Cotton Bowl Controversy Over ServPro First Responders Bowl

Sharply divided Dallas City Council approved taxpayer support for college football bowl game

In a sharply divided vote Wednesday, the Dallas City Council narrowly approved continued public support for a December college football bowl game at the Cotton Bowl in Fair Park.

Disney-owned ESPN will receive $300,000 for two more years of the game, that has just been renamed the ServPro First Responders Bowl.

The game has been played on the day after Christmas since 2012, when no other live football games are on TV.

The $150,000 per year approved Wednesday is less than the $400,000 a year the city paid in the past to be split between two teams.

"The numbers are 2 million people. Let me say it again, 2 million. That's a lot of zeroes, watching this," said councilman Rickey Callahan, who was among the bowl game's supporters.

Councilman Tennell Atkins and Mayor Mike Rawlings are both former college football scholarship athletes. They both voted in favor of the incentive to ESPN.

"It will showcase the city of Dallas, that we are looking out for our first responders. I think it's a great deal," Atkins said.

Dallas Firefighters Association President Jim McDade said he refused to participate in a recent kickoff press conference for the renamed bowl game.

"They are using the term 'first responders,' but no first responder is benefiting from the event," McDade said.

City council critics also said the games have been poorly attended in the past.

"This really is a complete waste of taxpayers' money," said councilman Scott Griggs. "This is Texas, the home of Friday Night Lights. If you've got to supplement a game, to make it happen, maybe you shouldn't be having that football game.”

Councilman Lee Kleinman said he attended some of the past December games, to see the event he had supported before.

"It just failed. It's dead," Kleinman said. "I just don't see where it benefits the citizens of Dallas. I think there's much better ways to use $300,000 in park funds, particularly in the Fair Park area."

Kevin Felder who represents the Fair Park area took issue with claims that the game provides millions of dollars in economic benefits to the city.

"I don't believe that there's been $7 million in economic impact created in the immediate area. We would see a big difference in the neighborhood," Felder said.

The owner of a restaurant across the street from Fair Park said the State Fair and Cotton Bowl football games actually hurt his business.

Fred Conwright at Two Podners Bar-B-Que said heavy event traffic blocks access to his place and visitors eat in the park.

"None of the games help me because they come, they go to the game and I don't get any traffic from that," Conwright said.

Critics also took issue with a change in funding source for the incentive that allowed it to pass by a margin of 8-6 instead of 11 affirmative votes that would have been required a month ago when the vote was delayed.

"Public, know what's happening here at City Hall," said councilman Omar Narvaez. "When it's not the way they want it, they're willing to do whatever it takes to change the rules. That is a shame."

Supporters said plans for private operation to make Fair Park more of a year-round attraction could also help attract better teams to future December bowl games and the city of Dallas should keep the game going.

"I think it's a good contract," councilman Mark Clayton said.

The city of Dallas recently spent $350,000 to install new natural turf on the Cotton Bowl field.

"So why are we putting money in the Cotton Bowl if we don't want to have games there? That's what I would ask," council member Jennifer Gates said.

An ESPN representative at Wednesday's meeting said contributions are planned to first responder organizations.

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