Local Columnists

Cost of Chiefs, Royals stadiums means Kansas City area will face new questions

It won’t be long before Kansas City will have to start talking about the future of the Truman Sports Complex.
It won’t be long before Kansas City will have to start talking about the future of the Truman Sports Complex. The Kansas City Star

Kansas Citians will crowd into Arrowhead Stadium Sunday for the Chiefs’ playoff game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’ll be cold, maybe wet, definitely fun.

It’s been quite a time for fans of the area’s professional sports franchises. The Royals’ trips to the World Series in 2014 and 2015 still bring smiles. Sporting Kansas City won the MLS Cup in 2013. Now the Chiefs are back in the playoffs, with a shot at the NFL championship.

Only someone with a heart of stone could bring up worrisome news at a time like this. So call me Mr. Marble: It’s time for the metropolitan area to begin thinking about the future of the Truman Sports Complex, and where the Chiefs and Royals will play their games in the not-so-distant future.

I know what you’re thinking: didn’t we solve this problem just a few years ago? Well — yes, sort of. In 2006, Jackson County voters approved a 3/8  cent sales tax for improvements at the complex, and both teams signed 25-year lease extensions. The work was done, the teams got better, the seats were filled.

Don’t look now, but those lease agreements are now 11 years old. That means the area has just 14 years to figure out if it wants to keep professional sports in the community for several more decades — and, crucially, who will pay the cost.

OK, 14 years is a long time. But it isn’t an indefinite period of time. And the crushing math of big-time sports means the Kansas City area should at least start considering the choices it will face the closer we get to 2031, when the current leases expire.

Questions like: Will the teams want new stadiums? At the end of the current leases, Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums will be almost six decades old, among the oldest stadiums in the country. Venues with far less mileage have been shuttered in recent years.

The Rams left St. Louis less than 25 years after their stadium was opened, claiming it was obsolete.

Yet building sports venues is enormously expensive, even using current dollars. The Atlanta area will open a baseball stadium this spring that cost more than $660 million to build. This summer, it will open a new football stadium that cost $1.5 billion.

By 2031, building new stadiums for the Chiefs and Royals could easily top $2 billion. Even rehabbing the current complex could run $1 billion or more. If the area started saving today it would need to set aside $70 million or more annually just to be ready for 2031.

Who will pay that cost? The state of Missouri seems uninterested in providing any more cash for sports venues — the legislature waved buh-bye to the Rams rather than cough up any money. The teams and leagues will help, of course, but the Royals especially are less than flush (in total revenue, not franchise value). And Jackson County voters are understandably weary of bearing the stadium burden alone.

User fees can pick up part of the cost, but only a part. It already costs $40 to park at a Chiefs game. A Royals game, for a family of four, easily costs $125.

That suggests some sort of regional taxpayer approach, including folks in Kansas. But developing a consensus on cost and a legal framework will take time and formidable political skill: It took local leaders seven years to push through a Bistate Commission for Union Station, and that was for a minor sales tax that provided about $118 million for the building.

New sports stadiums will be a much, much lengthier lift. And how do sports stadiums fit in with other challenges, like a new airport or improved mass transit? The price tag escalates.

There’s another possible response, of course. The area might conclude spending for stadiums is wasteful and wrong. Providing $2 billion in public funds so millionaires can play on teams owned by billionaires will anger lots of taxpayers, many of whom will never see a game in person. It might be that cities like Kansas City simply can’t support sports facilities that sit vacant for much of the year.

But the community should be clear-eyed about what that means. The San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders are getting ready to move to new cities. Both franchises wrestled with their cities for years, looking for better places to play.

Kansas City has a chance to avoid that fate. The teams’ owners have shown a willingness to work with the community on venue improvements, and neither the Chiefs nor Royals have ever hinted at a desire to move somewhere else. Perhaps reaching an agreement on new leases will be easier than in other cities. Maybe patching up the sports complex for another 25 years will work.

The conversation doesn’t have to start tomorrow, but it does have to start soon. Say, after the Super Bowl.

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc