KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The smile runs from Leavenworth to Lee’s Summit, from Kearney to Gardner, a stitch of sunshine that binds every broken heart in between.
“I can’t explain the intangible feelings,” Todd Housh says. “The whole city’s in a good mood. You can feel it. There’s no doubt about it.”
Housh had grown to hate Mondays in September. Grown to absolutely despise them. The Chiefs would find ways to lose key players, lose key games or, more often, both. The Royals would be playing out string after string after string. Not only is Housh a fan of both of Kansas City’s iconic professional franchises, but he also runs the Sports Nutz chain of apparel stores in the area. He had become weary of staring at the rows of Matt Cassel jerseys up on the wall, unloved and unmoved.
But then a series of funny things happened over the span of a few cold winter weeks. Ervin Santana showed up. Then James Shields. Then Andy Reid and John Dorsey. Then Alex Smith. The Royals remained in the postseason hunt for the last American League Wild Card berth until the final week of the campaign, racking up 86 victories, the most in a single season here since 1989. The Chiefs are 4-0 and scaring the living crapola out of opposing quarterbacks.
Suddenly, brother, business is freaking awesome.
“Last September, we did $62,000 (in sales),” Housh says. “This year, we did $85,000. That’s up 30 percent. Or more. I’ve never seen anything like this, pre-recession.”
Housh is a lifer, a Kansas alum and a die-hard who’s tied the backbone of his business to the local sports scene. Todd’s family has been part of the apparel game for the past eight years. He’s been a Royals season ticket-holder “since I was 1.” His grandfather was a Chiefs season ticket-holder in the salad days of the late 1960s.
A year ago at this time, the men in red were 1-3 en route to 1-7, then 1-10, then 2-14. Fans were fed up with the franchise’s quarterback, Cassel, and the man who had handed him the keys, general manager Scott Pioli. The Royals were coming off their 10th season of 90-plus losses in the last 12 years, still coping with the growing pains of youth. The saga of Jovan Belcher turned the misery from darkly comic to profoundly tragic. The mood among fans was so dour, so toxic, it got to the point where Housh decided to close one of his three stores down.
Autumn 2012 was gold for followers of Kansas State football, and paper bags for everybody else. The general feeling in town was that college hoops couldn’t get here quickly enough.
“It was hard,” Chiefs wideout/return man Dexter McCluster says when asked about last fall. “Because they want to see us go out there and win. And obviously, we wanted to go out and win. Didn’t happen, the past is the past, and you’ve got to move forward.”
And what a difference a year makes. In their first four games of 2012, the Chiefs had given up 34 points a game. In their opening four tilts of 2013, the club has allowed just 41 points total. The Royals trotted one of the youngest everyday lineups in the majors this past season, featured an electric bullpen and — according to Baseball-Reference.com — have assembled one of the greatest team defenses in the last 45 years of organized baseball. For the first time since 2003 and just the eighth time since 1970, the Royals and Chiefs both toted winning records as of Sept. 30.
“It’s gone from a 1 to a 10,” Housh says, chuckling. “I couldn’t give the stuff away last year. Now I can’t keep it on the shelves.”
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Lord, we’ve had it rough. Haven’t we? In July, Forbes.com ranked Kansas City No. 7 among America’s “Most Miserable Sports Cities.” And, big picture, the numbers don’t lie: 122 combined pro seasons, three championships, and none since 1985. Too small for the NBA and NHL to come back into the fold, just big enough to get your souls crushed on the national stage.
“If anybody deserves to be 4-0 right now, it’s the Chiefs,” tackle Donald Stephenson says, “(after) all the stuff we went through last year.”
As strong as Kansas City’s college ties are — from its years as home to the NCAA headquarters and decades of March Madness moments — those loyalties are also fiercely (and bitterly) divided. But among the few things that Jayhawks and Wildcats and Tigers (and Roos and Shockers and Cyclones and Huskers and Hawkeyes) can agree on, have always agreed upon, are the Chiefs and the Royals. When things are right, the city’s premier sports franchises unite this market, this community, like nothing else.
“Misery loves company,” notes Dr. Richard Lustberg, a sports psychologist.
No more misery, kids.
No more jokes. No more bags. No more shame. For only the third time in the last 43 years, the Royals came out of September with a winning percentage of .518 or better while the Chiefs were playing at .618 clip or higher at the same time. (The other two instances: 1973 and 1993; the Chiefs were 2-1 on both occasions.)
“Right now, it’s electrifying,” McCluster says. “When you go out, you just see those guys come up to you and take pictures and congratulate you and chest-bump you. So I love to go out and interact with fans.”
“Oh yeah,” Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson says. “A very different vibe out there. So more guys on the outside (are) far and away more excited; they’re leaning toward us a whole lot more.”
This is rarefied air, best shared and embraced. The feeling of something great, something precious, passed down from generation to generation. A father tells his son that the current Royals pitching staff reminds him of the great arms of the 1980s, when Kansas City walked among baseball’s elite. An uncle looks at the 2013 Chiefs proudly and tells his nephew — once their ears have stopped ringing — that this is what Arrowhead was like 20 years ago, week after week. One part nostalgia, one part bonding, two parts civic pride.
“People get overwhelming emotions, because they’ve invested so much time,” says Lustberg, whose blogs and essays can be found at www.PsychologyOfSports.com. “Fathers (who) know what it’s like to win and their children don’t.
“To have spent so many years in this one emotional place, and then shifting to a different emotional place, it’s a big emotional shift.”
A big financial one, too. It turns out winning pro teams aren’t just good for your spirit; they’re also good for your wallet.
A 2008 study by two professors — one with a background in economics, the other in psychology — showed that a successful NFL club can actually boost the per capita personal income of the folks in that respective market by more than $100 per year.
“Loss-avoidance is where the positive impact comes,” says Michael Davis, an economics professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla and the study’s co-author. “Not being associated as a ‘loser city’ is what has a bigger impact.”
The more games you win early on, the bigger the respective payoff. Once the bandwagon starts rolling, everybody wants to ride shotgun.
“The first theory is that you’re happy, and therefore you consume more, and so businesses consume more, and so forth,” Davis continues. “The other theory is (it’s because) of an increase in productivity.
“You’re happier the Chiefs won, so you when go into work Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, you’re just in a better mood, you’re more productive. We really couldn’t quite distinguish between the two.”
And Todd, frankly, doesn’t care. He just knows that his sales are up 37 percent, the Chiefs have an 82 percent shot at reaching the postseason, and he can’t stop smiling on Mondays.
“Everybody’s happy,” Housh says, then chuckles again. “It’s crazy. It really is.”
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org