In the 2024 NFL Playoff Wild Card round, the Kansas City Chiefs played at Arrowhead Stadium in the fifth-coldest playoff game in NFL history. Temperatures weren’t just cold—they were dangerously cold, to the point where fans with uncovered skin at the game could expect frostbite within half an hour.
And yet, Chiefs fans showed up. They showed up and they were loud. Attendance was at nearly 71,500, a frankly absurd number of people. But if you’ve been following the Chiefs of recent years, you know that such attendance can be expected no matter the weather, with Super Bowl parades of half a million people and the supremacy of the NFL in the sports landscape.
Plus, of course, the Chiefs’ current dynasty, which has thus far secured a pair of Super Bowl victories and an AFC Championship in the last five years, no big deal.
Thinking back to the Kansas City Royals’ three-year run as the best team in the American League from 2013 to 2015, one of my favorite quotes from the national media came from Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post. Kilgore wrote that “Kansas City is the baseball town St. Louis thinks it is.”
Observed from time there during the ALCS and watching last night: Kansas City is the baseball town St. Louis thinks it is.— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) October 28, 2015
As you might imagine, Cardinals fans did not take this well. Kilgore tweeted that statement at 2:19 PM. St. Louis Magazine posted a rebuttal 48 minutes later that, nuh-uh, St. Louis is actually the better baseball town. Replies to the tweet, many of which were included in the STL Mag article, mocked Kansas City’s attendance figures and boasted about how loyal St. Louis fans were.
But, as we see with the Chiefs, loyalty is easily earned when the team is successful—and it is true that the Cardinals have been far, far more objectively successful than the Royals. in the 34-season span from 1982 through 2015, the Cardinals made the playoffs 16 times and made it to or won the World Series seven of those times. In that time period, the franchise won 100 or more games four times, had nine losing seasons, and lost more than 90 games in a year only once. Much of that success came in the new millennium, in which the number of years the Cardinals missed the playoffs and the number of years in which the Cardinals made it to the World Series was the same (four).
The stone cold truth is that good sports teams attract more fans, and the longer that success lasts, the bigger a force multiplier you get. The Cardinals have achieved the top level a franchise can become: a generational success. Picture a 10-year-old Cardinals fan who saw the team win the World Series in 1982. Let’s say that same kid eventually has a kid of their own, born in 1996. Guess what—that kid sees is 10 years old when the Cardinals when the World Series in 2006. In between, the Cardinals are fun, competitive, and never bad enough to push fans away for long enough.
This is why if you go literally anywhere in Missouri that’s not Kansas City or St. Louis you most often encounter the combo Chiefs and Cardinals fan. Whether they live in Jefferson City, Springfield, or Branson, these residents don’t have a hyper local team. Who do they pick? The semi-local teams that win. Why on God’s green earth would you willingly select the Royals, who have been one of the worst franchises in professional sports for most of nearly four decades, when the Cardinals exist? And why would you pick a consistently bad Rams team to root for when your family has already had ties to the Chiefs?
Once in the late aughts on the Pike’s Peak Cog Railway, I overheard a conversation between a girl—about 10 years or so—and an older lady sitting by her. She asked the kid what her favorite sports team was. I remember her exact response over 15 years later: “I like the Yankees because they win a lot.”
At the time, I rolled my eyes just about hard enough to tip the train off the railway. But now, man, I think that kid had the exact right thought process. Sports are entertainment with a unique capacity for emotional attachment. Spending time on a bad team that isn’t fun just isn’t worth the precious few hours we have on this earth.
One of the responses to Kilgore’s tweet, as quoted by St. Louis Magazine, stuck out to me. “Let’s be honest: if the Royals spend a couple years in the cellar, KC fans aren’t showing up like they are now.” Its author was indeed correct: the Royals maintained 2.5 million in attendance in 2016, but by 2019 it fell under 1.5 million again.
But there’s just no shame in that. The Royals haven’t been worth Kansas Citians’ time in the same way that the Cardinals have been worth St. Louis residents’ time. Still, 2013-2015 showed that those fans are around. They’re just waiting to wake up, to hibernate from their sleep. Royals fever in the mid 2010s persists as my favorite sports memory, even taking into account those Chiefs Super Bowl victories and Magic Mahomes comebacks. A good product on the field is all it will take.