The Cotton Bowl as it appeared in the early 1950s.

Fair Park

A Pre-Gold Cup Reminder That the Cotton Bowl Is Still DFW’s Best Soccer Venue

Fair Park's operator has delivered on its promise of bringing a top-notch sporting event to the Cotton Bowl. The arena is an ideal setting for international soccer.

Big time soccer is returning this summer to Dallas-Fort Worth’s finest soccer venue: The Cotton Bowl.

As Matt mentioned in Leading Off, the Cotton Bowl was named one of nine host venues for this summer’s Gold Cup tournament. The Gold Cup is North America’s premier international soccer tournament. Think of it as the North American equivalent of the European Championship or South America’s Copa América, although it doesn’t have the history or prestige of either of those two tournaments. But it is still a big deal, and it’s great that a third of the tournament’s nine venues are in the DFW area. In addition to the Cotton Bowl, AT&T Stadium in Arlington and Toyota Stadium in Frisco will host games. It will be quite a summer for soccer fans.

But it’s not just soccer fans who should be excited about this announcement. When the private event and entertainment company Spectra took over operations of Fair Park and the Cotton Bowl back in 2018, it promised that it would be able to lure high-profile sporting events back to the Cotton Bowl. The Cotton Bowl doesn’t even host the Cotton Bowl anymore – that game is now played out in Arlington. And classic events like the Red River Showdown have teased jumping ship as well. But Spectra promised new events, and it has delivered, jockeying its way into a collection of nine Gold Cup hosts that also includes the region’s other two prominent soccer venues.

We don’t know yet how CONCACAF plans to spread the play around the three area stadiums; the tournament’s full schedule has not yet been released. The tournament is concentrated in a few regions (half the venues are in Texas), which is likely a COVID-related strategy, though the press release doesn’t say. I hope for soccer fans’ sake that Fair Park gets its fair share of games, and that the Cotton Bowl is packed with (vaccinated) fans. That’s because, to me, the Cotton Bowl has always stood as the region’s best soccer venue.

I’ve seen games at all three of the venues that will host this summer’s Gold Cup. AT&T Stadium in Arlington is, unsurprisingly, the worst. It’s too large for the sport, too diffuse. The atmosphere feels antiseptic and lacks intimacy. Toyota Stadium in Frisco, on the other hand, is a wonderful footy venue precisely because it is small and intimate. The sunken field and bowl-shaped stands help to meld the energy of the crowd with the action on the field.

Neither, however, can compare with the Cotton Bowl. For decades, the city lamented its inability to upgrade the old stadium, which was constructed in stages – concrete stacked on concrete – beginning in 1930. More layers were added in the 1940s, along with its distinctive deco façade, a rectangular shard that could be mistaken for the entry to a large, institutional urban high school or a mid-century prison. The chairs didn’t even have backs until 1968. It is utilitarian, hard-nosed, and doesn’t pamper. The stadium is modestly designed to allow attendees to bear witness to a field of battle.

For decades, the Cotton Bowl’s gladiatorial clashes were fought by American footballers – SMU Mustangs, University of Texas Longhorns, Grambling State Tigers, and Dallas Cowboys. Then, in 1993 it hosted the Gold Cup, and the following year, the 1994 World Cup. The Cotton Bowl revealed itself to be an energetic and strikingly European-style soccer venue. I wasn’t around Dallas at that time, but I did get to watch AS Roma upset Real Madrid at the Cotton Bowl back in 2014. It was magnificent.

The Cotton Bowl’s sight lines are wonderful. The crowd can be immense while still feeling closely connected to the action and players on the field. The stadium is loud, raw, focused, and effervescent. It is precisely because the Cotton Bowl doesn’t have the bells and whistles that have turned most modern sports venues into mini Disneylands—each architectural element designed to best part you from the dollars in your pocket—that it works so well for the sport. Soccer is a game of tidal momentum, slow crescendos, rhythmic build-ups, and spectacular flashes of athletic genius. For a fan, it is an experience that requires great concentration and emotional involvement. A good soccer stadium should function like a symphony hall; all the design elements should be considered for how they reflect and amplify the sound of the orchestra. The Cotton Bowl’s Spartan design does just that, blending the swelling pressure of the crowd into the kinetic action of the field. Watching soccer there feels like what it felt like for me to witness games at Roma’s Stadio Olimpico or Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium.

This is why it has always bummed me out that FC Dallas moved to Frisco. The MLS franchise decided that growing future soccer fans in Dallas meant investing in the suburbs, and that decision has worked out well for them. But I’ve always wondered what the team’s stature would be in Dallas had they stayed at the Cotton Bowl. I know I would go to a lot more games – I might even follow the MLS. It’s also why I once suggested that Dallas should recruit a team from Mexico’s Liga MX to play in the Cotton Bowl, to be the Toronto Blue Jays (or the Raptors) to the league south of the border. There are many reasons why this will never happen, but whenever I see people at the grocery story in Toluca or Club América jerseys, I allow myself to dream for a minute of what it would be like to have a Dallas Liga MX team facing off regularly with those teams in the Cotton Bowl.

Alas, these are all fantasies. What is real is that the Cotton Bowl will once again host world class football this summer. I hope having three venues in play doesn’t mean that the Cotton Bowl gets the short shrift, and I hope some of the best matchups wind up at the Cotton Bowl—not simply because it will be great to bring energy and life to Fair Park, but because the Cotton Bowl will help make them better games. My new fantasy now is a Mexico vs. USA game in Fair Park.

If we’re lucky enough to experience that this summer, then prepare for an electric sports experience. The exciting thing is this dream might come true.

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