Kansas City gets its share of college sports championship events, most recently the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament. But officials say big events that bring millions to the local economy could be at risk if a proposed “religious freedom” amendment is added to the Missouri Constitution.
At last year’s Final Four in Indianapolis, debate over Indiana’s divisive Religious Freedom Restoration Act came to a head as fans and coaches from around the country poured into town. “We believe that it absolutely, positively needs to get fixed,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said then.
Or else, the implication was that Indiana would bid farewell to events it holds dear — such as the NCAA Tournament and Final Four.
A similar “religious freedom” law has made its way to Missouri, and the argument against it rings familiar.
Opponents say the legislation discriminates against the LGBT community, and sports organizations are in lock-step when it comes to their customers. Everyone is welcome. Call it turnstile equality.
After catching wind of legislative acts or symbols of oppression, sports leagues fight back with the leverage they possess — awarding of championship events, which can be huge economic drivers for a community.
That’s why Kansas City is concerned about the recent events in Jefferson City. Last Thursday, Republicans in the Missouri Senate voted to amend the state’s constitution to allow certain businesses to refuse services to same-sex couples based on religious beliefs.
The proposed amendment goes to the Missouri House, and if approved there would be on the ballot later this year.
A vote to allow florists or photographers to refuse service for same-sex marriage could become a vote to move the Big 12 Tournament and NCAA events out of Kansas City.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement that the conference is watching with interest.
“The Big 12 Conference and its member institutions support the rights of all individuals regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation,” he said. “It is acknowledged that elected officials enact laws they believe reflect the desires of their constituents, however, as a conference we will consider the impact of the Missouri Legislature’s action on current and future Big 12 events.”
The Big 12 wrapped up its 20th men’s basketball tournament last weekend, the 15th in Kansas City, and the tourney is scheduled to be played at the Sprint Center through 2020. The event brings an annual economic impact of $13 million, according to city officials.
Kansas City won future Big 12 Tournaments through a bid process last year and the destination is widely accepted as the best for the event, even with the game contested just outside the league’s footprint. But cities in other states have expressed a desire to play host to the Big 12 Tournament.
The NCAA has made Kansas City a go-to favorite for championships outside of its role as a regular for basketball tournaments — the men’s NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals and final are set for the Sprint Center in March 2017.
Two years ago, Kansas City was awarded 14 NCAA championships through 2017, including Division I soccer and women’s volleyball. A new bid cycle begins this year, and Kansas City Sports Commission president and CEO Kathy Nelson believes the region is well-positioned for more success. But the process will occur before the autumn balloting.
“For those of us who are trying to attract events to our city and our state, this is very concerning,” Nelson said. “Would we be awarded championships, with a ‘however?’
“Or the NCAA could just say, ‘Forget it, we’re not going there with that amendment.’ ”
There’s precedent for the NCAA to do so. For 15 years, the NCAA Tournament boycotted South Carolina because of the Confederate flag that flew on statehouse grounds. The flag was removed last year, and so was the NCAA ban.
Men’s basketball regionals will be included in this bid cycle. That wasn’t the case in the previous process, which raises the stakes even higher for Kansas City.
Dan Beebe has spent a lifetime in college sports as former Big 12 commissioner and NCAA director of enforcement. Today, he runs a consulting firm in Kansas City. He took in the Big 12 Tournament last weekend but wonders how many more he’ll see in Kansas City if religious freedom gets the votes.
“I think Kansas City could count on not getting these events,” Beebe said.