More recently, the Chiefs hired Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, a pair of coordinators who won three Super Bowls together from 2001-2004. While no financial details of their contracts have officially been released, reports have suggested that both men now rank among the league’s higher-paid coordinators.
During last month’s NFL combine, Hunt spoke to the Kansas City Star concerning free agency, saying Pioli had his blessing to pursue high-priced free agents if they were the right fit for the Chiefs. In January, Pioli pointed out the obvious: if ownership was going to place restrictions on the money he could spend, he never would have taken the job with the Chiefs in the first place.
These details paint a picture of an owner who, through his own actions over the last two years, has spared little to no expense in trying to make the Chiefs’ front office and coaching staff one of the best in the league. The details also seem to describe an owner who’s willing to use that same philosophy when it comes to acquiring players, should his GM believe it’s in the best interest of the team.
But as anyone who’s been following free agency since 12:01 on Friday morning surely knows, that description is not the public perception of Clark Hunt.
The perception of Hunt – as echoed by hundreds of message board posts, Tweets, and radio callers – is that he’s a cheapskate, unwilling to spend the necessary money it will take to improve his woeful football team.
That description may not be fair, but the actual truth behind the “cheap” accusation is becoming irrelevant. What actually matters is that more and more people are beginning to believe it’s true. As the saying goes, perception becomes reality, and the perception of Hunt as an owner who refuses to spend money is quickly becoming the accepted truth across Kansas City.
Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal. Team owners have been accused of being cheap since the formation of organized sports. But with a poor economy, waning season ticket sales, and the Chiefs dealing with blackouts for the first time in 20 years, the team’s brass needs to stop and ask themselves a question: is “we’re cheap” really the message they want to send?
Consider for a moment that the absolute cheapest tickets currently available at Arrowhead Stadium run $30 a seat. For two people – one parent and one child – to attend a Chiefs’ game, a pair of the cheapest seats will cost the family $60. Add $20 for parking and the total grows to $80. Any food and beverage purchases while at the game will easily push the total near $100, if not past it entirely. If the family lives outside Kansas City, the cost of gas factors in, pushing the total well over $100 and probably closer to $150.
During a time when money is tight, the prospect of having an extra $100 to $150 in your pocket is nothing to scoff at. However, it goes without saying that this example – two people in the cheapest seats – is a completely bare-bones scenario.
For a family of four to sit in the second-cheapest seats at Arrowhead, the tickets and parking alone would cost them $200. That doesn’t include concessions or gas, and if they don’t want to sit in the upper-level nose-bleed seats, the price grows far steeper. Despite the tough financial times, many fans still find a way to shell out that money in support of their favorite team. But when they start to feel like ownership isn’t making the same type of financial investment, how long will that support actually continue?
For fans already frustrated by what they see on the field, it has to be disheartening to read reports such as one from last September, claiming the Chiefs were as far as $7 million under the league’s minimum salary amount.
The explanation behind it is easy enough to follow – under Herm Edwards, the franchise changed philosophies in 2008, opting to focus on younger players and build through the draft. Younger players are cheaper, especially a team’s own draft picks from the second round on down, and the Chiefs’ older veterans with larger contracts were sent on their way.
As a result, the team saw a dramatic decrease in payroll. According to USA Today, the Chiefs went from a payroll of $108 million in 2007 to just $83 million in 2008. When Pioli took over, despite copious amounts of salary cap space, there was no increase in spending. The payroll stayed relatively the same, decreasing by just $2 million.
Will Hunt spend??
However, the amount of money the NFL was allowing teams to spend under the cap continued to grow. The minimum salary floor was based on a percentage of the cap itself, so each time the salary cap was raised, the minimum amount teams had to spend would rise along with it.
Reportedly, the Chiefs’ stagnant payroll – at least for a brief period -- was no longer meeting the mandated league minimum. It should be noted that no reports ever surfaced of the team being punished for their lack of spending, so we can assume they eventually did reach the salary floor.
Still, though, when the team has to make an effort to reach that mandated league minimum, what message does that send to the consumers who are handing over their hard-earned money?
Few, if any, have clamored for the Chiefs to spend every available dollar, but fans do expect the team to actively spend in pursuit of talent. Struggling to reach the minimum salary only creates the impression that the front office isn’t fulfilling their part of the bargain.
Unfortunately, it only gets worse from there. The NFL is operating without a salary cap in 2010, which means there’s no longer a salary floor. According to a recent report on ESPN.com, the Chiefs’ 2010 payroll has plunged to $41 million, half of what it was last season.
Presumably, that decrease is due to the amount of free agents whose salaries are no longer on the books. The Chiefs have already re-signed a few players and tendered some of their restricted free agents, so those contracts should have already raised payroll past those reported figures. But when it’s all said and done, does anyone actually expect the team to spend the $40 million it would take to get payroll back up to last year’s level? A level that was just barely above the league minimum in the first place?
If we take Hunt and Pioli at their word, then the lack of spending is not a reflection of ownership trying to restrict payroll. It’s a reflection of Pioli not seeing any talent worth spending big money on.
The free agency angst that most Chiefs fans suffer from is probably new to Pioli, who’s only been in town since last January. He wasn’t here for the jokes, year after year, that Carl Peterson scheduled his annual vacation to coincide with the start of free agency. He wasn’t here for the stories about how Peterson would lowball free agents, acting like they should take less money for the honor of playing for the Chiefs.
Nevertheless, the growing fan frustration is now his responsibility. If Pioli’s not aware that the Chiefs’ frugal spending is causing anger and, worse yet, apathy among the fanbase, then someone should probably tell him.
But what’s the solution? Should Pioli follow the lead of the Chicago Bears and go on a desperation-fueled spending spree, just to reassure the fans? Should he be more interested in improving the mood of the fan base than in improving the long-term state of the franchise? It’s hard to argue in support of that option.
But on the other hand, is ignoring it really the best idea? Pioli could keep forging ahead, confident in the knowledge that the fans who are complaining now will be flocking back to Arrowhead in droves once the team starts winning again. But what if that winning doesn’t happen quite as soon as he expects it to? And what if that theory isn’t accurate? When people stop attending games, and they are blacked out, creating indifference in the fan base, the end result might be that fewer people are interested in following the team.
Is there a happy medium to be found somewhere? It remains to be seen. Free agency is only a few days old, so plenty can still happen in the upcoming weeks and months. But for fans hoping to see the Chiefs prove their commitment by making a major financial investment, that ship may have already sailed.
If nothing else, though, the team has to take notice of the growing financial concerns of their fans. Accurate or not, the longer people feel that saving money is more important than winning, the greater the risk that they’ll start to disconnect themselves from the team.
If the Chiefs suffer through another dismal season in 2010, the perception problem they’re dealing with today could be a perception crisis tomorrow.