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The Star in Frisco (Credit: Dallas Cowboys, Blue Star Frisco, L.P.)

Did the Dallas Cowboys Crack the Economic Development Code?

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has crafted a way to keep his team relevant 365 days a year, increasing commercial opportunities around Cowboys facilities in a way no owner has managed. That relevancy drives the economic impact of each facility, pulling in developers, businesses, and brokers eager for a piece of the growing pie. Say what you want about them on the field, off the field the Cowboys are one of the few professional teams fulfilling economic promises to the cities subsidizing their success. 

The giant price tag of stadiums is most often justified by weighing the cost against its economic impact on a region. Tax-exempt bonds, interest rate reductions, abatements, and all manner of subsidies are funneled to professional teams either to lure or keep them in a never-ending game of one-upmanship played by billionaire owners. Stadiums create jobs through construction, spending, and tourism. Public benefits may be overstated and municipalities’ return on investment difficult to measure, but it’s true many stadiums around the country have spurred economic growth in their immediate area, tracing their roots back to Wrigleyville.  

The problem is most stadiums’ locations and the corresponding schedules aren’t conducive to the type of year-round economic impact they hope to have. Most stadiums are either in densely packed downtown CBDs where new development is prohibitively expensive or on the city outskirts, where creating a sense of place is far more difficult. Accommodating visitors all at once means most stadiums are surrounded by parking and transportation infrastructure, limiting other commercial opportunities. Each sport is bound by its seasonality, further limiting economic impact. The most profitable arenas and stadiums serve more than one team, like Staples Center, home to Los Angeles Kings, Lakers, Clippers, and Sparks, but those types of facilities are not the norm. 

“In general, [stadiums] are a losing proposition for the city in economic terms,” Ohio Wesleyan University economist Robert Gitter wrote. “As to whether it is money well spent for something the citizens want, that is another story but there is not a net dollars and cents benefit.”

In theory, practice facilities are a unique way around those two fundamental issues. Instead of making rich cities richer, professional teams look to create economic impact throughout their larger territory by courting suburban municipalities where dollars and development go further.  Practice facilities are used year-round, making them more like offices than stadiums. Cowboys’ star quarterback Dak Prescott doesn’t commute to AT&T Stadium in Arlington every day, he goes to work in the North Dallas suburb Frisco, where the Cowboys’ practice facility dubbed The Star opened in 2016. 

The Star is the latest work of Jerry Jones, showing why he has been able to create the most valuable sports team on planet Earth. Working with a rapidly growing Dallas suburb about 40 minutes North of the city, Jones and Frisco imagined the “$5 Billion Mile,” a stretch along the Dallas North Tollway composed of 4 mixed-use developments totaling $5.4 billion in capital investment across 549 acres. At its center is The Star, a 91-acre mixed-use facility. Designed by Gensler, the facility features 396,000 square feet of offices, a 12,000 seat practice field, 200,000 square feet of retail, a 60,000 square foot luxury gym, and a 300-room Omni hotel. Shortly after opening, The Star welcomed the Texas HQ of Kuerig Dr. Pepper Inc to a 350,000 square foot built-to-suit office. On Friday, The Star hosts football games for Frisco school sports. The Star is surrounded by Frisco Station, a 242-acre mixed-use development. If you want to connect with the Cowboys, your best bet is heading to Frisco, not the stadium. Visitors are welcome at daily practice sessions, you may even catch a sight of Jerry flying in via helicopter. 

“Some teams can’t even get [the incentives we received] for the stadium, but we’re getting it for a practice facility,” Jones told the Dallas Business Journal. “But why? Why is because look at what it is driving in the economic stimulus. It is real. It is so tangible. What we have done has impacted the city of Frisco with the Star.”

The Star spurred a new wave of interest in practice facilities from NFL owners. The Minnesota Vikings call a 40-acre practice facility in Eagan, Minnesota home. The Twin Cities Orthopedics (TCO) Performance Center designed by Crawford Architects features a 6,000 square foot stadium at the center of 277,00 square feet of office and training facilities surrounded by a 194-acre mixed-use development. Flanked by South Carolina governor Henry McMaster, Panthers owner David Tepper announced a $1 billion investment in Rock Hill, South Carolina. When completed, ‘The Rock’ will offer the local community a 10,000 seat event space for high school sports and concerts alongside a 30,000 physical rehab and sports medicine facility run by an independent healthcare provider. 

The Twin Cities Orthopedics (TCO) Performance Center designed by Crawford Architects features a 6,000 square foot stadium at the center of 277,00 square feet of office and training facilities surrounded by a 194-acre mixed-use development. (Credit: Minnesota Vikings Football, LLC)

What The Star, TCO, and The Rock all have in common is bringing significant capital investment and mixed-use development to smaller suburban areas. Locked out of major stadium development, practice facilities give smaller municipalities a chance to get skin in the game. Like with professional stadiums, those investments are made possible through incentives. Rock Hill reportedly ponied up $115 million to motivate the Panthers, a significant sum for a suburb. Stadiums are notorious for a clouded return on investment due to scheduling and location, the hope is sustained year-round action and more direct links to the surrounding business community boosts returns for the community. 

A recent undergraduate study showcased by Winthrop University found that while stadiums often have a negative impact on surrounding areas, practice facilities are more likely to offset those downsides. In addition to the direct economic impact, practice facilities give suburbs clout, increasing their ability to market themselves to attract other businesses and relocations. At a fraction of the cost of stadiums with fewer downsides, practice facilities are finally fulfilling the broken promise of economic development. 

AT&T Stadium is an island surrounded by parking lots with a capture economy specially designed to vacuum up all the dollars being spent on gameday directly to the Cowboys. The Star is something else entirely, lively with community action, surrounded by restaurants and offices. The Dallas Morning News reports, ‘The Star has lived up to its name.’ The facility hosts hundreds of events every year, less than half are football-related. Players walking over to young fans after practice to sign autographs and make a kid’s dream come true are a daily occurrence at The Star. The practice facility has given Cowboys fans unprecedented access to their favorite team and players, changing the conversation around economic development through sports facility funding. Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney credits The Star with ‘catapulting’ the city to another level. 

“This isn’t Disneyland. I think it’s better,” Frisco Chamber of Commerce president Tony Felker told the Dallas Morning News. “You really have to pinch yourself every now and then just to realize what is happening right here in our backyard.”

Has one of the NFL’s most controversial owners finally cracked the code for successful economic development? With The Star still being actively developed, it may be too early to tell. Frisco abandoned the idea of the 5 Billion Mile just 2 years after The Star opened when the $2 billion Wade Park project fell through after the developer went bankrupt. But thanks to the popularity of The Star, new plans are already in the works for the site. Developer JVP Management recently presented plans for 700 hotel rooms, 2,800 multifamily units, 1.9 million square feet of office space, and 455,000 square feet of retail space just a stone’s throw from the practice facility. The marketing term $5 Billion Mile may be dead but its vision is still very much alive. 

It isn’t just The Star either. AT&T Stadium is proving to be a ‘golden gift’ for the city of Arlington. The stadium hosts nearly 300 events a year, ranging from college football, draft selections, prize boxing matches, blockbuster concerts, and international success matches. Since opening AT&T Stadium, hotel revenue is up 72 percent and sales tax revenue is up nearly 40 percent. City officials expected to fully pay off debt on the stadium 13 years early but decided to refinance the deal to fund new debt for Globe Life Field, the new home of the Texas Rangers. Thanks to the destination the Cowboys helped create, Arlington has 17 million visitors a year. 

“It has been golden. It has exceeded our expectations,” Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams said of the stadium. “We were thinking we would have 25 events [per year]. So, when you’re thinking 25 and you get 300—whoa. It’s a wow! Right now, AT&T Stadium is a real catalyst for us to become the destination between Orlando and Vegas. That’s our goal.”

Most sports teams struggle to create economic development in one city but the Dallas Cowboys are spurring billions in development in two. The Cowboy’s ability to drive investment around their facilities is a key reason why the team is the most valuable sports franchise. Whether the Cowboy’s success in spurring local economic development can be replicated isn’t clear. Jerry Jones is one of the league’s biggest salesmen, turning his $150 million purchase into a team worth over $6 billion. There may be no owner who monetizes their team better than Jones. Giving Cowboys fans easy and affordable access to the team with a practice facility helps to build and maintain the biggest fandom in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys have sold out 190 regular-season games in a row. This season the Cowboys were featured in three of the five most-viewed games to date. 

What happens on the field is just the start. Jones’ success at cracking the economic development is tied to turning the Cowboys into a year-round enterprise, keeping the Cowboys at the center of the action while passing the torch. Most events at AT&T Stadium and The Star aren’t about football, even fewer feature the Cowboys. Local politicians have realized each facility is bigger than the team itself which only offers the community more than 8 home games a year. In Dallas, the Cowboys are the headliners but they drive attention to the supporting acts that bring true economic development. A Weekend Holiday Extravaganza hosted every Friday and Saturday is attracting more people to The Star than the team is even as the ‘Boys vie for the playoffs as divisional leaders. 

The Cowboys have managed to raise two tent poles, creating a year-round circus under their banner, welcoming dozens of other businesses and developments into the ring, generating more economic impact than one professional football team ever could.

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