Hearne: Is the American Royal ‘Dead’ to Kansas City?

imagesOnce upon a time the American Royal was a pretty big deal here in Kansas City…

It truly mattered. The American Royal Parade downtown – the one that was cancelled last fall that would have been its 88th – was a kiddie and parent magnet of the first order. The blue-jacketed youth of the Future Farmers of America gathered every fall by the tens of thousands and fanned out across the metro. The top bidder for its champion steer received wide media coverage for their generosity. Its Belles of the American Royal (BOTAR) society ball was second only to the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s Jewel Ball. And to a reasonable degree, locals actually bothered to attend Royal’s rodeo, equestrian and concert events.

That was then…

The waning years of  20th Century and 21st have not been kind to the Royal.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 2.03.50 PM

Proposed $60 million “equestrian center”

The FFA blue jacket kids are long gone. The parade will go down on September 27th and they’re calling it the 89th, even though the 88th never took place. The big concerts with past crowd pleasers such as Reba McIntyre appear to be history. And instead of showcasing the Royal in the Sprint Center – where the four livestock events drew fewer than 8,000 people three years ago – they’ve dumbed it down to a capacity of 3,000 in the stockyards Hale Center.

Remember them?

Remember them?

Truth be known, about the only thing the American Royal really has to offer of much significance is its annual World Series of Barbecue that goes down this year Friday and Saturday, October 3rd and 4th.

It’s come to that.

And yet the Royal wants Kansas city to choke out $60 million – $30 million from taxpayers – to tear down Kemper Arena and build an Equestrian Center.


I’ve talked in recent weeks to any number of high profile civic leaders and boosters of all things Kansas City, and while at this point they don’t dare go on the record, to a man they say basically the same thing:

The American Royal is an institution, an event that time has passed by.

Sentimentality aside, the interest both locally and nationally for the Royal in today’s world just isn’t there.

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

It’s time to let it go, not to spend good money after bad.

Why do you think the Royal no longer brings in big name entertainers? Why did it bail on the wildly successful Sprint Center? Why is it no longer a big deal for the city’s wealthiest citizens to bid for the champion steer? Why is the 87th annual FFA confab that reportedly draws 60,000 people – going back to Louisville this year?

One example:

The last time the AR had a halfway decent headliner it was Reba McIntyre like three years ago. This year’s FFA lineup in Louisville includes Lady Antebellum, Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean. 

Big diff, huh?

Seriously, the FFA bailed on KC in 1998 and spent seven years in Louisville. Then instead of coming back to KC in 2006, it moved to Indianapolis where it remained until last year when it returned to Louisville. It’s almost as if the organization’s first 70 years here in KC never mattered. Even though the truth is downtown and midtown KC has a ton more things to do than it did 16 years ago.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that if the FFA was coming to town for the American Royal it wouldn’t just be playing local bands in a venue one-sixth the size of Sprint Center and Kemper.

99d755b725d25615238d51ec03fc725aThe $64 million question: If Kansas City builds, will anybody actually come?

At this stage of the game it seems obvious to just about everybody except for a very small handful of interested parties, vested interests, equestrians and nostalgists.

If the American Royal really matters, it needs to stand on its own two feet, raise whatever funds they can in the private sector and let Kansas City invest taxpayer dollars in areas of greater need and/or in which the city can reasonably expect to reap a positive return.

It’s too bad – it’s certainly sad – but it’s time for a reality check.


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8 Responses to Hearne: Is the American Royal ‘Dead’ to Kansas City?

  1. Orphan of the Road says:

    Spot on!

    My youngest twins attended the last FFA convention here. We had a small farm in Oley, PA but they had been in 4-H in suburban Philadelphia since they were old enough. They had a great time, probably because my sis still lives here and they spent a lot of time with her.

    The American Royal’s heyday was my youth. Grandpa B always had cattle or hogs or a horse in the competition. Usually had a VIP box from which I had to be grabbed as I tried to jump on Trigger once.

    But American agriculture is no longer about diversity. It is a corn-and-soybean ghetto in the Heartland. And if you are raising pigs, no way you can have any to show because you are part-and-parcel to Big Pig.

    As a kid, everyone in school had a family member or friend of the family with a farm. Today I doubt if 5% have ever been to a farm much less know a farmer.

    Today’s Royal support is a horse person. Keeping a horse is expensive so it isn’t some kid or teen who is involved but William Shatner or someone with a lot of money.

    It is sad to see such a tradition die but there is nothing to sustain it if the money folks
    don’t want to support it. Of course someone will pontificate about the family farmer who has been turned into this mythical being ala the American Indian.

    Also factor in the animals shown in these contests are far from the typical animal in the field (or hog barn/feedlot). They are carefully bred for characteristics which have changed drastically over the years. They are pampered and fed according to weight limits and when the show is held. Not unusual for an animal to win a contest in the spring and then sold and continued to be exhibited for up to a year. Meaning often the animal is pumped full of antibiotics and sometimes almost starved to win.

    I’d rather remember my American Royal than to see what it has become.

    We always went to the Pennsylvania farm show and once sold our market lamb to Tom Ridge to feed a delegation from the Soviet Union.

    And the kids from Bok in Philadelphia often took home top prizes.

  2. Jack Springer says:

    The Royal has been dead for years. Because of a stupid agreement with one TV station other media in KC don’t even talk about it.

    It can be brought back to life. Dump the special agreement with Channel 9.

  3. it used to be for the blades says:

    Let Mariner Kemper pay for it with his trust fund.

    It was always a subsidy for the 1 percenters. Screw them and their stupid horses, and not just those Clydesdales they dress up for the cotillion.

  4. American Royal says:

    What you have left out of your opinion piece, is the huge fiscal asset the American Royal is to the city. Kansas City makes more off of the Royal than it does the Bix XII basketball tournament. Most of the exhibitors that participate in the AR leave quite a bit of money here via hotel rooms, restaurants, etc.

    While KC locals don’t support it, and have tried everything they could do to distance themselves from being a “cowtown”, the American Royal still provides a huge benefit to the city.

    • PB says:

      “What you have left out of your opinion piece, is the huge fiscal asset the American Royal is to the city. Kansas City makes more off of the Royal than it does the Bix XII basketball tournament.”

      If you’re going to criticize Hearne for leaving out some facts, perhaps you should then provide actual information on those facts as opposed to just anecdotal evidence to support your claim. Gee, I wonder if a poster with the handle “American Royal” has an agenda?

    • Hearne says:

      You’re right about KC being paranoid about its “cowtown” roots, American Royal.

      However, I’d like to see a full, conservative accounting of the economic benefits to the city. With so few people attending it’s hard to imagine it being worth a solid investment of $60 million, plus the annual upkeep and expenses.

      And if those attendance numbers continue to decline, how will that math play out in the coming years?

      Look, I’ve spoken with civic leaders who I know do not share the cowtown stigma views. People who wish with all their hearts that the American Royal had not come to this point.

      Yet they all think that it’s an institution – a pastime if you will – that has come and gone. And to make the kind of investment the AR says is required seems like lunacy to them.

      I’m sure it still does plenty of good. But so would investing that money in something else that might return a far higher dividend to Kansas City.

      Nobody (that I know of) is arguing against the American Royal’s existence or it having a beautiful new facility.

      All they need to do is put their money where their mouths are and get it done in the private sector. Sounds pretty Republican to me and my guess is – having been involved in the Royal in year’s past – that there are plenty of Republican equestrians that stand to benefit from such a facility.

      Isn’t paying for things like this without taxpayer funding the Republican way?

      The other controversy is that because of the AR’s lease with the city, they can block the saving and reuse of Kemper Arena and hold the venue hostage to try and extract what they want from the city.

      That seem fair or right to you?

      • Stomper says:

        Wow , you said, conservative or republican 4 times, and in the proper context. Well done, H man.

      • AR says:


        I’ll answer your question with another……is it fair that the city has not fulfilled its financial obligations to the Royal concerning Kemper Arena the past several years? KC hasn’t spent the money it agreed upon to keep up Kemper Arena that is part of their lease agreement with the Royal.

        The new proposed addition includes millions in private money, as well as money from the city. The proposed money from the city is far less than what they still owe from prior years, as well as what their future financial obligations are to the Royal towards the upkeep of Kemper, all part of the lease.

        The American Royal can still prosper with civic support. There are other cities that host annual livestock shows similar to this that have tons of local traffic and support, as a direct result of the support their city gives them. If KC were to begin to celebrate its cowtown roots, and embrace it, there possibilities are great.

        Also, this new addition will be used for much, much more than horses. It will be a multipurpose facility for all species of livestock.

        I have a couple questions for you.

        As feeding the world becomes more and more important, isn’t it equally important to have a facility and annual event to where urban families can gain exposure to all sorts of animal agriculture?

        Along those same lines, isn’t it worth celebrating an event that hosts and rewards youth from all over our region who work hard with their livestock projects all year long, with this show the end result?

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