Dallas the B_G loser in bowl game
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.
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.