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Lamar Hunt: Searching for Answers

Posted Oct 30, 2014

“We’re Coming Back, Come Along” (Chiefs marketing campaign)

This is the seventh in a continuing series of columns tracing Lamar Hunt’s role in the marketing of the Kansas City Chiefs and the situations and circumstances he faced in doing so.

Chapter 1:  Lamar Hunt:  consummate salesman
Chapter 2:  A Man for all Seasons
Chapter 3:  Early struggles
Chapter 4:  Winning cures all
Chapter 5:  Age catches up
Chapter 6:  All that is New is not Good


The steady and inexorable decline that had been so marked since the 1970s continued, and even accelerated in the 1980s. The trends were clear, and were, essentially, an intensification of those that had been so pronounced in the aftermath of the loss in the 1971 playoff to Miami.

Great names like Bell, Lanier, Robinson, Taylor, Tyrer, Dawson and company were now conspicuous by their absence.  Hank Stram’s replacements could not replace him.

In the midst of the decline Hunt blamed himself.

“I take the blame for the Chiefs fall,” he wrote Jack Steadman, the team’s general manager, “letting our talent scouting and talent securing go sour.”

For even Lamar Hunt to make the claim was to go too far.  That he, at times, was ill served by those who represented him was certainly true and there was the issue of what one might simply call bad luck. 

That the Chiefs were not alone in passing on quarterback Dan Marino in 1983 (he was the last quarterback taken in the first round of the draft that year, after all) leaves Kansas City free of all the blame that has been cast since that time. But then years later, to have a high-ranking member of the team’s personnel staff say that he would have taken quarterback Todd Blackledge again had he the chance, is to give some idea of how Hunt’s interests were poorly served by his front office.

The front office was well aware of the way seasons were going, and the marketing staff tried to come up with solutions on its part with little help from what was taking place in the team’s meeting rooms or on the field of play.

The sales staff, which had been ramped up from earlier days but which still counted heavily on Red Coaters to keep a dwindling group of fans who laid down their money each year – the majority of which were truly becoming an endangered species – came at their responsibilities with no loss of enthusiasm but with little success. 

Hunt continued to search for answers, but some of his ideas seemed old school to a younger staff, his preference for bands as halftime entertainment, for example.  Moreover, the ticket base on which Hunt had built his franchise was aging faster than his players.  A generation of Kansas Citians could not remember the great Chiefs teams of the 1960s having been too young to enjoy their success.

As for the players, the impact of most stars recedes quickly enough, for sports like the movie business is one of temporal enthusiasms.

Media criticism picked up steam, to no surprise, but Hunt’s usual rosy attitude never wavered.  “Rebuttals to emotional newspaper articles often time seem kind of silly,” he wrote in response to a particularly vicious attack by the Kansas City Star, refusing to take the bait.

Chief among the public’s complaints was the demand for a franchise quarterback, someone the caliber of Len Dawson. Its craving for one had not been diminished by the fact that so many who supposedly qualified as such had melted away like wax dolls in the heat of competition season after season.   

And so, ticket numbers continued to plummet with each losing season and the only game guaranteed to be anywhere near capacity was the annual tangle with the hated Raiders.  But even there, the stands were filled with many fans that weren’t season ticket holders, had no long-time allegiance to the team, and were rowdy and undisciplined creating an image far from the one that Hunt or anyone associated with the team would tolerate.

Arrowhead appeared empty late some seasons and restrooms on the top level were sometimes shut down, as were concessions, because the people seated there were so few.    

One marketing effort that could have gone colossally wrong was a supermarket grocery bag giveaway promotion. The bags were to be distributed to ticket holders as they entered the stadium and be taken home afterward for children to use for Halloween. 

Somehow those charged with the promotion had forgotten a similar promotion years before in New Orleans where the fans had put the bags over their heads during another bad loss by the Saints. Fortunately, some quick thinking by a Chiefs staff member held the bag giveaway until fans exited the stadium after the game.

This episode well illustrated the plight of the marketing department in the ‘70s through the ‘80s; even when staff attempted to draw fans to the stadium, it often had the potential to backfire.

Labels are pointless when they can’t be merged with reality or worse, sound pleading, and campaign slogans to include “Coming on Strong,” “We’re Coming Back,” followed by “We’re Coming Back, Come Along,” became laugh lines to critics and a younger media that had no memory of the excitement of the Super Bowl years.

Next up: Winning cures all: Part II

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