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"They're the reason people keep coming back," Mayor Sly James says. "Not to mention that the city is kick-ass."
The Kansas City Southern Railroad building maintains its old-fashioned sensibilities, with a door attendant and a first-floor model-railroad window display. The Kansas City Sports Commission occupies the fourth floor of the brick building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On a late-March Thursday, much of the commission's headquarters are dark, many of the staffers working outside the office or taking a day off after the busy basketball season. Nelson isn't. Her office shows the war trophies of a career in sports. There's a wedding gift from broadcaster Frank Boal, a customized Louisville Slugger autographed by former Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith, who famously celebrated sacking quarterbacks by pantomiming a bat swing. Two regional Emmys for producing Chiefs games sit on another shelf.
Nelson hesitates when asked the year that she won her first Emmy. "You'd think I would know the year, right?" she says, before reading the inscriptions: 2004 and 2005. She previously worked in TV production for more than two decades, holding various positions at WDAF Channel 4 when it was an NBC affiliate. "Fox didn't even exist," she says.
At Channel 4, she spent weekends freelancing in broadcast trucks at football games and various college games throughout the area.
"It was even prior to the ESPN era, when sports was fun on TV," Nelson says. "But no one had caught on to the hot commodity that it is now."
In the late 1990s, colleagues from her freelance production gigs started work on Metro Sports, the local all-sports cable channel. They wanted her to work with them on building a 24-hour sports station. Nelson wasn't sold.
"I'm like, 'Cable is never going to make it,' " she says. Metro Sports' early success changed her mind. In 2000, she was hired to expand the all-sports station's programming from six hours a day to 24.
While working for Metro Sports, Nelson was also volunteering at Sports Commission events. She also served on the advisory board for the commission's WIN for KC.
The commission's then president, Kevin Gray, tried to hire her away from Metro Sports to run the Women's Intersport Network for Kansas City (WIN for KC).
"I had known Kevin for at least 10 years," Nelson says. "Our daughters played basketball together. I'd see him on the weekends all the time."
Gray had been with the nonprofit for 21 years. By August 2010, he had persuaded Nelson to join the commission, which was headquartered in a four-story, red-brick house at 1308 Pennsylvania. Their professional collaboration would be brief.
While watching a Big 12 men's basketball game at Sprint Center in spring 2011, Gray experienced hip pain. On June 15 — 10 weeks later — he died of cancer.
"Losing a family member is what it was," Nelson says. "You know, you have your daytime spouse. Kevin was one of our daytime kind of spouses."
As news of Gray's death spread, Kansas Citians started dropping by the house to pay their respects.
"They wouldn't necessarily come in, but they'd sit on the steps of the house," she says. "Some people would cry. Other people would just want to show their support."
Weeks after Gray's death, the commission's board of directors assembled a committee to conduct a national search. The hunt dragged on for a few months. The commission interviewed businesspeople, coaches and lawyers. Finally, Pete Ciacco, the board's immediate past chairman, suggested Nelson for the job.
"I think maybe in her mind, she thought she was a still a bit of a rookie with our organization," he says. "But I suggested that she throw her name into the ring."