccersphere but there are other emerging franchises, including the KC Current with a new training facility open this year and a Downtown stadium that will open in 2024. Clark Hunt follows his father Lamar Hunt’s passion to attract world class sporting events, and KC’s Truman Sports Complex and Arrowhead Stadium will serve as the epicenter of the month-long 2026 World Cup.

TAKE IT UP TO 10,000’
In 2002 I was asked by the city’s largest and most prestigious business breakfast club to prepare and present the “Next Big Thing” for the KC and bi-state region. Michelle was proud of me working feverishly at the home office, but she had no clue about the scope of the project I was designing. On my virtual drawing board was a plan for the state of Missouri and its good corporate citizens to host the Summer Olympics. The plan was bold: Olympic Village would be adjacent to Mizzou. The state would develop a high speed heavy rail system to link to venues in St. Louis and Kansas City and develop key light rail connections to facilitate movement within the cities. The state would create a research triangle of sorts by tying Springfield into the mix through the I-44 and 1-49 corridors, a triangle twenty times the size of the celebrated one in North Carolina.

So here comes another mega-concept developed just semi-sober hours after the announcement of KC’s being chosen as a host city for the 2026 World Cup. I ask only one question. 

With all the talk of KC building a Downtown baseball stadium for the Kansas City Royals, what if we accelerate the process and make it happen before the World Cup arrives in 2026? 

What if Downtown KCMO becomes the actual site of a new stadium. Why should Jackson County care if the existing lease is replaced with a new one? If the state of Kansas were serious about making a pitch to recruit the Royals, why not issue the RFP this year and consider serious offers qualified by strict requirements. Kansas could buy out the remainder of the unused lease when and if the Royals vacate the K. 

What if we build a new Downtown stadium in the underdeveloped area from 10th Street to 12th Street and from Cherry to Charlotte or Hwy 71. Other areas surrounding Downtown could work and would enhance economically-challenged neighborhoods, but ask yourself, why was Memorial Stadium replaced by Kauffman Stadium and Arrowhead at the Sports Complex? Be honest.

What if, with the need for optimal soccer facilities for the World Cup and given the extraordinary run the Kansas City Chiefs have had in recent years, Kansas City considered the construction of a World Cup soccer stadium that would become the home of the Chiefs in the Fall of 2026 and international soccer matches in future years? 

Consider for a moment the investment made from cities and regions that host the Summer and Winter Olympics and how these cities usually flourish from their investment and benefit long term by use of these assets and sports facilities. Correct me if I’m wrong, but can not Kansas City become the Sports Capital of the World if we put our hearts in it? And can not the collective will of the architectural and engineering design community coupled with the world class general contractors here rally to accomplish this challenging feat?

I had a conversation recently with a construction executive whose message, essentially, was: “Build a world-class MLB and/or NFL Stadium in KC in four years! Are you nuts, man?” But it could be done. Right?

Good point. Look, I lack the financial heft or political power to drive decisions. I lack too the design prowess to create plans for such a bold concept, but I will tell you this. I’m surrounded by all of those brilliant leaders who collectively could drive a concept this bold. That is if the politicians do not impede the progress by squabbling over who gets what piece of the action. 

Regardless of the aforementioned, infrastructure is vital and public transportation essential. It’s time to concurrently finish the expansion of the Streetcar to the Plaza and design a Downtown to the Sports Complex line and a centralized transit hub. Hey—Union Station! 

Let’s be real. The financial strain to fund such investment would be monumental. Consider as well, how useful Royals Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium are. Part of the reason is that 50 years ago these were state-of-the-art stadiums—designed by the best in the business from right here in Kansas City. And we’ve invested heavily multiple times to keep them renovated and competitive. 

But have you been to Las Vegas to see the Raider’s new stadium? Or to a Chiefs game in Houston against the Texans? Take a close look at many of the newer stadiums around the country. Our design community from right here in River City designed all of these great stadiums.

If the Royals owners were to move the team Downtown or consider moving to Kansas, and the Hunt family and the Chiefs made the commitment to build a state-of-the-art football (and occasionally used for soccer) stadium, the massive need for parking may keep them at the Sports Complex. 

I’d think building a new stadium where Royals Stadium is presently located would make the most sense. But timing with the World Cup eliminates that option. There is plenty of room, however, at the Sports Complex to build a new football stadium and to utilize it and Arrowhead as well for the World Cup. 

The reality is, 54 years is a long life for a professional sports stadium, and I personally think it’s time to build both new stadiums and to bring baseball downtown. Michelle and I lived in St. Louis for several years, and I was raised a Cardinals fan (my great aunt was the team chaplain for years). There is no better fan experience than enjoying the city life before or after a game. Downtown KC would flourish.

What if, now that we’ve earned the right to host the World Cup, we turn on the after-burners and exceed everyone’s expectations? It would be a very bold move to consider either of these suggestions but here’s another: Continue to maintain Kauffman Stadium and repurpose it to become the best outdoor concert venue in the nation, or the home of the College Baseball World Series, or the home of the Kansas City Monarchs?

Fifty years ago our business and government leaders aligned to remake Kansas City into one of the most vibrant cities in the nation. What if we reload our creative juices after enjoying the celebration being named a World Cup host city and reclaim the prominence this city enjoyed many decades ago.

About the author


Joe Sweeney

Editor-In-Chief & Publisher

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