In what one official called “a match made in barbecue heaven,” the annual American Royal barbecue contest is moving to the Truman Sports Complex beginning this fall.
The move announced Tuesday at Arrowhead Stadium allows for the expansion of the World Series of Barbecue, now in its 36th year. The event had grown so popular that it had to turn away willing contestants last fall because of limited space in and around the American Royal Complex in the West Bottoms.
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The switch also brings yet another event to Arrowhead, where the Kansas City Chiefs have been trying to book more concerts and other activities through the team’s Arrowhead Events business unit.
Chiefs president Mark Donovan said the partnership with the American Royal was a natural because it brings the renowned barbecue contest to a venue famous for its tailgating scene.
The move also could ease some of the tensions surrounding the reuse of Kemper Arena, whose very existence had come to be a limiting factor in the growth of the barbecue contest — now the American’s Royal organization’s biggest source of revenue.
This year’s barbecue contest and the events surrounding it are set for Oct. 1-4. The livestock and horse shows, as well as other American Royal events, will still be held in the West Bottoms.
American Royal officials acknowledge that some people might lament moving the barbecue contest away from its home in the former stockyards district. But they say it will be a boon for the organization and contestants alike.
“In 2015, we’ll be able to serve all teams that choose to enter,” American Royal chairman John Mitchell Jr. said.
What began in 1980 as a friendly competition between a few local teams in the parking lot of the Golden Ox restaurant during the American Royal livestock show has evolved into a major civic event. The contest attracts tens of thousands of visitors, and hundreds of the top cooking teams from around North America compete for cash prizes, ribbons and bragging rights.
Last fall, barbecue planners squeezed 560 teams onto the American Royal Complex’s 54 acres and some adjoining land. But they had to turn away 40 teams for lack of space.
At 220 acres, space will not be an issue at the sports complex, Mitchell said. Two parking lots will be devoted to barbecue competitors and another to activities aimed at entertaining visitors.
What’s left of the 22,000 parking spaces will be open for vehicle parking.
Parking was in short supply in the West Bottoms. Many visitors parked downtown and took shuttle buses to the American Royal grounds.
Officials with the Chiefs and the Royal said no decisions have been made on what parking will cost at the sports complex.
While most of the events will take place outside, judging and a barbecue “expo” will be inside Arrowhead. No events will be at Kauffman Stadium, although the parking lots around it will be available.
The financial relationship between the Royal, the Chiefs and the sports complex authority was not disclosed. Donovan described it only as a partnership, with both parties standing to benefit from enlarging the event.
“We came at this as ‘how can we make this bigger and better?’” Donovan said.
Jim Rowland, director of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, said he initiated the deal eight or nine months ago as negotiations between the American Royal and Kansas City officials grew testy.
The American Royal had hoped to address its space concerns by convincing the city to tear down underused Kemper Arena, which is part of the Royal complex. The Royal also proposed that the city replace Kemper with a much smaller facility for horse shows and other events.
But City Hall wasn’t keen on that $60 million plan, much of which the city would shoulder, and hopes to find another use for Kemper. A request for proposals was set to go out this month.
This year’s barbecue, which is held annually on the first weekend of October, won’t conflict with either Chiefs or Royals games. Both are scheduled to be out of town during the event. The Royals are playing their final regular series of the year against the Twins in Minneapolis that weekend. The Chiefs are playing the Bengals in Cincinnati.
In future years, the date of the contest may have to be adjusted to another weekend to avoid conflicts.
While there have been suggestions that the American Royal might pull out of the West Bottoms entirely, Mitchell said nothing has come of those discussions yet and Tuesday’s announcement should not be seen as a harbinger of that.
“I don’t think anything can be read into this,” he said.