Last Sunday, two football teams played in a big city. One was off of a huge win the previous week, drawing in crowds of thousands. The other had previously filled their stadium, nearly selling out. The story would seem a bit inspirational—albeit a bit boring—if I didn’t include three crucial details: the city was Los Angeles, the second largest in the United States; the teams were the former St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers; and the Chargers indeed failed to fill a soccer stadium built for 27,000. Attendance was so low that, as many journalists pointed out, the USC Trojans had more fans at their Saturday game in the same stadium than both National Football League (NFL) teams combined.
While the Rams were LA’s team for almost half a century, a 20-year hiatus in St. Louis made sure to undo that association before the team moved back to LA. Though the Chargers began their existence in LA, their move just a year later in 1961 to San Diego meant they’d never be associated with City of Angels.
The primary reason two teams converged onto LA was their stadiums. After playing in an old dome and a stadium built for a baseball team that no longer plays there, the Rams and Chargers flocked to LA. There, the suburb of Inglewood promised to shell out millions for a shiny new stadium. The Rams actually had a clause in their contract about continually modernizing their old home in St. Louis, while San Diego had a chance to substantially raise their hotel taxes to cover most of the cost of a downtown stadium before overwhelmingly rejecting it.
In both these scenarios, team owners can clearly afford to cover the majority of costs for their stadiums but don’t. When it comes down to it, stadiums are large investments in a city’s happiness, not economics, much like a park or museum. Owners often use this fact to hold a city’s team hostage, demanding a deal with better profit margins and threatening to take a town’s beating heart if they don’t get it.
This has devastated many so-called “small market” teams like St. Louis and San Diego as they watch the teams they’ve supported for years leave because of fights between businessmen and politicians. But through the years, Kansas City has kept its Chiefs, and it’s done so despite rejections of key stadium renovations and the repeated enticement of California’s coast. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the team’s ownership may be the primary one. In an age when most teams are commodities bought and sold by businessmen, the Chiefs have been a family-owned organization passed down by the Hunts.
The NFL’s two conferences, the American and National Football Conferences, used to be separate leagues. In 1960, the NFL was the dominant football league with a monopoly over the game. This became a problem when the league started becoming more conservative in its policy, most notably with its unwillingness to award expansion teams to large cities hungry for football. The then-Chicago Cardinals, overshadowed by the more successful Chicago Bears, were willing to move and grant a city a franchise to cheer on.
Investor Lamar Hunt tried to make that city his hometown of Dallas, but the Cardinals weren’t convinced a team would work there. Hunt then went to the commissioner of the NFL to advocate for expansion teams, only to have the idea brushed aside. Hunt then did what seems to be an all-too-common American tale: dissatisfied with the NFL, he made his own league, the American Football League (AFL).
Unlike previous iterations of the same name, the AFL was actually successful, opening up eight teams across the nation in locations that would cultivate rivalries. Hunt himself founded his own team, the Dallas Texans, in 1960. He was quickly matched by the NFL with an expansion team, the Dallas Cowboys.
Though the Texans were successful, it was quickly realized that even a big city like Dallas couldn’t support two teams, and the Texans began looked for a new city. Hunt considered many southern cities. Until the Texans and Cowboys, the Washington Redskins were the unofficial team of the South. Kansas City’s mayor H. Roe Bartle convinced Hunt to come to his growing metropolis, promising 35,000 fans at his games.
As we now know, Hunt did move his franchise and stayed, despite the fact that he didn’t initially get the fans promised. Hunt didn’t care. He had a successful team flying in the face of the NFL and fans loved it. Kansas City A’s manager Charles Findley, who had been itching to move the baseball team as soon as he had bought it, tried to convince Hunt to do otherwise, calling KC “a horse-sh*t town.”
Hunt wasn’t hearing it. Despite the fact that two seasons had brought lower than expected attendance at run-down Municipal Stadium, Hunt loved seeing rabid fans in the “Wolfpack” section at every game. He personally interacted with the players, micromanaging his pride and joy through the AFL’s eventual merger with the NFL. Trusting in now-legendary coach Hank Stram, the Chiefs helped show in two Super Bowl appearances (one that ended in a victory) that Hunt’s AFL teams were the real deal.
Hunt managed the team like a business, as every NFL owner does. To him, it was more than just a business. Hunt thought he was creating a public good. He refused to call himself the owner of the Chiefs. He called himself the founder, saying “every Chiefs fan has ownership in the team.”
That attitude has continued with his son Clark, a well-known philanthropist in Kansas City who actually gave more to help make recent Arrowhead renovations happen. Even the name, Arrowhead Stadium, has remained when most stadiums in the country are financed by corporate naming rights. As long as this dynasty, from the founder to the Hunts to whoever it may be passed onto after Clark, remains, Lamar’s dream team will remain in Kansas City.