It was January 4, 2014. The Kansas City Chiefs were facing the Indianapolis Colts in Indy. The game began beautifully despite Jamaal Charles' concussion on the first drive of the game, as the Chiefs struck first with an Alex Smith to Dwayne Bowe touchdown. Without his best playmaker, Smith was a force of nature, running and throwing his way through and around the Colts defense. There was a fire inside of him, and he was seemingly willing his team to victory. By the end of the first half, the Chiefs were up 38-10 and had dominated the Colts in every facet of the game.
I knew that something was wrong. I knew it. Despite being up four scores, I wondered aloud to my family if this would be the most crushing defeat of Chiefs history, which in turn would mean that it would be one of the most crushing losses in Kansas City sports history.
I was right.
The Colts, led by Luck, luck, and a massive collapse of the Chiefs defense, proceeded to gouge the team and roar back to win the game by one point, 45-44. It was horrible, and yet it was exactly what we expect from Kansas City sports: crushing disappointment. For some cities, everything goes their way. Indianapolis is undeniably one of those; to draft and play perhaps the best quarterback of all time in Peyton Manning and tank just the right time to draft Andrew Luck, the best quarterback prospect in a generation, is cruel and unfair under every definition. Kansas City tanked one year away from Luck's draft and was rewarded a bust of an offensive lineman for it.
However, the Royals' 2014 run has changed everything. In one fell swoop, one magical month, one amazing story, the landscape underwent a gigantic paradigm shift. It did so in two parts: one, how the Chiefs and Royals were viewed by the populace and two, what success means to Kansas City.
Anytime before 2014, and especially before 2013, the Royals were a joke. They were last in the playoffs in 1985, where they won the World Series. Their fall from grace has been well documented here and elsewhere, but suffice it to say that the shortened version is equally as jarring: after almost a decade of moderately successful seasons, albeit without playoffs, the Royals proceeded to rattle off a nearly two-decade stretch with one winning season and four 100-loss seasons in five years.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs were the team to actually root for--the Chiefs went to the playoffs 11 times since the Royals' last did, four of those times in the divisional round. While new youngsters grew up with awful Royals teams year in and year out, the Chiefs were routinely competitive, with excellent players to root for even in lean years like Priest Holmes and Tony Gonzalez.
It's now midway through November of 2014, and the narrative has switched. The Royals won their own league championship, the first flag of that sort to fly in the Truman Sports Complex since, of course, 1985. Not only that, but they did so in a fascinatingly engaging fashion, setting records along the way. Even though the Royals lost the World Series to the San Fransisco Giants, Alex Gordon was 90 feet away from a tie game in the bottom of the ninth--in game seven. The Royals almost won the World Series and are built around a core set of players that will still be on the team for another few years at least. In 2015, the Royals will still be American League Champions.
And the Chiefs? Put it this way: the Chiefs have existed in Kansas City since 1963. They have won 8 playoff games in 50 years. The Royals won 11 in 2014.
Of course there are more baseball games in the playoffs than in the football postseason, but the gap isn't quite as wide as in the regular season, and the Chiefs didn't have a 29-year playoff drought to overcome. Since winning the divisional game in 1993 against the Houston Oilers, a team that does not exist any more, the Chiefs have lost 8 straight playoff games. Since 1997, the Chiefs have had one stretch of two-straight winning seasons. The Chiefs haven't successfully drafted and played a quarterback since the dawn of time.
It's weird to think of the Chiefs as the underachieving ones in the city, but after this October it is absolutely true. It's such a weird shift. The Chiefs have always been the popular team to root for--most of Missouri is Chiefs territory, despite most of Missouri being St. Louis Cardinals territory (another full discussion for another day). The Royals, well, let's just say you didn't see any 'KC' hats when you went on a business trip to another state. It was insane to be a Royals fan, and all of a sudden it's a logical conclusion.
The Royals obviously need to prove that they can repeat, or at least be a consistent contender. But the pressure is on the Chiefs to do something great. Step one is to win a playoff game. They are looking pretty good now.
What is sports success? Answers will vary wildly depending on where or who you ask it. It ranges from 'just making the postseason' to 'not competing for the title is unacceptable.' Step back for a bit, though, and see if you can answer the question without considering a team or sport. What is sports success?
That answer is easy: to win a championship.
Athletes strive for the best, and the pinnacle of team sports is championships, titles, to be only team with a 'W' at the very last game of the year. Circumstances can modify the goals a team seeks to achieve, but no team says, 'Yeah, I'm happy with not being embarrassed, I don't think I'm going to bother trying to do more.' Likewise, no team says, 'We're good, but we're not happy with consistently competing with championships; WE WANT TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD.' Titles are the core of any team sport experience. And in that aspect, Kansas City has been woefully impotent for years.
There are 49 cities in the U.S. and Canada with a sports team in one of the Big Four professional leagues: the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL. Some of those cities, like Oklahoma City and Sacramento, have never experienced a title. However, all of the cities that have both an MLB and NFL team have experienced a title at some point, of which there are 24. Here is a listing of those cities with the longest active championship droughts:
- San Diego-1963, Chargers
- Cleveland-1964, Browns
- Kansas City-1985, Royals
Kansas City has experienced the third-longest active championship drought out of any city with both an NFL and MLB team. Next year, the digits will turn to 30 years since that fateful series in '85. That series is the only thing between Kansas City and San Diego/Cleveland territory, as the Chiefs won their Super Bowl in 1969.
This has never really been at the forefront for Kansas City. With the Royals' stiflingly consistent, awful baseball and the Chiefs' general competency, the pressure remained on the Royals to become respectable. With 2014, they blew that out of the water, highlighting a three-decade drought away from the standard of sports success.
Being so close to the promised land brought many fans, myself included, the awareness of what a title means. No longer need we accept 'ok' sports. Kansas City wants a title. How or if this changes the operation of both the Chiefs and Royals is an unknown factor, but it's something to watch.
Many of you will respond with 'what about Sporting KC?' Indeed, Sporting has been an impressive organization. A charter member of Major League Soccer, Sporting has won two MLS championships, one in 2000 and another in 2013. Sporting has been so starkly different than the Chiefs and Royals in its operation and success that it's downright bizarre to see a team from Kansas City consistently compete at a high level.
While I won't take anything away from Sporting's accomplishments, I will say this: Sporting is a niche market not to be considered in the same league as the Big Four--at least not yet. The MLS has undergone a rapid growth spurt, and the average MLS team is worth $103 million. The average team worth of the next smallest league, the NHL, quadruples that number and is at $413 million. The average MLB team worth is eight times the MLS average, the NFL fourteen times more. It's just not the same.
We're in uncharted territory as Chiefs and Royals fans. Unless you are also a Sporting fan and have gotten a head start on this 'winning' thing, you're probably somewhat confused. It is undeniably a better experience, but it's just so...weird.
To put it another way, the Chiefs and Royals have played a full season together every year since 1969 but one, the 1994 season whose baseball half was cut short by the infamous strike. They have never had two full, consecutive seasons with a winning record.
Again: the Chiefs and Royals have never had two full consecutive winning seasons concurrent with the other team. Never.
The Royals had a winning 2013 and a winning 2014. The Chiefs had a winning 2013 and are three wins away from a winning 2014.
It's time for a new era.