October in Kansas City: Using Sports to Tell a Community’s Story

October 24, 2014

October in Kansas City.  Usually that means cleaning leaves out of the gutter and enjoying the last weeks of barbeque weather.  This year it means baseball.  For the first time in 29 years …

It’s been a storybook run for both teams in this years’ World Series – no journalist or fan from San Francisco to Kansas City will deny that.  Sports writers have already pushed the limits of their normal repertoire of accolades and adjectives to describe this year’s post-season play:  electric, exciting, magical, unlikely, compelling, feisty, dramatic, and so on.  But from my little corner of Kansas City, the wonder of this fall’s October surprise is not so much about what has happened on the field, but how it has transformed what is happening in the stands, in the parking lots, on the roads, in the schools, at the office, in the grocery stores, at the bars, in the living rooms, on the city buses …  At the risk of treading into sports writers’ territory, what is clear to me is that we are currently witnessing how the power of sport can change a city.

As the Kansas City Star’s Mark Davis explains in his article KC Revels in the National Sports Spotlight, but What’s That Worth?  “Sport has turned America’s fickle spotlight on Kansas City.  And the rest of the nation sees winners, feels excitement, senses vitality.” In this piece, Davis gets to the root of how a single game can change the attitude of an entire population, emanating joy, relief, amazement, and shared optimism.  These momentary bonds that relax social norms permit you to “high five” strangers and consider anyone wearing Royal blue to be a friend.  Davis also puts his finger on what this means in a larger context: the pulsing energy of Kansas City is translating to a national level, showcasing the city’s story, their roots, and a persona that no amount of strategic positioning and preconceived messaging can effectively communicate.

As a professional architect and urban designer of sports facilities and civic spaces, I believe what we see happening in Kansas City provides us with a larger lesson to reflect on.

The Power and Light entertainment district next to the Sprint Center, for example, comes alive with 2,000 fans packed in shoulder to shoulder to watch a sporting event on the enormous outdoor screen … because they yearn for the experience of watching the game with others who care.  They want to be a part of the buzz.  Kauffman Stadium – iconic, stoic and, for so long, empty in October – is creating experiences and memories that fans will recall with their grandchildren decades later.  These encounters remind us that regardless of how sports and entertainment architecture inspires us, and regardless of how the latest and greatest technology empowers us, the phenomenon of sports has the unique ability to strike that elusive chord of our deepest social personas – the one that desperately wants to experience life with others.  This season, that chord sounds like it’s been lifted straight out of Jimi Hendrix’ unforgettable version of The Star Spangled Banner.  Maury Brown, a columnist for Forbes puts it another way: “You cannot put a dollar value on the civic value of a sports franchise.”  And this year’s baseball playoffs and World Series has shown how that value transcends dollars and cents.


At Populous we constantly strive to capture this civic spirit of sport.  While we don’t pretend to command the ability to be social engineers, we do claim to understand a thing or two about what makes successful civic spaces.  The past generation of sports facilities that we have been involved with have changed the paradigm from self-contained “introverted” buildings to outwardly-focused “extroverted” buildings.  Just as a World Series game is witnessed through a wide range of viewing experiences, stadiums and arenas now integrate into their surrounding environments in a variety of ways.  Likewise, choreographing the visitor experience starts with the purchase of a ticket and continues with the ride to the ballpark, walking into the entry plaza, making your way through the concourse, finding your seat, and having the first bite of a hot dog.  And maybe pulling up an app on your smart phone to track a player’s post-season performance metrics or post a tweet about last inning’s pitching change.

The combination of well-planned buildings and public spaces, exciting teams, and engaged fans results in a heightened manifestation of how a city expresses itself.  With the public spotlight on Kansas City and San Francisco, new expressions of cultural identity continue to be excavated and celebrated.  In other words, these civic buildings have become an integral part of what it means to be not only a fan, but a citizen of that city.  As such, they represent an opportunity for our communities to tell a much more profound story about who we are and who we aspire to be.

AT&T Park, with McCovey Cove beyond right field, with its iconic views of the Bay, with its waterfront and surrounding South Beach neighborhoods so bustling, active and exuberant on game day and beyond, tells a special story about San Francisco.  And nearly 2,000 miles away, Kauffman Stadium, with its fountains and crown scoreboard, with its odes to Negro League Baseball and its history, with its Midwestern charm and friendly fans, tells another quite different story about Kansas City.  Clinching the pennant and making it to the World Series are remarkable feats, in and of themselves.  But these achievements have also privileged these cities to share their collective stories on a much brighter stage than ever before with a nation who is eager to tune in.  And that – to borrow a word from a well-known ad campaign – is priceless.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *