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Fans coming back to Chiefs, but will the noise return to Arrowhead?

Updated: 2013-09-13T22:55:27Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

Derrick Johnson smiles when you ask him about the loudest noise he’s ever heard in Arrowhead Stadium.

He is the team’s foremost expert on the subject. This is his ninth season in Kansas City. Sunday will be his 124th game. None of his teammates have been here as long, none have played as many games for the Chiefs. So Johnson smiles at the question. He does not hesitate.

“Monday night,” he says, referring to the first game of the “New” Arrowhead in 2010. “The opener. That was the loudest. We couldn’t even make our checks. Crazy. It’ll be kind of like that this Sunday.”

Not quite, but close enough. Chiefs officials are expecting the biggest crowd in years this weekend — at least since the playoff game after that 2010 season, and perhaps even before that.

Some of this, of course, is the opponent. Cowboys fans are everywhere (unfortunately), and a significant chunk at Arrowhead on Sunday will be cheering for Tony Romo — not Alex Smith.

But most of this is local. Most of what the Chiefs are expecting and Kansas City is experiencing can be explained right here. In Kansas City. By the Chiefs. Season-ticket sales are up, compared to last year, and TV ratings for preseason games rose about 20 percent.

The Chiefs turned off far too many fans last year. Now, it’s like none of it ever happened. It’s the 1990s again. Amazing how far they’ve come, and how quickly.

The story of the rise and fall and now hopeful rise again of the Chiefs can be told through Arrowhead Stadium. When the Chiefs are good, they are great at home. Fans park outside the gates, waiting to be let inside, often firing up their grills so that they’re tailgating before they start tailgating.

On its best days, Arrowhead’s energy seems to jump out of the TV screen — and into opponents’ heads. Arrowhead effectively won that Monday night game Johnson referred to. The Chargers had three delay-of-game penalties and called two timeouts because of crowd noise.

“Arrowhead helps you win games,” Johnson says.

When the Chiefs are bad, Arrowhead can be a depressing place. The empty gold seats are an eyesore on TV, and opposing teams need not bother pumping crowd noise into their practices that week. Last year, based on old information, the Ravens made sure to practice all week with speakers blaring only to play on Sunday in a half-empty stadium. There were stories around town of fans being unable to give their tickets away.

As much as perhaps any team in the NFL, the Chiefs’ success has always been tied directly to their home stadium. When they were one of the league’s most victorious teams of the 1990s, they were 63-17 at home. Four times, they either went undefeated at home or lost only once. In three other seasons, they lost just twice at home.

Every team is better at home than on the road, of course, but the Chiefs have an especially symbiotic relationship with their fans.

In their three playoff seasons this century, the Chiefs have been 21-3 (.875) at home and 11-13 (.458) on the road. As a point of reference, last year’s playoff teams were 76-19-1 (.800) at home and 58-38 (.604) on the road.

The last two seasons, as fans felt increasingly disconnected from and pushed away by the front office, Arrowhead became something like a neutral-site game — the Chiefs actually had a slightly better record on the road (5-11) than at home (4-12).

That won’t be true this year, even with a gimme road game last week in Jacksonville. The Chiefs are an improved but flawed team that will be as good as a regained home-field advantage will allow.

Most times, after a bottoming-out, it might take a few years to recapture fans. Ticket-buying habits are usually formed off the most recent season, which makes what’s happening in Kansas City so interesting.

It’s like an entire fan base has agreed to catch amnesia about the last two years. Like it never happened. Selective short-term memory loss is in everyone’s best interests here.

The last time the Chiefs played a home game, Arrowhead was half-empty. Marty McDonald was among a few other Chiefs fans who organized a movement to pay for those banners flying above Arrowhead before games.

No more banners, McDonald promises. The past is the past, even if it can’t be totally forgotten. His focus is on something else entirely.

“We see the potential for the old rocking ways of Arrowhead to return,” he says. “It’ll just be a fun experience, and you haven’t been able to say that about the Chiefs and Arrowhead in at least a few years.”

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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