In his comprehensive biography of Lamar Hunt, entitled Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports, which debuted this week in bookstores, author Michael MacCambridge identifies his subject’s “remarkably detailed and thorough record-keeping.” Hunt was a prolific writer and his papers, as they call them in academic circles, contain hundreds of subject and idea files, all of which I have read and catalogued over the past two years in my role as the team’s historian.
Some of Hunt’s Herculean output of ideas are sketched out, others digested on a variety of sport-related subjects, but none more important historically than those related to the founding of the American Football League and its early days. The youthful enthusiasm that made Hunt into a sports promoter preoccupied him throughout his life. Football remained his greatest joy and only strengthened his connection to an America that embraced the game as part of its ethos.
Hunt was the prototype of the new owner of a professional sport in America. Years later he lamented to Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber on a lack of total involvement by the owners of the sport. “Like it or not,” he wrote, “identifiable, active investors are very important to start-up sports ventures. In the AFL owners were as a group extensively involved in ticket sales, player recruiting, marketing, etc.”
What we learn in reading Hunt’s many missives is that he more often dismissed formal studies and – while he read them and, in many instances, authorized their completion – made decisions very much on instinct, excelling as he viewed sports from the closest of distances, that of a fan. He acknowledged as much on the occasion of his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
You must understand the times in which Hunt lived. “The biggest effort of sports marketing in the 50s,” MacCambridge points out, “focused on simply letting people know when the games would be played.” Hunt went well beyond that. Thinking and planning about the promotion and ticket sales of his sports entities 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 wrote to staff in a memo at the conclusion of a successful Chiefs ticket campaign for the 2004 season. Never one to ignore new ideas, he urged his marketing team late in life that “what Green Bay has done with their cabaret-style seating is the wave of the future.” New ideas were what he sought and he borrowed liberally from others he had seen or read.
Though he could sometimes be absentminded in daily life, once he was immersed in his sports, his concentration came together like a laser. There is much evidence throughout his papers of his attention to detail that seem out of place for a man who had so many balls in the air. Consider the level of specificity and marketing vision displayed in this passage on the importance of signage. Writing to a member of the Chiefs promotion department he calls 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.”
Likewise, there are numerous examples of Hunt’s pragmatic nature that seem to conflict with his reputation as a promoter of his share of grand impractical schemes, particularly in his drive to bring professional soccer to larger United States audiences. But 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 memorandum, he pushed his charges to “not be timid and we must concentrate on revenue production.” Making a profit was very important to him.
Ebullient up to the time of his death, he seems never to have lost his enthusiasm even after receiving all the accolades a sport could bestow. Moreover, failure never seems to have dissuaded him for an idea or a sport he favored. “I wouldn’t say I wake up and think about a certain thing,” he said in a speech a few years before his passing. “It would be stick-to-it-iveness. Pay attention to detail is very important. And always be willing to do the hard work.”
In the prologue to his biography on Hunt, MacCambridge notes that Americans come to sport seeking “refuge and solace and camaraderie that could be found only in the world of games.” Hunt’s “stick-to-it-iveness” helped very much to define those games and the sports he championed were the better for it.