Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved chronicles the rise of the local foods community in Hardwick, Vermont. Hewitt makes the compelling case that a collection of agri-preneurs helped “save” this small Northeastern town.
The Hewitt narrative triggered some deeper thinking about the role that sports play in a community. The commonalities are striking. They often are core to a turnaround effort. They drive economic impact. Most importantly, they have a material cultural impact, often shaping and strengthening the psyche of a city.
Kansas City, and their multi-decade journey with the Chiefs, are a perfect Hewitt use case. Consider the facts.
The arrival of the Chiefs spurred an economic revival. In 1951, flooding destroyed the Kansas City Stockyards, a centerpiece of the city’s economic activities (the total flood caused nearly $935 million dollars in damage). The City was in shambles.
In 1963, the arrival of the Chiefs signaled a return to prestige for a town that had lost its main source of revenue and its identity (hence Kansas City’s reputation for being a cowtown). Only 30 cities have NFL teams. Kansas City is one of them. The presence of an NFL team is a distinct differentiator from Kansas City’s regional neighbors with a major economic impact.
Kansas City has also benefited culturally from the Chiefs. The Chiefs helped build Kansas City’s image as an All-American town. Games were, and still are, family affairs. There is little emphasis on corporate boxes and the other maladies that have plagued organizations in big swing town from New York to Houston and Dallas to Los Angles. The incredible noise that Chiefs fans are able to project is ingrained in the culture. The Chiefs gave the city a purpose.
Finally, the Chiefs have had a great impact on the community. Despite the large socioeconomic, ethnic and racial divide that shapes Kansas City, everybody loves the Chiefs. The City, it has been said, bleeds Red and Gold. We embrace players like Len Dawson and Eric Berry with equal vigor. Community is built at Arrowhead.
The power of a sports team is often delegitimized by academics and non-sports journalists. If we are to borrow from the title from Hewitt’s book, however, the arrival of the Chiefs saved Kansas City in the same way that organic food is saving Hardwick, VT. The Chiefs improved the economy, had immense cultural benefits, and helped the community unite. It is, in a phrase, what they call Arrowhead Pride.