Reinventing Sports: Options for where our competitive spirit could expand next

Glory

Kris Johnson is a running back and wide receiver on the Glory. Johnson and the rest of the team are going to play a pivotal role in the future of sports in Kansas City. // Photo by Natalie McMullin

Kansas City sports are blessed. In the past decade, fans saw Jimmy Nielsen be the hero with at least one broken, freaking rib as his penalty shootout saves helped Sporting KC capture the MLS Cup in freezing temperatures. They saw “what speed do” when the Royals won their first World Series in 30 years. They saw God reincarnate as Patrick Mahomes when the once-in-a-generation quarterback broke every curse on his road to leading the Kansas City Chiefs to win their first Super Bowl in 50 years.

While COVID-19 makes us question the future, some things are guaranteed. Mahomes will be here for at least the next 12 years, which means at least six more championships. The Royals have loads of young talent to lead the way. Sporting KC is a perennial playoff contender and should stay that way.

So what’s next for Kansas City sports? This city is a sports town, as evidenced by the loyal fans who braved the weather for the Chiefs’ championship parade, the fans who paid $40 to put a cardboard cutout of themselves at Kauffman Stadium, and the Children’s Mercy Park sellout streak Sporting KC held. No one knows what the future holds, so we’re taking a look at some things that just might happen in the next five years. Feel free to revisit and laugh at us in five years when our predictions are wrong.

Ball so hard I think that I’m Kobe

The one major sport that doesn’t have a professional presence in Kansas City is basketball (yes, the Missouri Mavericks count). Once upon a time, Kemper (now Hy-Vee) Arena hosted the NBA. The Kansas City Kings were here for 13 years, having some fun along the way. Future Hall of Famer Nate Archibald led the league in scoring and assists in its inaugural season, the first time any player accomplished such a feat. Cotton Fitzsimmons earned Coach of the Year honors in 1979, as the Kings went 48-34. The same season saw Phil Ford named Rookie of the Year. The Kings even made the Western Conference Finals in 1981 while finishing the regular season 40-42.

That’s as good as it got, as it only had four winning seasons. Outdrawn by the Kansas City Comets in attendance and general manager Joe Axelson’s hatred for the city led the team back to Sacramento in 1985. Years later, The Rock would sing about the Los Angeles Lakers beating them in May to The Beatles’ “Kansas City.”

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One of many mock-ups for possible KC NBA jersey designs, created by local basketball advocate Tim “KC” Canton. // Photo courtesy of Tim “KC” Canton.

In the final game here, fans wore masks that mocked Axelson. A dummy made in his image was passed, kicked, and pummeled around the arena. Chants of “We Want Fat Axe,” and signs reading “Nuke Sacramento,” and “Kill Axelson,” were spotted among the 11,371 in the arena. Such a fitting end.

We don’t know when a professional basketball team will return, but it’ll happen. A Bleacher Report article from May 18, 2018 reported that an unnamed NBA executive said to Kansas City native and then-SEC Network employee Jarrett Sutton that a team will make its way to Kansas City at some point.

Sutton, now affiliated with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, said that significant progress happened since 2018. They’ve been in discussion with Mayor Quinton Lucas and other city officials on what it’ll take to bring a team here. They’ve talked to Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Baseball Museum, and have received his support in naming the team the Monarchs. The league views Kansas City, along with Seattle, as one of the most valuable markets remaining. There’s a vacant television market that the league would capitalize on by expanding here, as it would have the same reach as the Royals.

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Concept art by Tim “KC” Canton. // Courtesy of Tim “KC” Canton.

“Kansas City is definitely a hidden gem, and it’s a great sports town with a big market in the Midwest that makes a lot of sense,” Sutton says.

Is he wrong? The city proves time and time again that it cares about basketball, as the Kansas Jayhawks draw big crowds when they play at the Sprint T-Mobile Center. The venue is in the NCAA’s rotation for March Madness. Kansas City also holds the record for most tournament games hosted at 134. The NCAA comes here because it knows the city cares.

The Midwest also has next-to-nothing when it comes to the NBA. The closest team Kansas City has is the Oklahoma City Thunder, which is over five hours away. One could count the Chicago Bulls, but they haven’t been enjoyable to watch since Dennis Rodman skipped practice to appear on WCW Monday Nitro with the nWo. It might take some time for the city to warm-up to an NBA team, as the season runs in-between the NFL and MLB, but once it does, the team will never leave.

Women’s everything, please

Speaking of basketball, what about the WNBA? Rumors swirled in Dec. 2006 that the Charlotte Sting would be sold and moved to Kansas City. Instead, the Charlotte Bobcats announced on Jan. 3, 2007 that the Sting would cease operations after the fundraising effort to move the team here failed. There haven’t been discussions of expanding the WNBA as the league’s focused on strengthening its current teams, but when it’s time, Kansas City needs consideration. There is a market for women’s sports, and it’s a shame it took people this long to see the value women in sports bring.

At one point, Kansas City saw what a women’s professional team was capable of doing. FC Kansas City was one of the first teams introduced when the NWSL began on November 21, 2012. It made the playoffs in the first year and won the championship in 2014 and 2015. The U.S. Women’s National team had four hometown players on its road to winning its third World Cup in 2015, showing the world just how good Kansas City’s team was.

Tryouts

Kansas City Glory tryouts. // Photo by Natalie McMullin

Life was good until it wasn’t. Key players missed the 2016 season. Ownership issues forced a sale to a new owner that wasn’t local. The writing was on the wall that FC Kansas City’s time was up, and in 2017 the NWSL announced that the team was relocating to Utah. Not the way a team that won two titles quicker than the other professional teams in town deserved to go out.

When does a women’s professional sports league come back? The answer is already here; you just haven’t heard of it. The Kansas City Glory, associated with the Women’s National Football Conference, began its journey Aug. 2019 to be the area’s premier opportunity for women in football. The team hasn’t played due to COVID-19, but this is a team that can be a cornerstone for Kansas City sports.

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Liz Sowers is the quarterback for the Kansas City Glory. Her twin sister, Katie, is an offensive assistant coach on the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. // Photo by Natalie McMullin.

Glory president Vicki Kestermont was inspired by watching the Kansas City Titans, a former women’s pro football team. She was in awe at seeing women compete at such an intense level. Through word of mouth, the participation and excitement for the Glory has grown. Mentioning Kansas City’s women’s football team lights up everyone’s eyes. City council members were intrigued when she talked to them. She and her executive board have met with the Chiefs on multiple occasions, who have shown a lot of interest in the team and the growth of women’s football.

“The natural progression is women’s football. I have no doubts that our stands will be full and that the Kansas City Glory will be very well known,” Kestermont says.

The Glory won’t be the only women’s professional sports team in town in the future, but it’s one that Kestermont expects the city to embrace in no time. With the NFL supporting girls’ flag football and partnering with the NAIA and Reigning Champs Experiences to make women’s flag football a collegiate sport, the next step is for women’s tackle football to claim a stake in the growing ground of professional sports. It’s the next step for Kansas City sports.

Sports of an electronic nature

Not one single person on the planet has an answer to when the pandemic will end. Traditional sports won’t return to normal anytime soon. Getting totally blasted outside Arrowhead Stadium five hours before kickoff will happen again at some point, but it might be a while (Update: it didn’t take a while for that to happen). The bubble for the NBA and WNBA is working, but it’s impossible to predict what happens when they all leave and return to a society that doesn’t take precautions seriously. Knowing all of this, how do we fill the sports void in our hearts?

E-Boys and E-Girls, it’s your time to shine.

Esports, the term for competitive multiplayer gaming, has picked up a lot of steam. What was once considered a nerd hobby is now a legitimate outlet for people to socialize with like-minded individuals, profit off their talents, compete, and make themselves famous. The time for shaming someone for playing 47 days worth of Overwatch is over (that someone is me).

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 Photo courtesy of Gabriel Muñoz.

Gamers make bank. Streamers like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins raked in $500,000 a month on Twitch. Players in the Overwatch League have a minimum salary of $50,000 and up to $5 million in prize pool money to earn throughout the season. The contract also includes health insurance, a retirement savings plan, housing, and outside sponsorships opportunities.

Breaking into a competitive esports league is tough. For instance, there are 67 players in the League of Legends Championship Series for the summer. There are over 8 million concurrent players, according to Riot Games. Even if the number stopped at 8 million, only 0.000000838 of the game’s population is playing professionally. Those 67 players have an average salary of $410,000, near the average MLS salary.

Kansas City has a spot with growing esports organizations. January saw the first Kansas City Esports Expo take place at Overland Park Convention Center. Described as gamer heaven, it hosted tournaments for pro and casual gamers in Super Smash Bros., Fortnite, Call of Duty, and Street Fighter. There would’ve been an enormous gaming presence at Planet Comicon if not for the pandemic.

The Kansas City Pioneers, the city’s first esports team, started as Lorenzo Browne’s vision and with long-time friend Sam Kulikov’s help, built it into what it is today. July saw the Pioneers secure enough funding to create teams in Rocket League and Gears of War, where they’ll be competing against heavily-funded esports organizations for big money.

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Gabriel Muñoz (left) takes a selfie with supporters at the Kansas City Esports Expo on Jan. 5. // Photo courtesy of Gabriel Muñoz.

Kansas City Esports, started by Gabriel Muñoz, is the reward for his efforts in starting the first esports organization back in the 2000s, called PDS Tournaments. He didn’t have the funding back then, but now the organization has a practice range at Hy-Vee Arena, where they rent out spaces for gamers to practice. They’ve hosted events, such as the Quarantine Cup, which was a huge success.

Muñoz is the creative director at Kansas City Esports. The tournaments organized sees him and Operations director Jeff Wilson come together. The goal when they formed in 2015 was to create a space for people to come in and practice their gameplay. The smallest of goals ended up with the biggest of dreams, as competitive gaming has a future here.

“We want to bring involvement to Kansas City. We also want to pump up the communities that exist here,” Muñoz says.

It’s vital to Muñoz to support the community instead of working by himself. These are the communities he hopes to stand by and support as it expands. He sees the organization assisting by promoting the many different gaming communities in the area. It’s more than posting events. It’s spotlighting a gamer by streaming their gameplay and letting them spread their wings by sharing more about themselves to the community.

Muñoz hopes by doing this that it helps upcoming gamers realize that they can go pro. The more gamers that make it professionally from this city, the more likely it is that the city gets the recognition it deserves. Up-Down has taught this city that there are talented gamers here. They just need exposure.

Looking forward to anything at all

This isn’t a definitive list of what the future of sports will look like in Kansas City. There’s so much that can go right or wrong in the next five years. For all we know, there can be a brand new sport that takes the world by storm invented at Loose Park. Maybe sports cease to exist and everyone just has to deal with us bragging about being the last Super Bowl champion. But whatever the future of sports holds, Kansas City will play.

Categories: Sports