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Join Date: Jan 2006
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MELLINGER: Chiefs fans feel ignored
The coupons caught Clark Hunt’s attention.
Jim Lakey was just creative and gutsy and fed-up enough to think they might. So after he wrote a letter to the Chiefs owner detailing a list of mistakes and slights on Kansas City, Jim took two days’ worth of newspaper coupons and stuffed them in the envelope to “help” the team sign more discounted free agents.
“However many were in The Star,” Jim says of the coupons. “Probably about 200 of them.”
Lakey is 66, a retired associate dean at UMKC. He lives in Kansas City and has cheered for the Chiefs for years. This isn’t the first letter he’s written. Clark’s father, Lamar, wrote Jim back a few times. Jim mentioned this in his words to Clark, essentially daring the younger Hunt to write back.
Jim didn’t expect an invitation to Clark’s office.
“I wondered if he just wanted to see who the nutcase is who sent all the coupons,” Jim says.
Jim sent me a copy of the letter, and described the meeting when I reached out.
Maybe you’re surprised that Clark Hunt invited a critical fan to his office. It doesn’t fit the narrative pushed by many in this town of an absentee owner who cares more about profits than football, but the story of the country’s most dysfunctional sports marriage is more complicated than a sound bite or oversimplified caricature.
The saddest part is that the Chiefs and their fans should be sharing unending bliss, not a vague, mutual distaste. This used to be a model partnership, one that made each side stronger.
The Chiefs once brought big-time sports to one of the NFL’s smallest markets, and their fans made the players, coaches and management-types rich and adored. This was peanut butter and jelly, fall and football, Christmas and children. One made the other better.
No team in the NFL had a better homefield advantage than the Chiefs in the 1990s. Arrowhead Stadium was, literally, a game-changer. Las Vegas sports books pushed their point spreads a little further. Opposing teams spent a little more time coordinating silent snap counts. Players talked of their heads ringing for days after games here, even if they never got hit that hard.
That’s all gone now, of course. The Chiefs have lost 28 of their last 40 home games. Only three of those 12 wins came against teams that finished with a winning record.
Three weeks ago, fans paid to fly a banner over Arrowhead before a home game. It called for general manager Scott Pioli to be fired. This weekend, they’ll do it again.
In three weeks, they’ll encourage fans to wear black to a game at Arrowhead — mourning the loss of their joy.
“The Chiefs are my longest-lasting relationship,” says Eric Grannell, a 32-year-old man from Wichita who’s organized what amounts to a fan revolt called Save Our Chiefs. “I’m having a public fight with my girlfriend, is what it feels like.”
This is the loudest and largest group of frustrated fans, and Grannell says “nobody with any authority has said anything to us.” They feel ignored, they feel taken advantage of, and they feel that they’ve been taken for granted.
The Chiefs seem to think Grannell’s group will be angry no matter what, and maybe that’s right. But the Chiefs haven’t tried to bridge the gap, and these are some of their most passionate fans.
The Chiefs are broken, and they don’t seem able or willing to fix themselves. Not right now, anyway.
Hunt, team president Mark Donovan and general manager Pioli know they have a problem. What’s not clear is how much of the problem they’re willing to own blame for, or how much of the problem they foolishly dismiss as false perception.
Pioli did a series of interviews last week but largely avoided direct responses to the questions fans most wanted answered. Hunt and Donovan each declined requests to talk for this column, and neither has talked publicly since the beginning of the season.
They are letting fan sentiment get away from them, or perhaps more accurately, they are now wearing the consequences of too much previous negligence. It’s normal for fans to be upset at a 1-5 team, but it’s extraordinary for fans to be upset enough to fly banners over the stadium and come to games dressed for a funeral. Some inside the Chiefs’ offices want to portray the Save Our Chiefs movement as a vocal minority, and maybe they’re right.
After all, how could you tell for sure?
“That’s a great question,” says David Carter, executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute. “And maybe this is a weird answer, but I don’t know that you need to. If you run a team, or any business, you should be out in front about what your customers’ issues are. You shouldn’t have to wait to find out what’s driving them crazy.”
The Chiefs actually interact more with fans than popular narrative gives them credit for. Hunt and Donovan do some of this personally; Hunt spends at least a little time before each game talking with fans in the parking lot, and has invited some in for lunch during the week.
But what they’re doing is the equivalent of fighting rising waters with a colander. Actually, if you consider the previous neglect when it comes to large-scale fan interaction, they’re fighting rising waters with a colander after not paying for flood insurance.
Some inside the Chiefs’ offices think this is all blown out of proportion. They blame the 1-5 record, ignoring that losing only exposes issues that have been building for years. They point to letters from fans who are still supportive, but comfort taken in the relative few who refuse to acknowledge their problems is as counterproductive as worry over the relative few who refuse to see any positives.
The Chiefs do too much of both, which is a small but telling example of how they helped create this mess.
The Chiefs are run by smart people who care. The aggravating part is their lousy way of showing it to the masses.
Lakey, the coupon clipper, says he and his wife spent about two hours in Clark Hunt’s office. Lake had wanted the letter to be noticed, which is why he made a candy-wrapper joke, but he couldn’t be sure if he went too far by essentially mocking Hunt and talking of giving up season tickets for yardwork.
Jim didn’t think he’d be invited to Hunt’s office, and certainly didn’t think the owner would go through various draft classes, pick by pick, voicing disappointment in some and pride in others.
“He was very nice, very cordial,” Jim says.
Jim liked that Hunt listened, that he asked questions. Hunt treated Jim like he mattered, which is essentially what all fans want. Jim had his chance to criticize spending, personnel decisions and what he saw as a detached way of operating.
“I came out of there believing the guy cares,” Jim says. “I think he’s genuinely concerned that he has a perception problem. I think he understands this.”
Jim is one man. The problem is that Hunt and the Chiefs aren’t doing nearly enough for the thousands of others with legitimate frustrations. They haven’t for years.
The irony of Jim’s story is that the Chiefs obviously know how to get their message across. They just aren’t doing it on a scale worthy of an NFL franchise, and the result is hurting both sides, team and fan, whose formerly strong bond is now infected with mistrust.