This February, when the Royals were apparently ascending and questions surrounded the Cardinals, I wondered about the timetable for the Royals winning Missouri's heart again. I thought tonight might be a good time to revisit the discussion. Obviously, despite all the buzz the Royals' farm system has generated, we can now move that timetable back a few more years now. -WM
As an outsider, I've always enjoyed the rivalry between Kansas City and St. Louis. I don't have a personal stake in it, other than that I'm a Royals fan. The fun thing about it is that it isn't just a baseball rivalry. There really is a dislike, sometimes good-natured, sometimes not, between the two metro areas. In writing about the Royals for many years now, I've come to understand that there are a number of people in Kansas City that simply don't like St. Louis. They don't think it's a nice place, they don't like the people there, they don't like the vibe of the city. It's all usually fairly vague, but they just don't like St. Louis.
Part of the issue, again from the outside, is that Kansas Citians believe that St. Louisians have a negative attitude towards KC. There's a feeling that St. Louis is a little bit pretentious. However, there's also St. L's refusal to engage at times. In the baseball sense, there's definitely a Card-fan meme of "the Royals aren't our rival." I think that, outside of state politics, that extends to the city dynamic. So ultimately, it's a weird dynamic. I hate you why don't you hate me back?
But beyond all of this is the matter of the rest of the state. Culturally, most of middle and southern Missouri certainly feels much more like Kansas City to me. Sounds like Kansas City too. Even looks like Kansas City. A majority of the state is definitely Cardinals fans however. The Cardinals seem to have the edge along the I-70 corridor. Coupled with their dominance in the southern part of the state, including Springfield and Joplin, they've got the Royals outflanked.
The question today is this: could this ever change?
Obviously, the consistently terrible play of the Royals since the mid-90s has eroded the fanbase regionally. From a mid-80s peak, the Royals have lost tens of thousands of regional fans in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arkansas. The heartland of Royals fandom, legitimate Royals fandom, is Metro KC and Kansas. The Royals still have radio affiliates in Iowa and South Dakota, for example, but I almost never saw any evidence of Royals fans in either place.
While the Royals started losing, the Cardinals kept being a good team. I don't think of the 1990s as a great period in Cardinal history, yet they managed to make the playoffs in 1996, wedged between two 4th place finishes. That one random playoff appearance helped sustain their fanbase from malaise, as did the Big Mac love a bit later. Then, starting in 2000, the Cardinals turned into a dynamo. Since 2000, they've made the playoffs seven times. A very good Cardinals team lost a World Series and a mediocre one won one. (Sound familiar?)
In addition to that winning, the Cardinals, along with the people that cover them, do a very good job of selling the Cardinals as a regional team. Cardinal broadcasts, local and national, are littered with references to "the best fans in baseball" and feature frequent references to the size of the fanbase. You hear all the time about groups or families driving to Cardinals games from Arkansas, southern Missouri, southern Illinois, etc. Probably, at this very moment, some Cardinal fan writer, is writing a book along the lines of RR's Radio Affiliate Profile Series, that will be published by ESPN Books. Suicide now.
Anyway, let's just focus on Missouri. Can the Royals win it back? Step number one, the Royals have to become a mini-dynasty. Obviously. If the Royals wanted to own a majority of fans in Missouri by 2020, they'd need at least three playoff appearances. Two maybe.
At the same time, the Cardinals need to decline. The Cardinals need to become truly bad, or, at the very least, mediocre. That more or less happened in the 1990s, so it's not an impossibility, despite the best fans in baseball. You can certainly see the Cardinals playing out the next five years with increasingly old and expensive teams, designed to squeeze out what they can from the Pujols/Holliday core. Those periods usually don't end well, at all. As I've argued before, today's beloved star that we simply must lock-up FOREVER is often tomorrow's overpaid millstone that the fanbase comes to despise. That may not happen with Pujols, but it isn't unimaginable either. Just look at how the folks at Lookout Landing came to view Griffey last season... and he was making nothing.
The other thing working in KC's factor is that the St. Louis old-timers are dying. The generation of fans that truly remembers the Cardinals as the only team in the midwest or mid-south is fading away. The Rangers and Astros have been around for forty years now. The Royals have been around for over forty years now. A middle-aged guy in Springfield might still be a Cardinal fan because his dad saw Musial play and he never liked the new-fangled Royals. Time is starting to wash those memories and those fans away, however. Replaced daily with people who consider the 1990s "old-school." Again, kill me now.
Of course, that also applies to the Royals. The generation of Royals fans who remember our glory days is also fading away. Or, at least, starting to get outnumbered. No one under 30 has any serious experience, outside of embryonic memories as a 5 or 6 year old, of the Royals being great. The Royals fans who had the greatest experiences as fans are those who are now in their mid-to-late 40s.
I respect and admire the Cardinal fanbase. I truly do. I'm a baseball fan and I like hardcore baseball fans. However, I don't think they're invulnerable. In the end, if the Royals can become truly good, I think that Cardinal heartlands in southern and midwestern Missouri are vulnerable. The Cardinals have been good historically and were great in the 2000s, and you can't underestimate how meaningful a great decade can be in creating and sustain fans. The Royals need to make the Teens their decade.