America’s professional basketball and hockey leagues decided their championships this week. For fans, the final series were must-watch affairs. They were also a reminder that Kansas City lacks a major league team in either sport.
This ranks as an average disappointment. Kansas Citians can still enjoy big league baseball, football and soccer, with a handful of minor league clubs thrown in. The Big 12 men’s basketball tournament has reupped. Sprint Center makes money without an anchor sports franchise.
But voters didn’t approve Sprint Center just to make money or to see Jimmy Buffett. They wanted to watch a winter sport downtown, an illusory goal despite the restlessness of some NBA and NHL franchises.
One could blame the leagues for the problem or perhaps the overly enthusiastic boosters who promised a franchise if Sprint Center was built. But a clear share of the responsibility belongs to Kansas City itself, which lacks anyone with enough financial muscle and the requisite desire to bring basketball or hockey to 14th and Grand.
This shortfall in money and civic engagement is more worrisome than it sounds, and not just about sports.
The Fortune 500 list can be misleading, but today Kansas City can claim only one company on the current roster. Minneapolis has 17. Kansas City’s most visible firms, Hallmark and H&R Block, are vulnerable to digital upheaval.
The area’s engineering and medical records businesses make money, yet rely to some degree on government, hardly the firmest of foundations.
Our biggest employer? Government again — teachers, federal office workers, firefighters. Nearly one in 10 Kansas City workers earns a taxpayer-funded check. Government is not a growth industry, no matter what you’ve heard.
The result is a community dependent on its own momentum, one that sells goods and services but lacks an organizing identity.
The area compensates for its shortage of private sector heft by seeking the latest cure for malaise: a new downtown, a streetcar, a convention hotel, an airport. An arena. Inevitably the projects sag and politicians look for another short-term answer.
The long-term answers are broader and more difficult: a smart population, robust infrastructure and a focus on 21st century industries such as bioscience, health and technology. Private sector civic engagement is crucial.
Let’s hope the mayor and new City Council think about this a little bit. After that, an NBA team would still be nice.