A breeze blows through the Truman Sports Complex parking lot. It's quiet here, the asphalt around Arrowhead Stadium mostly empty.
This morning, though, this expanse of roughly 56 paved acres will come to life, taking its seasonal place as a one-day-a-week commune for early risers, grill masters and Chiefs lifers. Kansas City might not be known for outstanding football, but it is hallowed ground for another weekly spectacle: tailgating. It's part of what makes this region unique, an overall sensory overload that brings thousands here early on fall Sundays.
Decades after tailgating became a phenomenon, there aren't many venues where it's taken more seriously.
“The last great American neighborhood,” said Joe Cahn, a Louisiana native who claims to have, in the last 17 years, attended more than 850 games in all NFL cities. He ranks Arrowhead as one of the top three tailgating venues in America, along with Houston's Reliant Stadium and Green Bay's Lambeau Field.
The experience inside Arrowhead hasn't been exceptional for a long time: The Chiefs have reached the playoffs just three times in the past decade. What hasn't suffered, though, is a weekly outdoor event that grabbed the nation's attention, printing in magazine pages and websites and carrying on announcers' voices that Kansas City is the capital of American pre- and post-gaming. There's pride in those words, of going toe-to-toe with any college tailgate in the country, and the fun that's had on the pavement here helps to ease the recent frustration on the field.
Tailgating became popular three decades ago, in the early 1980s, in large part because it was so simple — and because former Chiefs president Carl Peterson and team founder Lamar Hunt encouraged fans to cut loose.
“Us getting out there, having a good time and drinking beer,” said Todd Walters, a Chiefs tailgating pioneer.
The traditionalists arrive early and stay late. Some don't even bother leaving the lot when the game starts. They are some of the ones who are worried that this decades-old ritual, one that helped influence the football landscape as the nation knows it today, could be dying.
“I look up and down the sidewalk and out into the parking lot,” said Walters, 56, “and there aren't the young folks out there setting up and doing the whole thing.”
The Arrowhead parking lot isn't for the weak-hearted or the easily intimidated. It is a bit unnatural to spend an entire day amid a crisscross of cars and folding chairs and beanbag chutes. There's a hickory-scented smoke cloud hovering over this swath of Midwestern earth, sure, but the rivers run with booze. It's not cheap, either. This is the world's largest asphalt bar, and the $27 cover charge, paid at the parking toll gate, buys you freedom and unhindered expression.
On this Sunday morning, the Chiefs' 50th season in Kansas City will begin — inside the stadium and out.
In the old days, there was nothing special about a player's drive to Arrowhead. Another bleak collection of miles, another image of an empty parking lot, another game the Chiefs — who averaged fewer than six wins per season from 1974-88 — and their fans would likely struggle through.
Deron Cherry, a Chiefs defensive back throughout the 1980s, noticed the parking lot sometimes.
“A dead place,” he said.
Among the dots, though, was Walters, whose father took him to watch the Chiefs play at Municipal Stadium before Arrowhead opened in 1972. Before games, they would stop at a barbecue joint for some ribs, and because there wasn't much of a parking lot, Walters' dad would park in another man's yard. They'd sit on lawn chairs and eat those ribs, talking about the game before heading in to see if reality matched their expectations.
“Just him and I,” Walters said decades later.
When Arrowhead opened as a neighbor to Kauffman Stadium, a key design feature was its huge parking lot. According to Jim Rowland, executive director of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, there are 17,960 spaces at the Truman Sports Complex — with room to pack in an additional 8,000 cars on the grass when needed. Forty years after opening, when many NFL teams play in wedged-in downtown stadiums, Arrowhead still boasts one of the NFL's largest parking lots. Cahn, who's been to hundreds of NFL games, estimated that it's at least in the top five in terms of size.
Walters kept coming as the years passed and the Chiefs became one of the league's worst teams. After winning the Super Bowl following the 1969 season, they missed the playoffs 18 of the next 20 seasons.
In the early ‘80s, Walters worked at a restaurant, and several of the other waiters loaded a picnic table into a delivery van and parked it in Lot G. They put a grill on the table, and for hours, they would do what Walters and his dad did in that man's parking lot — eat and laugh and talk about all the excitement that awaited them inside. And if the game didn't work out as they hoped, there was always more beer waiting afterward.
But like those early Sundays with his dad, Walters' time in the parking lot remained a mostly intimate activity.
“Slim pickings,” he remembered.
The Chiefs had the space and a region that had perfected the art of barbecuing. What fans lacked was good football and an assurance from the organization that the team might struggle, but Sundays in Kansas City could be fun anyway.
Not long after Peterson was hired as the Chiefs' general manager and president in 1988, he approached Hunt with an idea. Attendance had plummeted; in the strike-shortened 1987 season, the Chiefs averaged fewer than 19,000 fans. So, Peterson suggested, what if the organization threw a pregame party? Made it more like a college atmosphere? Every Sunday, rain or shine, sleet or storm. Heck, maybe Hunt could be part of the scene.
“I told Lamar Hunt: ‘This is going to hurt us at the concession stand, but we need to get people here,”“ Peterson recalled. ”Hopefully they come into the stadium and fill the seats.“
Fans made their way to Arrowhead, some of them parking in lots the night before and others racing for position when the gates opened Sunday mornings. They fired up grills and opened beer cans. Hunt judged tailgates — the best van, grill setup or bus — and asked what else the organization could do to improve fans' experience.
He heard some suggestions. Others came naturally. A few times, tailgaters shoved a grill under a car, the coals still hot. During the game, the scoreboard read that a car was on fire in the parking lot. Soon there were coal bins — along with portable toilets and recycling containers for bottles and cans. The Chiefs had embraced tailgating, but more than that, the fans had, too.
”Once we were noticed for tailgating, the people — especially in the Midwest — were proud in the fact that, hey, our team might suck, but at least we can have a good party,“ said Monte Short, a tailgating regular known as ”Arrowman.“
Thousands packed the lots, many parking in the same space week after week. Cherry, the defensive back, said his drive to the stadium became different. Instead of an empty lot, he saw a cloud of smoke and an energized fan base.
”Everybody wanted to be there,“ he said. ”b?& People were out, having fun barbecuing and really making it their event.“
By the time the Chiefs reached the playoffs six consecutive seasons to start the 1990s, Arrowhead had become Kansas City's hottest ticket — and the nation's best tailgating experience. Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL commissioner, spoke to other teams about studying the Chiefs in hopes of learning how to make a game into a spectacle.
”The broadcasters would get the word out,“ Peterson said, ”that Arrowhead became the best tailgating party in the NFL.“
The Chiefs were contenders throughout the ‘90s, and the men and women outside the stadium were kings and queens of the concrete cafeteria.
Arrowhead was an essential stop on any tailgating pilgrimage. The Chiefs and Kansas City had the perfect combination of a signature food (barbecue), a winning team (it participated in the postseason eight times from 1990-2003), and the ability to draw fans from a 200-mile radius that encompasses six states.
”This means an awful lot to people,“ Chiefs historian Bob Moore said.
Other teams followed the Chiefs' lead, embracing tailgating as part of the NFL agenda, and now it's no more unusual than stadium lights or a massive scoreboard. The Chiefs hit additional peaks and valleys on the field, but the constant was that the lots were always full, the smell of ribs and brisket always hovering.
Those who lived through the ‘80s and celebrated during the ‘90s, though, are aging. Short and Walters, a pair of parking-lot regulars, are in their 50s. Tailgating is still part of the Sunday tradition, but they said there just aren't as many fans in their 20s and 30s among the weekly cast.
”The next generation,“ Walters said, ”really isn't in line.“
The combination of high-definition television, an economic downturn and rising ticket and parking prices now threatens what Arrowhead, Kansas Citians and the American sports landscape have come to know and love. The crowd still comes, the smoke still wafts, but what's ahead?
Patrick Martin is 26, and although he attends most Chiefs games using his family's season tickets, he said he doesn't put much thought into the hard-core tailgating that has defined Arrowhead for decades. He'll stop by a gathering or two before going inside the stadium, but it's hardly the priority that Walters, Martin's uncle, believes it to be.
”I enjoy it,“ Martin said, ”but doing it every week? b?& It's so much easier to sit there at home, in front of your HDTV, and have your ESPN fantasy football scoreboard up.“
Martin said that rising costs have kept away many in his age group; he said it makes more financial sense for him to attend a soccer game at Livestrong Sporting Park — he's a Sporting Kansas City season-ticket holder — or a Royals game. Most Sundays, he's content to simply watch Chiefs games at home or at a bar.
”It's just such an investment,“ Martin said of attending a game at Arrowhead.
Martin also said there's a fine line between passionate tailgaters and an unruly group; he admitted he's not always in the mood to deal with that.
”It can get a little rowdy,“ he said with a chuckle.
Regardless, Martin said he'll still attend a few games this season, and he'll still stop by his uncle's tailgate — it's still in Lot G after all these years. If this tradition is disappearing, it's unlikely to dissolve for a while. That's the hope, anyway, among the ones who have spent these previous weeks counting down until the second the gates swing open, the parking lots fill, and Arrowhead becomes that rowdy, passionate neighborhood again.
”I don't think it's going to go away. I don't think it's an endangered species. But I think we're definitely in a downturn,“ said Short, the tailgater who on Sundays doubles as ”Arrowman.“ ” ... There's still a great experience out there. I think it will continue on. I really do.“
Distributed by MCT Information Services