The Heart of Dallas Bowl, the city's annual post-Christmas, pre-New Year's showcase at the Cotton Bowl for two aggressively mediocre college football teams, looks likely to survive after a Monday compromise for the city to continue paying ESPN to host the game. That doesn't mean the game's going to be any better, and it doesn't mean that having it in Dallas makes any more sense.
The City Council's Quality of Life, Arts and Culture Committee sent city staff to find a better deal from ESPN in March, rejecting a contract that would've paid the network $800,000 over the next two years. On Monday, staff came back with the requested plan, which commits only $300,000 in taxpayer cash to ESPN while making sure that the games continues in 2018 and 2019, at least. The committee voted to approve the plan Monday, sending it to the full council for what should be a rubber stamp in August.
In addition to the $300,000 — according to Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs, the cash will be redirected from park maintenance — Dallas' Tourism Public Improvement District will also pay the game up to $200,000 per year, based on attendance at the game and lodging revenues.
Those numbers, throughout the game's history, haven't been much. In the early years of the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the game was typically played by teams from major conferences that had an OK, but not good, season. In 2013, for instance, Purdue and Oklahoma State, two schools with decent fan bases, played on New Year's Day. Barely anybody showed up, as you can see from this photo from Oklahoma sportswriter John Hoover.
Here's the crowd at Heart of Dallas Bowl. I really love bowls. But this just looks like a bad idea. pic.twitter.com/mM75ouiY— John E. Hoover (@johnehoover) January 1, 2013
It subsequent years, it's been even worse. Big-name schools have been fewer and harder to come by. In 2016, Army, 7-5, played North Texas, which managed to qualify for a bowl game despite going 5-7 during the regular season. The announced attendance was 39,117, but there wasn't a soul in the stadium's upper deck.
Last season, the game got a better matchup, Utah against West Virginia, but had worse attendance, thanks to winter weather. The city, according to staff, lost money on the game, paying a $400,000 subsidy for an estimated $147,000 in revenue and $75,000 in parking.
Fans didn’t exactly flock to the Cotton Bowl to see Utah and West Virginia pic.twitter.com/Z1N3YjcbSC— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) December 26, 2017
Council member Philip Kingston took to Facebook after the committee vote, blasting the game as one that no one wants to attend.
"Free's not enough. We'd have to pay people to watch," Kingston said.
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Council member Rickey Callahan said that city couldn't afford to give up on the bowl game..
"What this is about is keeping Dallas in the game, with Cotton Bowl stadium, with Fair Park," Callahan said. "This is ESPN one, this isn't ESPN way down the line channel down. If you have AT&T Uverse, this is 1602 ESPN. This is about four hours where Dallas alone is being highlighted ... It makes no sense for Dallas, Texas, the ninth-largest city, not to participate in that."
The Observer asked ESPN for a comment about the new deal, but the network sent us a statement from Brant Ringler, the executive director of the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“We are committed to our partners, conferences and feel the city of Dallas is a great location for a bowl," Ringler said. "We are happy city leadership wished to continue to work together and come to terms on providing funding in order to maximize the benefits of a bowl game.”