Clark Hunt, the CEO of FC Dallas and the Kansas City Chiefs, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco. Jonathan Zizzo

Soccer

Clark Hunt Gets Real About the Business of Sports

The FC Dallas and Kansas City Chief’s exec shares his thoughts on Patrick Mahomes, fantasy football, FC Dallas’ future, and what he learned from his famous father.

Clark Hunt brought a couple of visual aids with him to a recent speaking engagement at a Dallas Assembly event—a Vince Lombardi trophy from Super Bowl LIV, won by his Kansas City Chiefs, and a ring from the same victory, inlaid with 255 diamonds and 36 rubies. The first, he transported in a cushioned tote on wheels; the second, he wore on the fourth finger of his right hand.

The 56-year-old chairman of Hunt Sports Group and son of Lamar Hunt is a founding investor and owner in Major League Soccer and runs FC Dallas. He’s also chairman and CEO of the Chiefs, a team that, as many know, began life as the Dallas Texans. In a free-wheeling on-stage conversation with Mavericks and FC Dallas play-by-play man Mark Followill, Hunt shared stories about the early days of the NFL, how the Super Bowl got its name, what he thinks about new NCAA rules that allow college players to monetize their names, and more. Here are some highlights.

Q. On Feb. 2, 2020, the Chiefs were down 20-10 at the start of the fourth quarter but came back to win 31-20. What were the emotions at that time?

CLARK HUNT: “It was a special celebration that started on the field that day then carried over to the parade in Kansas City. The parade, which was three days later, is something I will never forget—experiencing the collective joy of 1 million people is an unforgettable experience. I was later reminded of a quote my dad gave in an interview toward the end of his life. Somebody asked him what the greatest day of his life was, professionally. He said it wasn’t the Super Bowl; it was two days later at the parade. After experiencing it myself, I know why he said that.”

Q. Some people may not know the history of the Hunt family with sports that goes back 60 years. Can you talk a little about that?

HUNT: “Yeah, absolutely. My dad was a football player at SMU. He’s very proud that he rode the bench and never made it on the field. But that didn’t deter his passion for sports. In 1958, he was trying to decide whether he wanted to get into professional baseball or professional football. He watched the NFL Championship game night between the Colts and the Giants, which is considered one of the greatest games ever played. He was watching it on TV, which was a relatively new thing at that point. He thought the game televised well and probably had a bright future, so he decided to go the route of football.

“He went to the NFL and about buying an expansion team for Dallas. The commissioner told him that not only was the league not interested in expanding, but that professional football would never work in Dallas. (I’m not making that up!) After trying for a while, he decided to buy a team and move it to Dallas. The team was the Chicago Cardinals, which now plays in Arizona after going through St. Louis. My dad visited with the owner, Walter Wolfner, and learned that others were interested in buying the team, too. On an American Airlines flight back to Dallas, my dad thought that if others were interested in being owners, he would start his own league. He was 26 years old at the time.

“Over the course of a year or so, he got eight owners together and started the American Football League. It was announced in 1959 and began play in 1960. Initially, the NFL acted like they didn’t care about the new league. They were supportive because they had some antitrust issues going on with Congress. And so, they were like, “Oh, the AFL is great. We’d love competition will be good for football.” That lasted for a few months. Then they decided that they needed to put the AFL out of business. And the best way to put the AFL out of business was to sink my dad’s team, the Dallas Texans, because my dad was the leader.

“They came to Dallas and found the Murchison family to own the Cowboys. That’s how the Cowboys were created in 1960. Both teams played in the Cotton Bowl. My dad went to a lot of Cowboys games because he was sure that they were lying about the number of people in attendance; he would hand-count the number of people who were there. Both teams were struggling in the early 1960s. At the end of the 1962 season, my dad decided to move the team to Kansas City. The Texans were renamed the Chiefs and have been there ever since.”

Clark Hunt and his Super Bowl ring.

Q. They played in the first Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers and then won the fourth Super Bowl against the Minnesota Vikings. Your dad had a hand in naming both the Super Bowl and the Lombardi trophy.

HUNT: “That’s right. As I mentioned, there was a battle between the two leagues in the early to mid-1960s, with the league stealing players from each other and hiding players. Eventually, both leagues figured out that they weren’t going to survive if they kept doing this. So, there was a merger in the summer of 1966. My dad met a representative of the Cowboys in a parking lot at Love Field, and they sketched out the merger agreement while sitting in a car for 45 minutes. Part of it involved a new championship game between the AFL champion and the NFL champion.

One of the elders asked my dad, “Are you talking about a conference championship?” My dad said, ‘No, I’m talking about the last game, the final game, you know, the Super Bowl.’ He just threw it out there. Everybody in the meeting stopped and looked at him, and then they went back to it to their business. When the commissioner got word of my dad’s off-the-cuff suggestion, he said it lacked sophistication. That’s why the first two Super Bowls were called the AFL-NFL World Championship, which, of course, is not very catchy. But the term Super Bowl leaked out there. And the media started using it in terms of how they referred to the game, and they called it Super Sunday. Eventually, the commissioner had to relent, and Super Bowl was adopted as the name.

“My dad loved college bowl games, and in 1966, my mother bought Super Balls for my older siblings and me. And those Super Balls were bouncing all around the house. I think that was in my dad’s mind. I was only a year old at the time, so I was probably gumming on my Super Ball. But anyhow, my dad put the two together, and that’s how he came up with the term. It is a little corny, but today there is a level of sophistication with it.”

Q. The Pro Football Hall of Fame recognized this in Canton in 2009 with the Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery. What was it like to see that open?

HUNT: “It was so thoughtful of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to recognize my dad’s many contributions to the NFL and the creation of the Super Bowl. You mentioned the name of the trophy—Vince Lombardi, the great coach for the Green Bay Packers, beat my dad’s Chiefs in Super Bowl I, won Super Bowl II, and then tragically passed away shortly after that. A couple of years after Vince passed away, my dad wrote a note to Pete Rozelle, who was the commissioner of the NFL, suggesting that the championship game be named in Vince’s honor. Something else that’s not widely known is why the NFL uses Roman numerals for the Super Bowls. That was another suggestion that my dad made, which he ‘borrowed’ from the Olympics. He thought it gave it a level of sophistication.”

Q. Clearly, your dad faced some unique challenges that don’t exist today. But, of course, you’re facing unique challenges that he did not have to deal with.

The Chiefs’ Super Bowl LIV ring is inlaid with 255 diamonds and 36 rubies.

HUNT: “In business, your ability to be successful is a function of the quality of people that you have in your organization. Sports is the ultimate people business, right? Your greatest asset is the quality of the people. It starts in the front office and goes through the locker room to your coaching staff. We’ve been very fortunate to add some of the best leaders in the National Football League. Mark Donovan, who’s the president of the club and runs the business side, is one of the absolute best at what he does. The turnaround on the field was engineered by Andy Reid. 

“I’d like to say I was really smart in identifying Andy as a talented coach. He had a tremendous run in Philadelphia for 14 years. And like a lot of things in life, it got to a point where he and they needed to make a transition. So, he was available at the end of the 2012 season when we were conducting a search. We had a chance to interview him and figured out quickly that it was a very good fit. We had won just two football games in 2012. So in 2013, it would have been reasonable to be excited about winning six or eight. But we ended up going to the playoffs—Andy won the first nine games in a row.

“The third person in our leadership team is our general manager, Brett Veatch. He came with Andy from Philadelphia and worked his way up through our personnel department and became general manager three years ago. I can’t speak highly enough about him. He was the key figure in bringing Patrick Mahomes to Kansas City. So that alone should put him in the Hall of Fame.”

Q. Take us behind the scenes of draft night in 2017, when the Chiefs selected Patrick, and the wheeling and dealing involved.

HUNT: “Well, I have to go back to 2016. Brett was director of our college scouting at that point, and starting in 2016, when Patrick was still at Texas Tech, he started bombarding Andy and our then-GM, John Dorsey, with tape of Patrick every week. It got to the point where Andy finally said, ‘Enough. I get it.’ As we went into the draft preparation for 2017, we knew that if we had the opportunity, we wanted to take Patrick. Initially, most people thought he was going to go to the second round, and then maybe later in the first round as we got closer to the draft. But it became apparent to us that there were teams that really liked him and might take him a lot higher. We had the 25th pick in that draft. And we were very concerned that he wouldn’t be available. 

“So, we worked out a trade with Buffalo to move from the 25th to the 10th pick. We had to do a little subterfuge to pull it off because we didn’t want anyone else knowing that we were moving up to take Patrick. Our staff did a good job of communicating that we were drafting a linebacker. There was a very well-known linebacker coming out of Alabama. We had the whole league and the media believing that we were moving up to take the linebacker. When we took the quarterback, I think everybody was stunned.

“A lot of the media immediately jumped on us—not from the subterfuge but for the fact that we had taken Patrick so high. Deshaun Watson was still available—he went a couple of picks after Patrick. The media thought we had taken Patrick way too high. He was a system quarterback at Tech … Texas Tech quarterbacks never succeed in the NFL, etc., etc. That rhetoric hung around for a year; Patrick only played one game in his first year with us—the last game of the season. In that performance, you could see there was something special. And then, he came out like gangbusters in early 2018 as our starter.”

Q. You were an Academic All-American when you were playing soccer at SMU, and Patrick was a second-team Academic All-American in his third and final year at Texas Tech. Is that something you like to look for?

“A lot of times I think football players don’t get the respect that they should, in terms of the IQ that’s required to play many of the positions.”

Clark Hunt

HUNT: “A lot of times, I think football players don’t get the respect that they should, in terms of the IQ that’s required to play many of the positions. That’s especially true for quarterbacks. You want somebody who is bright and motivated. Patrick, throughout his life, whether it was with sports, academics, or whatever, is someone who has always worked hard and given his best.”

Q. Let’s transition to a different kind of football. Your family has been involved with Major League Soccer since the beginning.

HUNT: “Like everything in our family sports-related, it goes back to my dad. In the late 1960s, I think he finally felt that the AFL and the Chiefs were going to make it. Around this time, he learned about a new soccer league that was going to start and was heavily recruited to get involved. My parents had been to a couple of World Cups, and if you’ve seen the fans at World Cups or international games, they’re tremendous. My dad thought we could play soccer in the spring and summer when football is not in season and get double use of stadiums that were being built. I think that’s what went through his mind. 

“So, he got involved with the North American Soccer League—his team was the Dallas Tornado. There were a bunch of ups and downs, and it ultimately failed in the early ’80s. But my dad stuck with it the whole way. Then when Major League Soccer came up in 1994, in conjunction with the World Cup, my dad was the first one to raise his hand and say, ‘I want I want back in.’ His business advisors told him not to do it. But he was very focused and believed that the sport would eventually work in the United States. That has proven to be true. I like to say that his vision on soccer was right; he was just 40 years too early. 

“We have owned between one and three teams for the 26 years of the league and are delighted to own and lead FC Dallas. From a personal standpoint, my dad’s involvement in soccer got me involved in the sport as well. Many of the players who played for the Dallas Tornado came from England and needed summer jobs because they weren’t making enough money playing soccer in the U.S. back in the ’70s. So, they started youth teams and soccer camps and clinics, and that’s what I did in the summer. It got me involved with the sport, which I eventually ended up playing all the way through college.”

Q. This year with FC Dallas, the results haven’t been what you’ve wanted, but there have been some exciting moments with players like Ricardo Pepi and Jesus Ferreira.

HUNT: “First and foremost, the focus of the organization is to win a championship. For anyone who’s involved in professional sports, that needs to be the No. 1 goal, and that that’s what we’re trying to achieve. We’ve won several of the titles that you can win in professional soccer with FC Dallas, but we have yet to win an MLS Cup. And that’s a very important objective for us going forward.

“One of the interesting parts of the soccer business in a way that is different from football, specifically, is that we’re involved in the development of players. On the football side, that really happens in high schools and colleges. But in soccer, the pro teams take an active role in developing players, from age six all the way up to 17 or 18, when they’re ready to turn professional. 

“Something that we focused on in Dallas is having the best academy in Major League Soccer. And it has borne a lot of fruit. Over the last five or six years, we’ve had several players play for the U.S. National team, a number who are playing in Europe now who have come up through our system. Ricardo Pepi is probably the most exciting of the group. He’s 18 years old, and he plays forward—the glamour position. The U.S. has had a tough time developing World Class players in the position. We probably have the best one to ever come along; I like to say he’s our Patrick Mahomes for FC Dallas. And as we look to next year, knock on wood, when the U.S. makes it back to the World Cup, he going to be leading his teammates, and I bet he has a very big tournament.”

Q. How do you see the state of the business of sports in North Texas?

HUNT: “Despite what the commissioner of the NFL thought in 1958, Dallas is actually a really good place for football. Both types of football have worked here, as has basketball, hockey, baseball, motorsports, etc. Dallas is as dynamic of a market as you’ll find in the United States, and that’s true on the sports side. We have a real opportunity coming up, hopefully here in five years, to showcase Dallas on the international stage when the World Cup returns to the United States. Dallas has a very good chance of being one of the host cities, which will give us a chance to showcase what a great city Dallas is.”

Q. From a leadership standpoint, I read a fascinating interview with you in D CEO magazine, published in 2019. In it, you said, “Nothing prepares you for being the person in a business who has to make the hard decisions and being in the spotlight when things aren’t going well.”

HUNT: “That quote was in the context of making the transition from working with my dad and helping him with sports franchises to being the person who was leading them. Prior to that, the spotlight was always on him. When he passed away, and I took a leadership role, that spotlight was on me. In professional sports, the fans, and sometimes the media, are not very patient. That that was certainly the case when I took over with the Chiefs. Immediately, there was a lot of pressure, and it was very much a learning experience.

“What I’ve learned is staying true to your values is very important. When the pressure is on them, a lot of times, you might be tempted to take a path that that seems easier but is not consistent with your values. Fortunately, the spotlight has been a little bit different the last two or two or three years, and I certainly hope it stays that way. But professional sports is about ups and downs. It’s about challenges. It’s about the journey.”

Q. One of the big innovations in sports is fantasy football. How has that changed things, and how do you see it progressing?

HUNT: “Fantasy football has been a huge catalyst for fan interest in the NFL. I started noticing it 15 or 20 years ago. As I traveled around the country, people who were clearly not Chiefs fans, were asking me about our players. And I thought, ‘This is so strange. Why do they want to know all this about Dwayne Bowe?’ But they were preparing for their fantasy draft. I think it has really increased engagement.

And we’re about to get to the second phase of that growth with the legalization of sports betting. That is going to create a whole different level of engagement for people and the NFL and other sports. We all might have different perspectives on whether legalizing betting on sports is a good thing. But one thing I know for sure, it’s going to increase fan engagement.

Q. Another emerging development is college athletes and younger players being able to profit off their names and likenesses. What do you see as the impact of this?

“I don’t want college sports to go toward being semi-professional, but I’m worried that may happen.”

Clark Hunt

HUNT: “Boy, that is a complicated question. I think, in general, people believe that it’s a great opportunity for young athletes. How it ends up impacting college sports and high school sports is going to be very hard to predict. Personally, I don’t want college sports to go toward being semi-professional, but I’m worried that may happen. I think there’s a big chance for that.

“I’m also wondering how it will be regulated. Somebody needs to regulate it, or it’s going to get out of control. The NCAA, at this point, has said, ‘We’re hands off.’ So, you have all these states with different laws. Perhaps the federal government will get involved at some point to bring some uniformity to it. But it is absolutely the Wild, Wild West right now, and where it takes college sports, I’m not sure.”

Q. Let’s finish with a personal question. I’ve read that every time you ride your Peloton, you always try to achieve a personal best. That gives us some insight into your competitive nature. 

HUNT: “Well, I’ll let others judge that. But I do like to joke that I have a competitive defect. And that competitive defect shows up anytime I have a chance to compete, even if I’m competing with myself.”

Newsletter

Our D CEO Weekly newsletter helps you stay up to speed with breaking news, interviews with industry leaders, and market insights from the editors of D CEO.

Comments