Thursday, May 23, 2024 May 23, 2024
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Why Dallas Needs a Sports Commission

For a supposed sports town, the city isn’t smart about the way it plays the game.
photography by Stanton Stephens

When the Cotton Bowl leaves the Cotton Bowl and the Dallas Cowboys don’t play in Dallas, it might be time to consider a sports commission for the city. A sports commission helps bring games to a city, and with those games comes money. For example, the Atlanta Sports Council has brought 32 collegiate sports championships to that city since 2000. From 1999 to 2009, the organization made an economic impact of $1.87 billion and generated $73.6 million in direct revenue through local and state sales taxes. Dallas is the largest city in the country without such an organization—at least not recently and not yet, but maybe soon. Something called the Heart of Dallas appears poised to fill the void. 

It began in 2010 when the Cotton Bowl Classic left Dallas for Jerry Jones’ stadium. To fill the seats, the Dallas Football Classic was created. That became the TicketCity Bowl, organized by president Tom Starr. The first year, Texas Tech played Northwestern. The next, the University of Houston took on Penn State. But the TicketCity Bowl floundered due to a lack of corporate sponsorship and lackluster ticket sales. At this point in the story, things get very football-y and more complicated than the BCS algorithm. Just know that Starr wound up owing money to Conference USA, which is based in Dallas and run by a commissioner named Britton Banowsky. He acquired the TicketCity Bowl and turned it into the Heart of Dallas Bowl—a football game with a twist. 

Banowsky has the face of a news anchor and the smile of a small-town pastor. He speaks with a pleasant and steady voice. He’s the kind of person you want to like you. In short, he is the perfect guy to run a bowl game that functions as a nonprofit and gives money to local charities. 

The first Heart of Dallas Bowl will be played on January 1, with the Big 12’s eighth-place team facing off against the Big Ten’s No. 6 finisher. It’s not the first nonprofit-sponsored bowl event. There’s the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and there are events such as the Rose Bowl Parade, which has a beneficiary. But this is the first bowl game to be sponsored with the sole intent of giving back to the host city. In a landscape littered with games like the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl and Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, it’s a counterintuitive move.

When Banowsky got the idea, he took it to Mayor Mike Rawlings: “Why don’t we take the bowl and find a way to use it for the benefit of homelessness challenges in Dallas?” Rawlings set up a meeting with Banowsky, the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, and representatives from Fair Park. They all agreed to move forward with the idea for the game, but the rest was up to Banowsky. “If you can figure out how to do it,” Rawlings told him, “you have our full support.”

Next Banowsky took his idea to The Richards Group, where he hooked up with Kern Egan, head of the agency’s sports and entertainment marketing practice. Egan wanted to expand the impact. “A bowl game is just one day,” he told Banowsky. “What we should be thinking about is creating a year-round platform of sports and entertainment events.”

To that end, the Heart of Dallas planned a fall concert series and another college football event, the Heart of Dallas Classic, which will take place every year at the State Fair. They also helped move the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup, a huge international youth soccer tournament, to the Cotton Bowl this year. 

All of this has the look of a sports commission—almost. “Our mission is to give back to charities using sports and entertainment,” Egan says. “To the extent that that infrastructure gets built—social media following, volunteers, resources to put on events, marketing materials—we’re going to absolutely use that to bring more events to Dallas. But we’re focused on our one mission right now.”

Mayor Rawlings also doesn’t see the nonprofit as a sports commission. “That’s not really the point of Heart of Dallas,” he says. He maintains that the responsibility of bringing sporting events to the city belongs to the Dallas Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. 

“We are fully supportive of anything that can attract more sports events to Dallas,” says Monica Paul, a Heart of Dallas board member and vice president of DCVB sports marketing. “The DCVB Sports Department has been very successful and active over the past decade, attributing over $200 million in economic impact just this year to the city through sports. We look forward to seeing what the Heart of Dallas can do to augment what the bureau has been doing for the past decade rather than duplicating efforts.”

As far as duplicating efforts, the sports planner section of the DCVB website routinely mentions events and facilities that belong to Arlington, not Dallas: Cowboys Stadium, the World Series, the 2014 NCAA Men’s Final Four, and the Cotton Bowl Classic. Dallas benefits from these events, but it can’t claim them. The big 2012 events inside Dallas city limits were the Red River Rivalry, the national cheerleading championship, an Ethiopian soccer tournament, a national qualifier for volleyball, and the MetroPCS Dallas Marathon. Among these, the Red River Rivalry and Dallas Marathon are long-standing Dallas traditions and not the result of active recruiting, which is what sports commissions do. 

The funny thing is, Dallas had a sports commission at one time. It was called the Dallas International Sports Commission. In the late ’80s, Mayor Annette Strauss asked Richard Marcus, CEO of Neiman Marcus, to put together a group to bring more sporting events to Dallas. Marcus recruited Terry Murphy, one-time publisher of D Magazine and founder of Hoop It Up, and Michael Jordan, CEO of Frito-Lay and later Westinghouse Electric Corporation. They hired Anne Duncan, the commission’s only president, who had worked with the Atlanta Sports Group. Murphy signed up Tom Landry as the head of Dallas’ sports commission, which did wonders for fundraising. “You haven’t lived until you’ve asked American Airlines for money when you have Tom Landry with you,” Murphy says. 

The commission members visited conventions around the country to pitch Dallas as a destination for national and international competitions. It played a role in bringing the Stars to Dallas in 1993 and six World Cup games to the Cotton Bowl in 1994. The group also brought national gymnastics, softball, and soccer tournaments to the city. Despite its successes, though, the commission lost steam and dissolved in 1996.

There has been talk of forming a replacement in the years since, but it has never amounted to much. In 2011, after the Super Bowl, the North Texas Super Bowl Host Committee had the chance to use its remaining seed money and staff to create a new sports commission, but the committee went dormant, and the money went elsewhere. 

It was a missed opportunity. Dallas can’t afford to miss many more. The city no longer competes just with larger cities on the coasts. Arlington and Fort Worth want some of those sports dollars, too. If we are to believe the legend, with one condescending pat on the knee, Laura Miller lost the Cowboys and the Cotton Bowl Classic when Jerry Jones decided to build his stadium in Arlington rather than Dallas. The city could use an organization to step in where politicians fear to tread. The Heart of Dallas might be that organization. 

“It will be all Dallas focused,” Banowsky says. “Is this Richardson? Is this Plano? And you know, it could be, but for us to do this right, there’s plenty of work to do right here in Dallas.”