The 20 most influential sports figures in Kansas City

Clockwise from top left: Clark Hunt, Dayton Moore, Kathy Nelson and Peter Vermes.
Clockwise from top left: Clark Hunt, Dayton Moore, Kathy Nelson and Peter Vermes.

We knew there would be challenges when we set out to identify Kansas City’s most influential sports figures.

The teams and players that each fan looks up to vary not only from city to city within the area, but from block to block. But we felt like the time was right to take a look at those individuals who are have the most influence on sports in the metropolitan area.

Much has changed on the Kansas City sports landscape since our last list was published in 2002, but one of the biggest questions we needed to answer was the criteria to be used.

Here is what we came up with:

The most important person or people from the sports teams in the area that The Star covers; the most popular people on those teams; people who work behind the scenes but may not be as well known as the others.

These 20 people are integral to making Kansas City the sports town that it is.

1. Clark Hunt, CEO/owner of Chiefs

Not only is Hunt the owner of a team in the most popular sports league in the country, he’s an active participant in how the Chiefs are run, as fans were reminded by the unexpected recent firing of general manager John Dorsey. Every prime-time game the Chiefs play at Arrowhead Stadium (and there are three this season) turns the nation’s attention to our city. Hunt also is a key decision-maker in the NFL, and he impacts the game itself. Additionally, Hunt owns an MLS team and has a voice in determining what happens in that league in which Sporting Kansas City plays.

2. Dayton Moore, Royals general manager

Since April, the biggest question in Kansas City has been whether the Royals will be buyers or traders this month. The person who knows that answer is Moore, who has already done what some thought impossible: made the Royals relevant in KC. He had the blueprint for changing the franchise’s fortunes. And on top of his work with the Royals, Moore oversees a successful charitable organization and is the driving force behind the city’s Urban Youth Academy, which has the potential to be a positive influence on the lives of kids well after he’s left the Royals.

3. Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City’s coach/technical director

Vermes oversees all aspects of Sporting Kansas City as coach and general manager, so the buck stops with him, and that’s been a good thing. Under Vermes, Sporting KC has won an MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cups. As the club’s technical director, Vermes has big hand in the team’s youth academy, which has fed players to the senior team. Top Drawer Soccer recently said Sporting’s Academy has made major strides in recent years.

4. David Glass, Royals owner

Fans like to focus on the fact that Glass bought the franchise, which is now worth $950 million, for an unheard of sum of $96 million in 2000. However, there wasn’t a long list of bidders at the time for a franchise that reportedly was being considered for contraction. After some early missteps, Glass brought in Moore and increased the team’s payroll by more than $100 million in six years. When the Royals made consecutive World Series appearances, it seemed that everyone in the nation was rooting for Kansas City — outside of California and New York, anyway.

5. Kathy Nelson, Kansas City Sports Commission president

Sporting events like the Big 12 and NCAA basketball tournaments and the U.S. Figure Skating Championships don’t just appear in Kansas City. They’re the product of an organized effort and bid process. The Kansas City Sports Commission and Foundation is the engine that drives those campaigns plus 25 annual local events, and Nelson is its leader. The energetic and affable Nelson became the commission’s president and CEO in 2011, and the organization has since landed more than 20 NCAA championship events.

6. Pat Warren, Kansas Speedway president

President of Kansas Speedway since 2010, Warren oversees one of the most successful tracks on the NASCAR circuit, with two annual races including a spot in the Chase for the Cup playoffs. A road course was added at the track in the Legends area of Kansas City, Kan., in 2012. Since Warren took over for Jeff Boerger, who became president of Kansas Speedway Development Corporation, Kansas Speedway has also added musical shows, welcomed the opening of the Hollywood Casino overlooking Turn 2, and repaved the track’s surface — a monumental undertaking in its own right.

7. Bill Self, Kansas basketball coach

Think about the standard of Kansas basketball coaches. A Final Four appearance is a minimum requirement. KU is the only school in the NCAA Tournament era (since 1939) in which all of its coaches have reached at least one Final Four, and four of them are members of the Naismith Hall of Fame. The latest is Self, who will be enshrined in September for a record that includes a remarkable 13 consecutive Big 12 championships, matching UCLA for the longest such streak, and the 2008 national title.

8. Bill Snyder, Kansas State football coach

The stadium and stretches of highway leading to it are named for Snyder, whose statue greets visitors outside the facility. A coach could hardly be more honored. There have been many remarkable reversals of fortunes in college football history, but the greatest and longest-sustained is still right there in Manhattan, authored by Snyder, who begins his 26th overall season, and ninth in his second stint as head coach of the Wildcats, with one of his more promising teams in recent memory.

9. Cliff Illig, co-owner Sporting Kansas City

In July 2006, MLS commissioner Don Garber told Kansas City Wizards players that if a new owner for the team wasn’t found, Philadelphia would be a logical place to move the franchise. Six weeks later, Illig and Neal Patterson headed an ownership group that bought the team from Lamar Hunt. The franchise rebranded itself as Sporting Kansas City in 2010 and in 2011 moved into its own stadium. Sporting now has deep roots in Kansas City and is behind the new U.S. training center being built in Kansas City, Kan.

10. Andy Reid, Chiefs coach

The Chiefs were coming off a horrid 2-14 season in 2012 when owner Clark Hunt hired Andy Reid, who had just been fired by the Philadelphia Eagles, and there’s been nothing but winning seasons since. The team’s 43 victories and three playoff appearances are the most by a Chiefs coach in his first four years. The Chiefs are coming off their first division championship since 2010, and among active coaches only Bill Belichick has more career victories than Big Red.

11. Bob Kendrick, NLBM president

It may be difficult to remember, but there was a time when Kendrick walked away from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — he left after being passed over as president after Buck O’Neil died. The museum struggled and faced major financial troubles in his absence but the board of directors eventually realized the mistake, and Kendrick was hired in March 2011. The NLBM is an essential part of Kansas City’s sports landscape and tells the important story of the Negro Leagues and its players. A new partnership with Major League Baseball and the players’ association is a testament to Kendrick’s vision and abilities as its leader.

12. Salvador Perez, Royals catcher

In May, Sports Illustrated named Perez the face of the Royals’ franchise. A subsequent poll conducted by The Star found that fans feel the same way: Salvy won in a landslide. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that when Price Chopper launched a new partnership with the Royals last offseason, Perez was the player chosen to take part in all those funny commercials. His Salvy Splash is eagerly awaited by fans after each home victory, and those All-Star Game appearances and Gold Glove awards are pretty cool, too.

13. Eric Berry, Chiefs safety

Quarterback Alex Smith called Berry “the heart and soul” of the Chiefs, and it’s easy to understand why. Berry turned in perhaps his greatest season in 2016, his second full year after recovering from Hodgkin lymphoma. He’s among the team’s most generous guys when it comes to charitable acts and he’s a respected leader in the locker room.

14. Ned Yost, Royals manager

No other person on this list has had his or her name altered as part of a hashtag, but flash back to 2014 and #Yosted was on the lips (or fingertips) of nearly every Royals fan. That all faded when the Royals made it to Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. And a year later, Yost was carrying the World Series trophy in a victory parade. He may have given us such phrases as “third-base tree” and “get in a guy’s dome,” but when there were calls for the Royals to give up on young players, Yost patiently stuck with them ... and it paid off handsomely.

15. Tony Severino, Rockhurst football coach

In the high-school ranks, no coach in KC has a resume that can rival Severino’s. Since taking over in 1983, Severino has guided the Hawklets to seven Missouri state championships, including four undefeated seasons. Rockhurst football routinely has been ranked nationally during his tenure, and that’s where the bar of success has been set at Rockhurst: state titles. On top of all the victories, there is not a high school football coach in Kansas City as influential to the sport as Severino.

16. Mark Donovan, Chiefs president

Chiefs president Mark Donovan heads up the business-side of the franchise and reports directly to owner Clark Hunt. It’s been an interesting offseason, with the contract extension of Andy Reid and the team’s inability to come to terms with general manager John Dorsey, who was let go and replaced by Brett Veach. But Donovan is the face of the fan experience. When the team sets a world record for noise at an outdoor stadium, or irritates attendees with parking confusion on game day, Donovan is always there on the front line.

17. Tom Watson, professional golfer

Earlier this year, Watson received a belt buckle from the National Cutting Horse Association for winning more than $1,000 in prize money. Also, he took his first sky dive. One of golf’s all-time greats, he seems busier than ever between the time he devotes to such activities, charities, his signature Watson Challenge and playing on the PGA Champions Tour.

18. George Brett, Royals vice president/Hall of Famer

He’s the most recognizable vice president for baseball operations in the game. The greatest of all Royals continues his relationship with the organization with a front-office title and was a visible part of the team’s rise to the top in 2014 and 2015. Brett remains the connection between those recent title teams and the ones he led three decades ago.

19. Brenda Tinnen, Sprint Center vice president

Brenda Tinnen was named senior vice president and general manager of the Sprint Center in 2005, two years before it opened. Kansas City hasn’t lured an NBA or NHL team, but college basketball is a regular tenant and the arena’s luster keeps the city in a regular rotation for playing host to all sorts of NCAA events. Based on ticket sales, Pollstar Magazine ranked the venue 12th nationally and 26th in the world for tickets sold in 2016.

20. Jim Haney, NABC president

Some two decades ago, when national amateur sports organizations like the NCAA, Big Eight/12 and National Federation of State High School Associations opted to leave town, one important group remained in Kansas City. The National Association of Basketball Coaches, led by President Jim Haney, kept its roots here and created the College Basketball Experience, which houses the sport’s hall of fame and a high-level college basketball tournament at the Sprint Center every November.

HONORABLE MENTION: Lamar Hunt, Jr. (owner of the Kansas City Mavericks hockey team and local champion of youth hockey), and Len Dawson (former Chiefs Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Pro Football Hall of Famer, and career broadcaster).

Pete Grathoff: 816-234-4330, @pgrathoff

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

The 2002 list

In 2002, The Star picked the Top 25 most influential sports figures in Kansas City. As you can see, that list of people is quite a bit different from this year’s rankings.

1. Lamar Hunt

2. Carol Marinovich

3. David Glass

4. Tom Watson

5. George Brett

6. Tom Condon

7. Carl Peterson

8. Earl Santee

9. Buck O’Neil

10. Mike Sweeney

11. Bill Hall

12. Priest Holmes

13. Tony Gonzalez

14. Dal Shealy

15. Tony Severino

16. Len Dawson

17. Don Kincaid

18. Maurice Greene

19. Judy Heeter

20. Allard Baird

21. Dick Vermeil

22. Jim Haney

23. Jeff Boerger

24. Steve Baker

25. Tony Peña