Over the past 17 years, Dick Davis has coaxed people to buy season tickets to Kansas City’s baseball games by constantly promising them, “This is our year.”
For almost all those years, it was a hope, a dream and a fiction.
Yet Davis didn’t quit, even in 2002, the year he was president of the Kansas City Royal Lancers and the Royals lost 100 games. How do you keep up the enthusiasm after that?
It’s so easy to root for the Royals now, in this miracle season, but the volunteer ticket-selling Royal Lancers are the folks who stayed loyal even in the Land of Loserville.
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Serving as a Royal Lancer meant being part of a group that was unique among professional sports nationally. No other city had anything quite like it — men and women in the business community who were goodwill ambassadors and a volunteer sales staff for the team, motivated by a fierce devotion to keeping Major League Baseball in Kansas City. Other cities tried it but could never keep it going.
That meant sustaining a fan base by selling season tickets and ticket packages, and being there for better or for worse, including a lot of “worse” since 1985.
Now, surviving all those years of heartache as the team’s biggest boosters makes this season’s success all the sweeter.
“What you did it all for is to make sure you survived the bad years,” Davis says. “Now we can just sit back and enjoy it, look around, see everybody else wearing Royals gear and just feel good about it.”
Other longtime Lancers say the same thing: They kept going because hopelessness just wasn’t in their vocabulary.
“All of us played a role in keeping the fires burning,” says Jeff Dimon, a construction company executive who joined the Lancers in 1997, as Davis did. “You would always try to sell optimism.”
Ron Rigdon, a banker who became a Lancer in 2001 and was president in 2007, says it certainly wasn’t easy. “You contacted all the people you knew, and then you had to scrape for prospects,” he says, recalling many hours manning the phones in the off-season.
Sometimes they had to sell the chance to see great players on other teams — and there was always the possibility that the Royals might win.
“Baseball fans are pretty resilient and hopeful,” Rigdon says. “There were plenty of stars in the game. When we beat the Yankees, I always got special pleasure out of that.”
For decades, the Lancers were the sales force for the Royals, and they sold thousands of season tickets even in the worst of times. That ended about six years ago.
Now a professional staff handles those duties. Still, more than a dozen Lancers continue to generate significant sales leads. Dozens more still volunteer at various games with handouts and promotional items and remain among the team’s biggest cheerleaders.
Talk to the Lancers for any length of time and you get a lot of wisdom, not just about baseball but about life. You have to celebrate the wins, even in a losing season. Enjoy the atmosphere, the camaraderie and the memories, if not success. And never quit, even when things get grim.
Still, didn’t they ever get discouraged and demoralized?
“It’s not in my nature,” says Davis, now a Kansas City councilman who still meets the sales quota to qualify as an “active” Lancer today.
Along with just loving baseball, there was another huge motivation in the early years that persists even to today, says Gerry Winship, who joined the Lancers in 1974 and remains one of the group’s champions.
As vice president of Farm and Home Savings and Loan in the 1970s, Winship was already active in the Kansas City community. His bank had bought a suite at the new Royals stadium in 1973. For him, there was one simple reason to join the Lancers.
“It was because of Mr. K,” Winship said of his reverence for Marion Labs pharmaceutical giant Ewing Kauffman, who was awarded the American League franchise in 1968. “He and Lamar Hunt (the late owner of the Chiefs) have done so much for Kansas City over the decades, and they both have made basic contributions years ago. We’re benefiting from the effects of what they did years ago.”
Kauffman was convinced he could generate more support for the team by recruiting business and community people to sell season tickets than by hiring professionals. That’s how the Lancers got going in earnest in the early 1970s.
“The value of the Lancers is they sell partial tickets to neighbors, family, businesses in the area, and they had the personal contacts,” Winship says. “You can’t spell profit without PR.”
It started with about a dozen people and eventually grew to 100. Lancers had to sell the equivalent of at least 20 season tickets the first year, 40 the second and 60 the third. Many stayed for years and years. Winship ultimately worked up to selling the equivalent of 300 season tickets in a year.
Ticket buyers knew their Lancer, their go-to person if they ever had a wish or concern. Winship has had one customer with him for 30 years: She couldn’t afford season tickets but could afford 20 games, so that’s what she bought.
It was fun in the late 1970s, Winship says, when the Royals were battling the Yankees all the way, and through the glory years in the early 1980s.
The Lancers worked so well that other teams tried to emulate them but couldn’t, Winship says.
“Kansas City being a smaller market, it worked,” he says. “People know each other and knew Mr. K. Kansas City is a big city but has a smaller Midwestern feel.”
After Kauffman’s death in 1993 and the Major League Baseball lockout of 1994-95, many fans soured on the game. There were even fears that Kansas City might lose the team. That’s when the Lancers really stepped up, Dimon says.
“We all felt like it was a civic duty and a way of giving back,” he says. “The one thing that needed to happen was we needed to be at the stadium and needed to sell tickets. We felt like we were doing our part of helping keep the team here.”
After David Glass bought the team in 2000, fears of losing the franchise faded. But the team was still regularly in the doldrums.
Davis says some corporate types declined to buy season tickets, with the excuse, “I couldn’t even give the tickets away.”
But he had a proven sales pitch. He would take prospects to lunch at the Stadium Club and show them the seats where they could be watching games.
“If I bought somebody a lunch, I probably had a sale,” he says. “The stadium has so much charisma itself.”
While Lancers donated countless hours to their task, there certainly were perks: American League passes to most games and trips to spring training and other great trips for the top sales performers. After Kauffman’s death in 1993, his will provided $1 million for the “trip of a lifetime” — a Mediterranean cruise for the Royal Lancers and their spouses in May 1995.
Being a Lancer also meant a chance to do something wonderful for kids. In 1998, Davis was still general manager of the Area Transportation Authority, Kansas City’s bus company. He had the idea to get his bus drivers to take inner-city kids to the games — 40 kids per game, times 20 games, to benefit 800 kids.
Businesses helped buy tickets for the kids. Drivers donated their time in exchange for tickets to other games. And churches helped identify the kids.
“One of my fondest memories is I got the players’ union to have a player go out and meet the bus, get on the bus,” Davis recalls. “And it was so great to get on the bus and see a ballplayer in the back seat with three or four kids on his lap.”
Now, longtime Lancers feel good just to have played a small part in helping the team survive all the drought years to get to the promised land.
“We’re excited now,” Winship says. “We’re getting the fruits of what many people have done.”
Of course, times change, especially with the advent of Internet ticket sales and renovations at Kauffman Stadium. In 2008, the organization started an internal, professional customer service department. At that point, the Lancers’ role changed, explains Scott Wadsworth, director of ticket services.
Lancers still generate new leads from their social, business and community networks that the sales staff may not necessarily reach, but they don’t need knowledge of the ticketing system, he says.
No new Lancers are being added, but the group of about 60 active and retired Lancers remains an integral part of the organization and its history.
“They cared about Kansas City, the Royals and the Kauffman family,” Wadsworth says. “They’re still great for the community.”