Kansas City Chiefs president Mark Donovan gave his annual training camp press conference at Missouri Western State University on Monday, sharing the podium with new MWSU president Dr. Elizabeth Kennedy — who described herself as a Kansas City native who has grown up as a Chiefs fan dating back to the days of Len Dawson.
Throughout the presser, Donovan kept returning to a common theme: that the franchise is moving toward what to he believes is a bright future — but while doing so, will always do its best to remain true to its history and traditions.
Maintaining the stadium name
Donovan communicated this in several ways — one of them being when he was asked about the naming-rights deal the team concluded with G.E.H.A. (spelled out, not pronounced) in March. Many fans have objected loudly to the deal — but the modern reality is that NFL franchises cannot be expected to ignore revenue opportunities that are worth millions of dollars.
“It’s one thing to put together a naming-rights deal,” remarked Donovan. “But if you remember the comments we made year after year when we were asked that question, [we were] looking for the right partner. We were looking for somebody who has a base — and an impact on — this community.”
And Donovan believes that the Chiefs found precisely that.
“We found a company in GEHA that had not only been here longer than we have, were bigger than anybody knew — no one knew about [them] — and then you add on that they have this story that is so ‘Kansas City.’
“They started off as postal workers coming together to create a fund for one of their fellow employees who had cancer. That’s how they started — in Union Station. And to be able to partner with that company — to use our assets to build their brand — you don’t really find that very often. So [we’re] really excited to get started with that. They’ve been a great partner the last couple of years — but this year is when it really kicks off.”
And even with the deal, Arrowhead remained Arrowhead.
Staying in their traditional home
Another way that Donovan communicated his willingness to stand true to the team’s traditions was when he spoke about the many improvements the team has recently made to their stadium — even though Jackson County, Missouri, still owns the venue. It’s rare for an NFL team to occupy a venue for nearly 50 years — as the Chiefs have done — without demanding the construction of a new one. But the Chiefs are spending millions to improve the existing facility.
“As you know,” Donovan told reporters, “we’ve replaced all the seats on the upper level and then the lower level. We are in the middle — unfortunately — of replacing all of the club seats. We fully planned to have that done, but COVID shut down the company that actually produces the seats.
“So what our fans will see for the first few games this year will be brand new gold seats for a good portion of the club level — and then some fill-ins with last year’s seats and fill-ins with other-colored seats just to make the seats work — until we can get all the seats in. We expect to have all the seats here — if everything goes as planned — by the first, second, maybe the third week of the season. By the end of the season, we’ll have all the club seats in.”
Donovan also went into detail about other infrastructure projects in which the Chiefs are investing.
“Probably our biggest project — which we’re really excited about — is our Hall of Honor: a complete renovation of the Hall of Honor,” he reported. “We’ll put almost $9 million into that this year — something we really haven’t talked about because we want the players and the coaches to be the first to see it. We’ll spend almost $2.5 million on a brand-new locker room for our players at the stadium. And there are a ton of opportunities we’ve created for our fans: two new clubs on the club level — Champions Club and Chairman’s Club — and a new opportunity outside, taking tailgating to a new level with ‘tailgate suites.’
“When you look at all these investments — just doing the math over the last three years — we’ve invested over $39 million into the stadium. So it’s a commitment that this family has made — a commitment that this franchise has made — to this community. But it goes back to making sure that we’re doing something every single time to enhance the experience for our fans.”
Maintaining the team name
But in the eyes of many fans, perhaps the most important way Donovan is trying to stay true to the team’s traditions is his response to the continuing clamor that it should change its name — which in some quarters, has increased with the recent announcement that starting in 2022, Cleveland’s major league baseball team will be called the Guardians.
While he took the opportunity on Monday to announce that the team would retire “Warpaint” this season — thereby removing one of the examples of American Indian imagery that some have found offensive — Donovan said he remains committed to working with American Indians to find common ground.
“We have a really good American Indian working group that provides us real good guidance, feedback and perspective on this issue,” said the team president. “Obviously we knew about the Cleveland decision a year-plus ago — so we knew that this was going to happen. [But] it doesn’t really change our approach. We’re going to continue to create opportunities to educate and create awareness — and work exactly as we have for the past eight years now with the working group.”
Donovan said the team is doing what it can to hear more voices from the American Indian community.
“We’ve expanded our working group to get more voices. As I’ve said before, one of the things you find within the American Indian community — which is not unlike any other community — is that there are divergent views; you’re going to find someone who believes one thing and someone who believes just as strongly [in] the other. That’s true within the American Indian community. It’s also true when it comes to these issues.”
The Chiefs may eventually find themselves backed against a wall. In both Cleveland and Washington, D.C., dissatisfied sponsors applied the pressure that eventually persuaded those sports franchises to abandon their Indian-related names and imagery.
But the Kansas City franchise has an advantage on its side: Donovan's work over recent years. The team has already abandoned the most egregious examples of negative imagery, hoping that the team will be able to keep a name that resonates within the region — one that is itself filled with American Indian names.
“We’ll continue to take the path that we’ve taken,” assured Donovan. “As I said, we’re educating ourselves, educating our fans, creating opportunities to create awareness.
“We talk a lot about the drum. When you talk to the American Indian working group, the drum is a really strong point of pride with them. If you even have the conversation about, ‘Should we think about moving the drum or doing something different,’ they get pretty emotional about what it is.
“I go back to the story I’ve told before: when we started the drum, I didn’t know — we as an organization didn’t know — what the drum represented in their community, within their culture. And they educated us. And then we took the steps — the right steps, which they guided us on — to bless the drum, to treat it in a respectful way [and] to use that opportunity to educate people on what the drum really means to their culture.”
Whether Donvan’s efforts will eventually prove successful remains to be seen. But in the meantime, the Chiefs remain the Chiefs — and Arrowhead remains Arrowhead.