Columns » Martin

Carl Peterson’s love of grass might cost Kansas City the Big 12 Championship Game



The Westin Crown Center was booked solid last Saturday night. The Hotel President, too. Hotel rooms near the Country Club Plaza went for $229 and up.

Out-of-town shoppers and adulterers usually have an easier time finding beds here in December. But for the second Saturday in a row, Arrowhead Stadium hosted a college football game. Missouri met Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game on December 6, a week after losing to the University of Kansas in Kansas City.

That game may never return to Arrowhead. Chiefs President Carl Peterson warns us that Jerry Jones, the man of action who owns the Dallas Cowboys, wants the stadium he’s building to host the event in perpetuity.

A Big 12 commitment to Dallas would suck for Kansas City. With the Chiefs in disrepair, Arrowhead needs all the meaningful football it can get.

Also, the title game provides an economic benefit for the city. The Big 12's season is designed in a way that guarantees a school in Oklahoma or Texas will get a slot in the championship. College football, you might have heard, is pretty popular in those parts. Once the Sooners earned their berth, a weekend getaway in Kansas City looked mighty appealing to a significant number of Tulsa dentists.

Yep, the Big 12 game is a bona fide tourist attraction. But Jones' new crib isn't the only thing threatening Arrowhead's spot in the rotation. There's also the blundering Chiefs.

The Chiefs and Royals lease their stadiums from the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority. Though they're not owners, the teams run the buildings as they see fit. In 1994, for instance, the Chiefs removed the artificial turf at Arrowhead and installed natural grass. The team's media guide credits Peterson, who is also the Chiefs' general manager and CEO, with this and other innovations.

The Chiefs have kept their grass field despite improvements in synthetic playing surfaces. A Canadian company called FieldTurf developed a product that looks and reacts likes blades of grass but doesn't turn brown or come up in divots.

Nebraska's football program pioneered the use of FieldTurf in the college ranks. Frustrated by the inability of natural grass to stand up to the cold and 300-pound men in cleats, the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots ripped up their sod and installed polymers.

The synthetic trend has missed Arrowhead — this probably shouldn't come as a surprise, given that the Chiefs' uniforms have barely changed over the decades. Tradition may come at a price to Kansas City, however.

Before this past Saturday's game, the Missouri and Oklahoma coaches spoke critically of Arrowhead's playing surface. Talking with WHB 810 host Kevin Kietzman, Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said he failed to understand why the Chiefs hadn't switched to artificial grass. (Mizzou's Faurot Field made the change in 2003.) At a press conference, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops said the field "looked horrible."

It looked strange, to be sure. Before the November 29 KU-MU game, the Chiefs trucked in new sod from Florida. But the shipment covered only the portion of the field between the hash marks. The rest, having gone dormant in October, was dingy and prone to give way when players made cuts.

Yet on the same day that Pinkel and Stoops expressed their dread about the playing conditions, Peterson was peddling a story that the Arrowhead turf had performed wonderfully.

In an interview with 810 reporter Todd Leabo, Peterson said he had heard no complaints. And if the two-tone quality of the field bothered the television audience, well, that was just too bad.

"I'm sorry it didn't look good to some people," Peterson said. His voice dripped with the condescension that Chiefs fans have come to know and resent. "In fact, the compliments I had were it was extraordinary: 'What a fabulous grass field.'"

Asked about the coaches' comments, Chiefs spokesman Bob Moore blamed the rain and snow that fell during the KU-MU game. "[W]e would be punishing ourselves if we thought it wasn't properly prepared to play on since we do this for our use as well," Moore told me in an e-mail. "Most colleges play on artificial turf and therefore they see it that way probably."

But with so much on the line, why even have this discussion?

Jackson County voters approved a sales tax in 2006 to pay for renovations at Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums. Before the vote, the Save Our Stadiums campaign told wild stories about the teams' economic impact. One claim said the sports complex delivers $300 million annually to the area's economy. This was a guess, and a poorly educated one at that. In fact, sports facilities have a negligible, possibly negative effect on employment and incomes, according to research.

Even with Larry Johnson's legal fees, the county may have trouble recouping the $425 million that taxpayers committed to the stadium renovations. But let's at least try.

Installing FieldTurf seems an easy way to keep Arrowhead attractive to the Big 12. We can't do anything about Jerry Jones or the weather. Science, however, offers a way to keep the turf at Arrowhead from resembling a dog park.

Peterson should know that football coaches hate variables. Stoops' comment about the "horrible" field reflected his fear that a factor other than skill and preparation might decide the outcome of the game.

Ultimately, university presidents will decide whether Dallas gets a long-term contract to hold the Big 12 Championship Game. In the end, it may be just about money, as Peterson contends. Still, university presidents value the input of their best-paid employees. And before Saturday's game, those headset-wearing stars said Arrowhead was unfit.

Moore insists that Kansas City remains in the running for future Big 12 championships. But even if Jones gets his prize, installing FieldTurf at Arrowhead seems like a good idea. There are other contests to bargain for. Indianapolis, for instance, hosts an annual football game between two historically black universities. The event, which features a parade of marching bands and other events, draws roughly 150,000 people.

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders understands the importance of non-Chiefs events. "I am firmly committed to doing everything that we can in Jackson County to try and retain the Big 12 tournament, if nothing else, on a rotating basis," he tells me.

Though a county sales tax is paying 68 percent of the cost to renovate the sports complex, Sanders cannot order the installation of a synthetic field. The sports authority's powers are also limited. Jim Rowland, the authority's executive director, tells me that Arrowhead's playing surface has been discussed, but he declines to elaborate further.

The final decision rests with the man of many titles, Carl Peterson.

The problem is, Peterson's interests are not aligned with the community's. His number one priority is managing the Hunt family. It's a job he's good at, as evidenced by his ability to stay on top of the staff roster in spite of the lack of a Super Bowl appearance. The Hunts are a conservative bunch, so the grass stays.

I like the look of grass stains as much as the next football fan. But if live sod runs the risk of sending those Tulsa dentists elsewhere, let's roll out the plastic.

Carl Peterson talks about Arrowhead’s turf:

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