Kansas City Chiefs new stadium plan heads for vote in legislature

A 170-year-old rivalry is flaring up as Kansas lawmakers try to snatch the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs away from Missouri even though economists long ago concluded subsidizing pro sports isn’t worth the cost.

The Kansas Legislature’s top leaders endorsed helping the Chiefs and professional baseball’s Kansas City Royals finance new stadiums in Kansas ahead of a special session set to convene Tuesday. The plan would authorize state bonds for stadium construction and pay them off with revenues from sports betting, the Kansas Lottery and additional tax dollars generated in and around the new venues.

The states’ border runs through the metropolitan area of about 2.3 million people, and the teams would move only about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west.

Decades of research have concluded a pro sports franchise doesn’t boost a local economy much, if any, because it mostly captures existing spending from other places in the same community. But for Kansas officials, spending would at least leave Missouri and come to Kansas, and one-upping Missouri has its own allure.

“I’ve wanted to see the Chiefs in Kansas my whole life, but I hope we can do it in a way that is enriching for these communities, rather than creating additional burdens for them,” said state Rep. Jason Probst, a Democrat from central Kansas.

The rivalry between Kansas and Missouri can be traced as far back as the lead-up to the Civil War, before Kansas was even a state. People from Missouri came from the east, hoping in vain to create another slave state like their own. Both sides looted, burned and killed across the border.

There also was a century-long sports rivalry between the University of Kansas and University of Missouri. And for years the two states burned through hundreds of millions of dollars to lure businesses to one side of the border or the other in the pursuit of jobs. They called an uneasy truce in 2019.

Missouri officials are pledging to be equally aggressive to keep the Royals and Chiefs, and not only because they view them as economic assets.

“They’re sources of great pride,” said Missouri state Rep. John Patterson, a suburban Kansas City Republican expected to be the next state House speaker.

Kansas legislators see the Chiefs and Royals in play because voters on the Missouri side refused in April to extend a local sales tax for the upkeep of their side-by-side stadiums. Lawmakers also argue that failing to take action risks having one or both teams leave the Kansas City area, although economists are skeptical that the threat is real.

While the stadium complex lease runs through January 2031, Kansas officials argue the teams must make decisions soon for new or renovated stadiums to be ready by then. They also are promising the Chiefs a stadium with a dome or retractable roof that can host Super Bowls, college basketball Final Fours and huge indoor concerts.

“You’ve got this asset and all the businesses that move there as a result, or are created there,” said Kansas state Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Republican from the edge of his state’s Kansas City suburbs and a leader of the relocation effort. “You’ll get commerce out of that area every day.”

Roughly 60% of the area’s population lives in Missouri, but the Kansas side is growing more quickly.

Despite the legislative push in Kansas, Missouri lawmakers aren’t rushing to propose alternatives. Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson told reporters Thursday that his state is “not just going to roll over,” but also said, “We’re just in the first quarter” of the contest.

Both states hold primary elections on Aug. 3, with most legislative seats on the ballot this year. The April vote in Missouri on the local stadium tax suggested subsidizing pro sports teams could be a political loser in that state, particularly with the conservative-leaning electorate in GOP primaries.

“In Missouri, the Republican Party used to be led by a business wing that might be in favor of this sort of thing, but in the Trump era, that’s not the case,” said David Kimball, a University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor. “The more conservative, the more Trump-oriented wing, they’re not big supporters of spending taxpayer money on much of anything.”

Kansas Republicans face pressure on the right to avoid having the state pick economic winners and losers. For Probst, the Democrat, the concern is using government “to make rich people richer,” meaning team owners.

Economists have studied pro sports teams and subsidies for stadiums since at least the 1980s. J.C. Bradbury, an economics and finance professor from Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said studies show subsidizing stadiums is “a terrible channel for economic growth.”

While supporters of the Kansas effort have cited a report indicating large, positive economic implications, Bradbury said “phony” reports are a staple of stadium campaigns.

“Stadiums are poor public investment, and I would say it’s a near unanimous consensus,” said Bradbury, who has reviewed studies and done them himself.

Yet more than 30 lobbyists have registered to push for a stadium-financing plan from Kansas lawmakers, and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s CEO has called this a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to attract the Chiefs.

The Chiefs not only have won three Super Bowl titles in five years, but they have an especially strong fanbase that has expanded because of tight end Travis Kelce’s romance with pop star Taylor Swift.

Host cities find the National Football League attractive because franchises are valued in the billions and wealthy owners and celebrity players command a media spotlight, said Judith Grant Long, an associate professor of sports management and urban planning at the University of Michigan and a director of its center on sports venues.

“All of these come together in a potent brew for politicians, civic officials and local business interests hoping to capitalize on its influence,” she said.

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