With FIFA on Wednesday awarding the 2026 World Cup to the joint bid of the United States, Canada and Mexico, Kansas City stands on the verge of a substantial role, or even roles, in a global spectacle.
From the city's impending new airport to geographic convenience to facilities to the passion for sports here, many of the area’s points of appeal touted at a news conference Wednesday could easily be applied to a campaign for another lofty local ambition: an NBA or NHL team.
But as he stood on the field at Arrowhead Stadium amid the World Cup celebration, Kansas City Mayor Sly James was far more optimistic about Kansas City being selected as a World Cup site than its chances of luring the NBA or NHL here in the foreseeable future.
Perhaps no one is more bullish on what the region has to offer than James. He also understands the practical complications associated with adding another major sports franchise to the landscape of the nation’s No. 33 market, many of which were deftly explained by my colleague Sam Mellinger in his column last week on why billionaire entrepreneur Cliff Illig doesn’t see it happening and isn’t inclined to lead the way.
“The problem is you can’t really talk about teams unless you find owners,” James told The Star. “It doesn’t do any good for me to beat the drum for it; I can’t own the team.
“So somebody says, 'Who’s going to be your owner, who’s going to own the team? I don’t know, we’ll figure that out.' That doesn’t work.”
As of 2012, Sprint Center spokesperson Shani Tate-Ross emailed The Star in 2016, the agreement between the city and AEG-managed Sprint Center states that “the city of KCMO has primary responsibility for pursuing an anchor tenant at Sprint Center.”
It might be surmised that the mayor and the city have plenty of more important things to be working on.
That’s as it should be.
But there are other key reasons James won’t be the “drum major” for a movement; why there’s no double-secret City Hall office crusading for the NBA/NHL; why he’s not “absolutely bent on making sure there’s another team.”
James believes caution should frame any such thinking, starting with the fact that the Sprint Center is thriving and last fall was named the eighth-busiest arena in the country.
Careful what you wish for.
“If Sprint Center was sitting there and we couldn’t get anybody to come and it operated five days a year, that’s one thing,” he said. “But it’s kicking it. It’s a very, very busy venue, and the cash flows out in a positive way.
“And when you put a team in there, the money’s going the opposite way. And the dates are going the opposite way. Before you say, ‘Hey, we’re going to forgo that and disrupt that,’ you better have a quality product to put in there.”
Which is another crucial point.
As someone who watched the slapstick Kansas City Scouts play during their two-year reign of error (27-110-23) in the mid-1970s and remembers the 13-year run of the Kansas City Kings (nine losing seasons) before being whisked away to Sacramento in 1985, James has questions about what would make another team viable here.
For starters, even with the popularity of college basketball regionally, James wonders, “is this an NBA town, or a college town?” and believes that hockey is the prevailing wind of interest.
The thought of hockey evokes Lamar Hunt Jr., the owner of the Missouri Mavericks who has gone to great lengths to try to grow the game regionally but has balked at the $500 million NHL expansion fee and in 2016 called the NHL “an unrealistic reach” at this point here.
Just the same …
“At one time, Pittsburgh used us as a stalking horse (to get what it wanted in Pittsburgh). Now, if the Pittsburgh Penguins showed up in Kansas City, that’s probably a good deal,” James said. “If expansion team No. 249 shows up, I’m not so sure.”
Despite the recent instant success of the NHL’s expansion Las Vegas Knights, James frets that an expansion team might have only novelty value for a year or two if it doesn’t succeed on the ice.
And who can guarantee success?
All that said, James remains open to supporting the notion — particularly if it’s an existing team that wants to move.
“Deals have to be made based on the facts and the circumstances,” he said. “If there’s a good deal to be made that makes sense, absolutely. But it’s not one of those things where you’re going to do it for the sake of doing it.
“It’s too expensive of a proposition, too much rides on it. There are too many long-term consequences.
“So if there’s a deal out there with quality ownership and a team (that wants to move) that looks like it can have success, yeah, that’s absolutely, positively worth talking about.”
If any such probe is launched, here is some of what he’d want to talk about:
“We need to know the particulars: What are you asking for in terms of rent? What are you bringing to the table? How much money are you investing in your team so we know if you’ve got a quality team?
“What’s the problem, why are you moving in the first place? What is that you want from us? How is this going to work? How stable are you? Is there anything under the rug we need to know about?
“We’d want to know a lot of information, and they would, too.”
The most pertinent information for now, though, is this:
For all the ways Kansas City is on the move — including promising prospects for a presence in the World Cup — there remains scant reason to believe the NBA or NHL is on its way here any time soon.
“Unless there’s something there that’s a real possibility,” James said, “it doesn’t do any good to wail and gnash on the teeth.”