Kansas City and Grassroots Sports Politics

Something has been happening on the Kansas City sports scene lately. Fans have been organizing. They’re fed up with losing. Many are tired of being ignored by and taken advantage of by rich owners. Owners who they have helped make rich by supporting them with publicly-subsidized stadium renovations, game tickets, and team merchandise. They’re fed up and they’re organizing.

While I am sure this is not unique to Kansas City, it is new on my radar. I’m calling it grassroots sports activism. Over the course of this season, groups of both Royals and Chiefs have started grassroots campaigns to enact change. One Royals fan group started a website, raised over $5,000, and took out a full-page ad in the Kansas City Star trying to convince David Glass to sell the team. They want local ownership. Someone who cares about willing. An owner who will invest in the team and make them competitive for the first time in twenty-seven years.

Chiefs fans have followed a similar course. They’ve flown banners over the stadium, and created Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to churn up support. Their goal is to get the attention of their owner, Clark Hunt, so that he’ll oust team General Manager Scott Pioli. Pioli, they believe, has failed as a GM. They cite his loyalty to quarterback Matt Cassel and his mediocre record in the NFL draft as justifications fo change.

Fans are angry and fed up in Kansas City. They’ve become activists uniting to make their voices heard. Many fans feel powerless. This is their only option. The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since 1993, they will remind you. Even worse, the Royals haven’t even been to the playoffs since they won the World Series in 1985. It’s time for a change.

Activism is the answer for KC fans, which strikes me as a bit odd and misguided. In the structure of today’s professional sports leagues, revenue sharing, TV deals, and merchandise licensing creates enough revenue that owners can still make a profit with only half-full stadiums. The consumer purchasing power of the everyday fan has been severely diminished. Leagues have created a structure where owners can profit by only fielding mediocre teams and not filling their stadiums. Within this structure, boycotts and bad press mean very little to the profit motives of these quasi-capitalist franchises.

This movement of grassroots sport politics in my hometown that has me thinking about bigger issues than sports, however. I’m curious about how and why are fans more engaged and fired up about quasi-capitalists team owners withholding non-tangible goods from them? Maybe it exists, but I’ve yet to see a study that suggest the winning percentage of a city’s professional sports team has a real impact on its population. Or is it really about winning? Most people are in favor of and accept the capitalist system. They know not everyone can be rich, but if we try work enough we can enjoy a decent life. So, perhaps the protest are more about effort. Their rational for change specifically references absentee ownership, and poor scouting and player development. Kansas City fans understand that they cant win championships every year. It’s a small market; they get it. But when other teams build and disassemble winning teams multiple times while Kansas City remains stagnant, they get fed up. They demand we work harder and get better personell.

Perhaps this new grassroots sports activism is indicative of a larger disillusionment in American life. In the wake of 2008, we saw to just what extent that monolithic and impersonal corporations disregard everyday individuals. Government bailouts went to banks and large companies, who in turn used it to pay shareholders and CEO bonuses instead of saving jobs and reducing foreclosures. The hard work and savings toward the American Dream went up in smoke for a lot of people. What’s more, notions of “corporate personhood” were implemented into campaign finance law through the Citizens United Supreme Court case. Individual voices and needs were ignored in favor of greedy profits.

In the sports world, as in broader society, this disillusionment is not partisan. Fans and voters expect their politicians and team owners to satisfy their needs and preserve their since of hope. Both want change, but they seem unsure about which path to take. Is it the fault of the team owner (president), who just doesn’t understand the community and seems complacent? Or it is poor decision making and the refusal to admit mistake on the part of the General Manager (Congress)? Maybe it’s both.

While these parallels are solely the fabrication of my mind, they’ll be interesting to watch. I’m interested to see how the grassroots sports politics plays out in KC. In terms of the Royals, most fans know that they cannot unseat David Glass, but at age 72 there is an end in sight to his time as owner. For the Chiefs, it’s still too early to tell if Scott Pioli is on the hot seat but grumbling amongst the media has begun. Likewise, the league structures are pretty much set-in-stone for the foreseeable future, which makes one wonder, will the disillusionment continue or are franchise level changes enough.

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