After stadium tax whiff, Royals, Chiefs should heed message and work to earn trust

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Blame it on the garble and flux in the messaging, which began with the Royals’ upbeat declaration of a movement to revitalize downtown Kansas City … and descended into an ominous undercurrent that reeked of an ultimatum.

Pin it on a halting and curiously unfurled timetable, including the Royals’ announcement of two sites as finalists for a new stadium … six months before renderings of an entirely different one was released just weeks ago.

Point to the plan itself for the Royals to move into the East Crossroads, where many in the prospective footprint (and immediate ripple zone) feared the implications: The perception for some was well-encapsulated in a Save the Crossroads poster in a Chartreuse Saloon window, depicting a massive wrecking ball bearing a Royals logo laying siege to the area — and such statements in the crowd as, “Why did we trust them?” and, “It was all lies!”

And don’t discount the oft-stated reluctance of taxpayers to enable money they believe could be better spent on essential needs than on what some would consider extravagances for rich ownership groups.

Any and all of this and more helps account for a stunning rebuke of the Royals and Chiefs on Tuesday night.

Jackson County taxpayers rendered a landslide rejection of the 40-year sales tax that would have both bolstered the Royals’ plan to build a new stadium in the East Crossroads and boosted a renovation of GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.

The ballot measure failed 58% to 42%, with 78,352 voting no and 56,606 voting yes.

That’s a particularly startling gap considering the clout the Chiefs have after winning the last two Super Bowls and three of the last five. Tethered together in one ballot measure, they might reasonably have been expected to carry the Royals over the threshold on a venture that was both far more ambitious and ambiguous than the Chiefs staying put at the Truman Sports Complex.

But it didn’t even come close, meaning that the defeat can’t be rationalized as being sabotaged by reflexive naysayers or people who just don’t care about sports or media that scrutinized the details or because of misconceptions.

The data says that even a good many fans of the teams, people who love the teams, voted against this initiative.

And that says the Royals’ and Chiefs’ takeaway here, which may play out through separate campaigns going forward, should be taking heed of what happened.

They should be humbled and take inventory and say “we hear you” — and that they need to be better and clearer and earn your trust and votes.

After the outcome became apparent during a Tuesday evening watch party at J. Rieger and Co. Distillery, Royals majority owner John Sherman and Chiefs president Mark Donovan each spoke of respecting the process and the decision of the voters.

As much as they will want to weigh their other options now, this is the time to prove how much they do respect the voters.

By working to earn their votes next time around.

In Jackson County.

Not by rashly trying to prove the reality of the implied threat to move out that was entwined with the very name of The Committee to Keep the Chiefs and Royals in Jackson County.

Not by wasting more time blaming Jackson County executive and Royals Hall of Famer Frank White for obstructing the process at all turns — especially considering that this measure got on the ballot despite White’s efforts.

John Sherman, owner of the Royals, spoke after voters rejected a stadium tax measure on Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Kansas City. Mark Donovan, president of the Chiefs, is pictured at right.
John Sherman, owner of the Royals, spoke after voters rejected a stadium tax measure on Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Kansas City. Mark Donovan, president of the Chiefs, is pictured at right.

And certainly not by retaining or amplifying the messaging of Axiom Strategies, the political campaign firm owned by conservative consultant Jeff Roe — known for what The Star described as “negative, hardball tactics” that seemed reflected in the “vote for this or else” saber-rattling that marked the stretch run.

While the Chiefs articulated their vision with almost predictable repetition, what the Royals most need to recognize is that the people have spoken with clarity, even if it might be for a number of reasons.

That they won’t give carte blanche for a project they feel is hasty, missing crucial details and absent a clear, concise and consistent rationale.

To ignore that and immediately solicit or engage options outside of Jackson County, most likely either in Clay County or in Kansas, would mark a second resounding defeat for teams whose legacies, even identities, are indivisible from where they are now.

In what amounted to a concession speech, Sherman said, “We will take some time to reflect on and process the outcome and find a path forward that works for the Royals and our fans.”

But he also said “we are steadfast in our belief that Jackson County is far better off with the Chiefs and the Royals.”

And vice versa, we’d add.

No matter how frustrated or disillusioned Sherman may be right now, he well enough understands the community in which he’s been a model philanthropist and civic contributor that he should also know the Chiefs and Royals are better off in Jackson County, too.

At a get-out-the-vote rally at Freedom Incorporated the night before, Sherman referred to the election being about hope.

But it turned out to be about a lunge of faith that too many people just couldn’t make.

So, OK, if each franchise wants to entertain other offers now, so be it.

For two franchises that have spoken so much about their legacies here and what this city means to them, though, they’d be better served demonstrating that sincerity by doubling down on that point than on flexing over how they could go elsewhere.

What would that look like?

In the case of the Royals, anyway, it would start with more clear explanations of why the East Crossroads is a better spot than, say, the East Village and a longer rollout of any plan to better be able to reassure all directly affected ... and better convey why this will be so great for Kansas City.

And then some, including why a modern facility and enhanced revenue are vital to the Royals organization as a small-market franchise trying to compete in the warped financial world of Major League Baseball.

From where we sit, anyway, they’d also do well to avoid the triggering wording about possibly leaving and not cede their convictions to strategists who misread the audience.

When I asked Sherman in an interview last week about why they’d switched gears from a more hopeful tone to “keep them here” stuff, he said, “Somebody smarter than me finds that is a message that resonates. But I answer that question with, ‘This is my hometown.’ … “So I’m not thinking … about going anywhere. I’m thinking about, ‘Let’s get this thing done next Tuesday,’ so we can go to the next step and that both these teams will stay here.”

That sentiment shouldn’t end with this vote.

It should begin anew — with both a more-informed electorate and a more-informed pitch that the Royals and Chiefs have an opportunity to conceive ... if their history in Jackson County means to them what they’ve said it does.