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Lamar Hunt: Birth of a Salesman

Posted Jul 24, 2014

Lamar Hunt changes the landscape of American sports

It’s about to start.

The football season, that is, but then you know that.

As a fan, you’re getting geared up. But the folks whose job it is to sell tickets started long ago. It started for them well before the previous season concluded, and the people charged with that responsibility could do so with some confidence and some new found excitement. The Chiefs were winners again.

Selling tickets to sporting events has changed greatly through the years. Back when baseball ruled the roost, it wasn’t unusual for stadium ticket sellers to pull down the shades at the ticket window at the close of the season, turn off the lights and head home until spring. Coming back as the weather warmed, blowing off the dust that had accumulated on the ticket window desk, raising the shades, they were once again open for business. 

Clearly, times have changed. Selling is much tougher these days, as is the competition for buyers, and as successful as professional football has become the work never ends in building a fan base -- or holding onto one -- so there really isn’t any formal end or a beginning.

Lamar Hunt knew that as early as the day he founded his Dallas Texans and the American Football League. When he opted to become an owner of a sports team, the idea of marketing sports included little more than putting an advertisement in the local newspaper and making sure that a sportswriter had the start times right.

Hunt wasn’t the first owner to take a leading role in marketing his teams, but he did it longer than, say, Bill Veeck, the legendary baseball owner, and he did it while ignoring many of the latter’s gags to draw attention.

Marketing was something Hunt thought about every day in all his sports ventures, from football to soccer to tennis. Hunt’s memos to staff were detailed and often ran many pages as he listed what he believed would work, or what hadn’t.

Consider the level of specificity and marketing vision displayed in this passage on the importance of signage. Writing to a member of the Chiefs promotions department he called for “quality signage…interesting and classic…has an appropriate relationship to surroundings,” is “solid, not a banner,” has “selective setting and placement” and contains the “ingredients of the sponsor’s name, name of tournament logo, and [league] logo.”

Hunt was at his meticulous best in analyzing all facets of his sports marketing enterprises. He maintained copious notes on the tennis tournaments of his WCT operation, for example, examining scheduling, box sales, corporate group sales plans, even plantings and walkway designs.

“Forest Hills [former home of the U.S. Tennis Championships and first U.S. Open] is a place that demands a large field,” he would write in one of the many reference books he compiled. “With its multi-courts it demands lots of action going on all over the ground. For us to show up...with 25 or even 26 players will be B-A-D.”

A small observation, perhaps, but to Hunt’s keen eye an important one when seeking to build some grandeur for an event.

Thinking and planning about promotion and ticket sales were forever on his mind. “I always find that it is more helpful to do a resume of thoughts like this right after the fact – so that things are fresh in my mind,” he reasoned with staff in a memo at the conclusion of a successful Chiefs ticket campaign for the 2004 season. For him, memo writing was a means of self-expression more than a duty; the aim to quickly get down in words his true feelings on a matter.

Nothing was left to chance and it’s safe to say he spent more time with his marketing team than he did with his football staff. His files are full of memoranda and reports on ticket and sponsorship ideas and accompanying sales figures, and his mornings were spent examining newspaper postings of attendance figures at all major sporting events.

Never one to ignore new ideas, he urged his marketing team late in life that “what Green Bay has done with their cabaret-type seating is the wave of the future.” New ideas were what he sought and he borrowed liberally from others he had seen or read.

But there are numerous examples of Hunt’s pragmatic nature and he could just as quickly dismiss frivolous ideas that took away from the games themselves.

“I am not excited about a children’s arcade and playground,” he wrote in reviewing early designs for a renovated Arrowhead Stadium. “That does not sound very productive space economically. It might fit baseball or soccer, but I cannot see it being practical at NFL games.” In a later missive, he demanded his charges to “not be timid and we must concentrate on revenue production.” Making a profit was very important to him.

Hunt understood early on how television coverage could profit professional sports. The telecasts of the 1962 AFL championship and the 1972 World Championship Tennis finals were seminal moments in the growth of both sports. Still, he might object that too many producers today display what one might call a music-video sensibility in their depictions of the games.

His interest in crowds and what motivated them, as his biographer Michael MacCambridge points out, started at a young age as a budding entrepreneur who owned a baseball pitching machine stand called “Zima-Bat”, and continued to the day he died as the owner of an NFL franchise, two professional soccer teams, and part owner of a storied NBA franchise. 

Lamar Hunt succeeded not by ingenious stratagems but by trusting to his inexhaustible fund of optimism. No loss troubled him for long. No media criticism could dampen his mood. Notoriety never turned his head. He treated the lowliest fan with kindness and approached the mighty government, corporate or industry head without intimidation.

This is the first in a season-long series of columns where I’ll examine Hunt’s role as a marketer, focusing on what worked and what didn’t.

Along the way, I’ll trace the conditions and circumstances that Hunt faced as he sought to build a viable sports business in Kansas City.

The observations will be largely my own, gleaned from information discovered in Lamar Hunt’s private papers and from my own experiences during the period of time I worked as the team’s public relations director.

Please remember that an internet column can only skim the surface of a subject that covers more than 50 years and there are certain elements that are scarcely touched on.

Next Chapter: Lamar Hunt: A Man for all Seasons
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