THE POSSIBLE RETURN OF THE DALLAS COWBOYS to their 1960 birthplace at Fair Park seemed so right that you just knew it was going to go wrong. Until the Cowboys moved to an Irving freeway intersection in 1971, they were Dallas’s team—all of Dallas, not just the rich suburbs—and certainly not America’s team. But with the announcement in August that the team’s new home would be Arlington, which isn’t even in Dallas County, the dream died, doomed by the laws of physics: the collision of an irresistible force like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones with an immovable object like Dallas mayor Laura Miller and the political inertia that resulted.
Jones had been casting about for at least eight years to find a city in North Texas willing to lean on its taxpayers to finance a retractable-dome stadium for the Cowboys, whose current home, Texas Stadium, is one of the oldest in the league. Its famous hole in the roof (so God can watch his favorite team) creates heat and glare and renders it unsuitable for hosting a Super Bowl. When Miller proposed last spring that the team return to Fair Park, Jones must have figured he’d found a live one. What he failed to reckon was that Miller was working her own angle. Revitalizing Fair Park and its crumbling southeast Dallas neighborhood is one of the mayor’s three big-fix projects for Dallas, the other two being reviving downtown and developing the Trinity River Corridor. Having the Cowboys as a tenant would accelerate the remaking of Fair Park, but the negotiations collapsed as soon as Jones presented the bill to Miller and the Dallas County commissioners. He wanted city and county taxpayers to cough up $425 million, almost two thirds of the stadium’s total cost of $650 million, in addition to paying for the infrastructure and donating the land. When Miller and the county officials balked, Jones offered to split the cost, fifty-fifty. Miller recalls her response: “I said, ‘You’re crazy.’”
Crafty is more like it: crafty, greedy, and relentless. In 1996 Jones tried to persuade voters in Irving to pull out of DART, the region’s mass-transit system, so that the city could free up its one-cent sales tax for a referendum to renovate Texas Stadium and add a retractable roof. He even financed an anti-DART campaign and offered to provide $2 million a year for two years to help Irving establish a transportation system. By a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, voters chose mass transit over a new playground for the Cowboys. Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Mitchell Schnurman labeled the vote “a great call by the great unwashed.”
When it became apparent that Irving was not going to lie down for the Cowboys, Jones began making eyes at Arlington, which has traditionally been a soft touch for sports entrepreneurs. In the early nineties the Texas Rangers sweet-talked the city into subsidizing the Ballpark in Arlington, now named Ameriquest Field. A few years later, the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and the Dallas Stars hockey team flirted with Arlington until Dallas caved and built the American Airlines Center. Arlington backed away from a Cowboys deal four years ago, but in July, just as it appeared that some Dallas County officials might be going wobbly on a Fair Park stadium, Cowboys fans awakened to discover that Arlington had ambushed Big D.
Or maybe Arlington ambushed itself. The city agreed to pay half the cost of a new stadium if Arlington voters approve a tax increase on sales, hotel rooms, and car rentals in a referendum that Jones insisted be held in November. His platoon of political consultants believes the election will draw large numbers of young voters not yet reflexively opposed to taxpayer support for football. Before the deal was even official, Arlington voters were opening glossy four-page mailers from Jones’s propaganda machine promising that the stadium would be “an economic win for Arlington.” The brochure was nearly identical to one that Jones had mailed to Dallas voters four months earlier.
Until Arlington capitulated, the Dallas media had been fairly indifferent to the idea of a new stadium at Fair Park. That changed overnight. In an editorial titled “Major Fumble,” the Dallas Morning News blasted Miller and the commissioners for squandering “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” and urged them to get back in the game. Let me pause here to remind the Morning News, and Cowboys fans as well, that just because Miller didn’t choose to play Jones’s game doesn’t mean she fumbled. Quite the contrary. Nearly every study on the cost-benefits of public stadiums has reached the same sad conclusion: Franchise owners promise the moon but deliver mostly pixie dust. Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and co-author of Sports, Jobs & Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums, told me that there is no evidence whatsoever that taxpayer-financed sports facilities are a wise investment. “The only way it is likely to pay off economically is if the project involves other things,” Zimbalist said. “Brooklyn, for example, has made a deal with the owner of the New Jersey Nets to build an arena, but the arena is only one fifth of a $2.5 billion project of offices, residential units, and retail space.”