Dal­las the B_G loser in bowl game

The Dallas Morning News - - Metro & State - Twit­ter: @Rober­twilon­sky

Be­fore spring break, the Dal­las City Coun­cil was asked to OK giv­ing ESPN $800,000 to pass along to col­lege foot­ball teams to play in a bowl game that will be at­tended by tens of spec­ta­tors. OK, OK. That’s not fair. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial num­bers I got my hands on this week, ex­actly 9,392 peo­ple went to last year’s Heart of Dal­las Bowl to see Utah play West Vir­ginia at the Cot­ton Bowl the day af­ter Christ­mas. It only looked like 93 peo­ple.

Blame it on the cold and the wet. Or the date. Or the matchup. Or the lack of mar­ket­ing. Or all of it. What­ever the rea­son, turnout was ter­ri­ble. So, too, was the city’s re­turn on its in­vest­ment.

Out of its $1.1 bil­lion gen­eral fund — the thing that pays for every­thing City Hall does — Dal­las last year gave $400,000 to a tele­vi­sion net­work, which then passed on that dough to Utah and West Vir­ginia. And in re­turn, Dal­las di­rectly pock­eted about $147,000, along with about $75,000 in con­ces­sion and park­ing rev­enue — a frac­tion of a frac­tion of the $300 mil­lion or so in sales tax rev­enue that goes into the gen­eral fund ev­ery year.

I know the bowl game’s la­beled as a char­ity event meant to help area non­prof­its. But that’s tak­ing it a lit­tle too lit­er­ally. That’s why a ma­jor­ity of the coun­cil asked to punt the Heart of Dal­las deal, worth $800,000 over two years, to later this month, af­ter a sit-down with the con­ven­tion and vis­i­tors bureau big­wigs who will in­cen­tivize, oh, a cer­tain gun lobby but not the

last bowl game in town.

The thing’s a loser. And it’s com­ing out of our pock­ets. Has been for six years, at a com­bined cost of $2.4 mil­lion.

Ac­tu­ally, it’s com­ing out of the Park and Recre­ation Depart­ment’s $98 mil­lion an­nual bud­get. The coun­cil’s agenda la­beled the bowl give­away as a Chap­ter 380 Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Grant. But those grants come from pen­nies col­lected from wa­ter bills and are usu­ally given to busi­nesses promis­ing to re­lo­cate to Dal­las and gen­er­ate big tax money. That money is sup­posed to be for win­ners.

This one comes out of the bud­get of a depart­ment that des­per­ately needs those dol­lars. Wil­lis Win­ters, the parks depart­ment di­rec­tor, told me Mon­day that $800,000 “could be fund­ing pro­grams, sum­mer camps, aquatic schol­ar­ships or bet­ter park main­te­nance or go­ing to­ward ma­jor main­te­nance at Fair Park.”

Toss­ing a red flag

Tim Dickey, the north­west Dal­l­a­site sit­ting on the park board, was the first to throw the red flag at the Heart of Dal­las Bowl dur­ing the board’s Feb. 1 meet­ing. He said the city’s con­ven­tion and vis­i­tors bureau, re­spon­si­ble for the “Big things hap­pen here” motto of­ten used as a punch line, and the ho­tels should be pay­ing ESPN. He even tried to re­write the deal so Dal­las wouldn’t give the net­work a cent un­less Visit­dal­las kicked in, too.

But his South Dal­las col­league Sonya Woods didn’t want it to be all or noth­ing. Said Woods, echo­ing a few oth­ers, Fair Park has lost enough al­ready — like the ac­tual Cot­ton Bowl, which is now played in Ar­ling­ton’s Jer­ry­world.

But three weeks later some coun­cil mem­bers picked up where Dickey left off, de­mand­ing to know why parks is fill­ing this dog bowl in­stead of Visit­dal­las and the Tourism Pub­lic Im­prove­ment District that col­lects about $17 mil­lion a year from room rentals to mar­ket the city and lure con­ven­tions. North Oak Cliff ’s Scott Griggs re­minded his col­leagues those are the same groups cov­er­ing the National Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion’s $387,000 down­town con­ven­tion cen­ter rent in May.

A skep­ti­cal coun­cil

When­ever a skep­ti­cal coun­cil mem­ber asked what Dal­las was get­ting in ex­change for its in­vest­ment in the Heart of Dal­las Bowl, they were told the eco­nomic im­pact from last year’s game was $7 mil­lion. Makes that $400,000 seem like a good in­vest­ment. Ex­cept that’s not how it works.

Ac­cord­ing to Visit­dal­las’ “event im­pact cal­cu­la­tor de­tail,” which I got my hands on Mon­day, this year’s Heart of Dal­las Bowl pro­vided about $4.4 mil­lion in “di­rect” busi­ness sales, divvied into lodg­ing, trans­porta­tion, food and drink, re­tail sales and “recre­ation,” which I’m sure doesn’t mean strip clubs. The “in­di­rect” spend­ing — what Texas A&M prof John Cromp­ton once called “the rip­ple ef­fect of ad­di­tional rounds of re­cir­cu­lat­ing the ini­tial spec­ta­tors’ dol­lars” — ac­counted for the other $2.6 mil­lion.

‘Mis­lead­ing, val­ue­less’

But writ­ing in the Jour­nal of Sport Man­age­ment in 1995, Cromp­ton said you shouldn’t trust in­di­rect spend­ing be­cause it’s “mis­lead­ing and val­ue­less.” Or, as coun­cil mem­ber Philip Kingston put it at the end of last month, “I have yet to see any­one in this build­ing fix a pot­hole with eco­nomic im­pact. I am tired of see­ing those eco­nomic im­pact fig­ures. They can­not be sup­ported.”

The Hy­att Re­gency’s Fred Euler, who chairs the TPID’S board, told me there were some 1,300 rooms booked for the Heart of Dal­las Bowl by Utah and West Vir­ginia — about a 20th of what they es­ti­mate for the NRA con­ven­tion. It was even worse the pre­vi­ous year, when the Univer­sity of North Texas played in the Heart of Dal­las Bowl. There were more peo­ple in the stands. But those were lo­cals who didn’t need a ho­tel.

Euler said the TPID “would love to sup­port get­ting a big­ger bowl or a more pres­ti­gious bowl” that gets more than just the Con­fer­ence USA, Big Ten and Big 12 also-rans. “That would bring bet­ter teams and more fans, and, quite frankly, ev­ery­one would win.”

That will cost many mil­lions parks doesn’t have and the TPID won’t spend. Which means the city is about to be faced with a choice: Go B_G or go home.

Rwilon­sky@dal­las­news.com

ROBERT WILONSKY

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