Social distancing? The Chiefs once owned the blueprint
If the NFL needs help with social distancing in stadiums upon the return of football this fall, I can offer a voice of authority.
As the beat writer for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1977 through 1989, I saw some masterful execution of social distancing at games.
The Chiefs played at Arrowhead Stadium with a seating capacity of 78,067. But all too often they weren’t competitive in that building. During my 13 years on the beat, the Chiefs won only 40.4 percent of their games with no division titles and just one unsuccessful wild-card playoff appearance. Their play conspired to keep the crowds down. So did the late-season weather.
In the 1982 season finale, the Chiefs were in the throes of a 2-6 strike season and freezing temperatures awaited them for the noon start against the New York Jets.
As the media huddled in the warmth of the press room before the game, I put together a pool guesstimating crowd size. We had about 30 entries and I remember the highest prediction came from a professional cheerleader named Crazy George, who would beat a tom-tom in the stands during the game to generate crowd noise and excitement. He predicted a turnout of 70,000 … to which I told him, “George, you aren’t that popular nor are you that good.”
There was a smattering of guesses in the 30,000s, a few more in the 40,000s but most of us were in the 20,000s. Nobody won the money – we were all too high. Only 11,902 showed up for the game. That’s one fan every 6.6 seats at Arrowhead – social distancing at its finest.
So when I watched Kansas City in the Super Bowl last February – and heard so much about the passionate following of the Chiefs Nation – I had to chuckle. The Chiefs Nation was hardly a village back in the days I covered the team.
At the 1987 season finale, the Seattle Seahawks arrived in Kansas City playoff-bound. And back then playoff teams didn’t sit their starters in season finales – the paying customers that day knew they were going to see Seattle stars Dave Krieg, Curt Warner, Steve Largent and Brian Bosworth for all 60 minutes. But that morning there was a freezing rain in advance of the noon kickoff. Only 20,370 showed up at Arrowhead.
That same 1987 season, when the players went on strike and the NFL franchises fielded replacement teams for three weeks in their absence, only 20,296 passed through the turnstiles to see Kansas City’s lone home game during that stretch against Denver. I couldn’t blame those who stayed away – there was no John Elway, no Vance Johnson, no Karl Mecklenburg, no Dennis Smith… Why pay NFL prices to see a bunch of no names?
But in 1983 Elway did come to Kansas City for the season finale. So did Denver’s cavalcade of stars – Randy Gradishar, Rulon Jones, Tom Jackson, Louis Wright, Mark Jackson and Vance Johnson. The Broncos were playoff-bound that season but with a game-time temperature of zero, a record-low Arrowhead crowd of just 11,377 turned out.
A year earlier, Joe Montana and the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers visited Arrowhead for a December game. Only 24,319 turned out to see the Chiefs lose once again.
In the time I spent on the beat, I covered 98 games at Arrowhead. The stadium was less than half full for a quarter of them. There were fewer than 28,000 in the stands for 13 of them. In the 1985 season finale at Arrowhead against the Chargers, Kansas City wide receiver Stephone Paige broke a 40-year-old NFL record with 309 receiving yards. Only 18,178 were on hand to see his accomplishment.
But the smallest crowd I’ve ever seen at an NFL game wasn’t even at Arrowhead. It also occurred in 1987 at a strike game when the Chiefs visited the Los Angeles Raiders. Only 10,708 turned out in the 92,000-seat Memorial Coliseum that day. That’s one fan every 8.6 seats. There was plenty of social distancing that day.
So social distancing is possible in the NFL. The Chiefs of my era held the blueprint. Bad football goes a long way in thinning out crowds.