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Red River Rook?

By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek

October 12, 2012

Amid nonstop conference realignment musical chairs and the consolidation of the bowl system into a playoff tier that would ultimately decide the National Championship, college football is in danger of losing one of the characteristics that makes it so compelling, and so fun—its longstanding rivalries.

College football rivalries can be seemingly silly—Oregon and Oregon State battling over the pint-sized Apple Cup—or patriotic, as when Army-Navy takes the field. But whether it’s a Border War (Kansas-Kansas State) or skirmish for a Shillelagh (USC-Notre Dame), to the teams, their fans, and their communities, these matchups matter. Big time.

And in the college football rivalry universe, it doesn’t get more Big Time than this Saturday’s University of Oklahoma vs. University of Texas Red River Rivalry, the rompin’ stompin’ showdown of two southwest football powers held every year since 1900, when Oklahoma was not yet a state and Texas still such a remote outpost that most folks hadn’t yet considered whether to mess with it.

On the field, this year’s 107th OU-Texas game has far less football significance than in most years past. Ranked No. 13 and No. 15 respectively, the two squads are battling not to be eliminated from the BCS National Championship picture.

Off the field, however, the game is an economic chess piece for the city of Dallas, a rook in the stand against Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his campaign to lure every regional sporting event of any significance up to Cowboys Stadium in nearby Arlington.

Held the first Saturday of October at the Cotton Bowl in the middle of Dallas’ Fair Park surrounded by the rowdy Texas State Fair, the AT&T Red River Rivalry is “like a bowl game at midseason," as Texas head coach Mack Brown has said. According to a report prepared in April by the Dallas City Manager, the game has an estimated annual economic impact of $34 million, with $20.2 million of those dollars retained in Dallas County. The next biggest event held there, the 2012 TicketCity Bowl, had an estimated gross economic impact of $9.6 million.

That’s right—the Cotton Bowl isn’t even held at the Cotton Bowl. That traditional New Year’s Day event, along with its corporate office and full-time staff, moved up the road to Arlington when Jerry Jones opened up his state-of-the-art stadium.

Built in the 1920s, the Cotton Bowl already went through significant renovations in 2008, and the city of Dallas this Spring green-lighted $25.5 worth of additional upgrades in an effort to keep the Red River Rivalry from going upstream to Arlington. The strategy appears to be paying off, at least for the moment—last month, the Sooners agreed to keep playing their October “bowl game” at the Cotton Bowl through 2020. (The two universities’ existing deal with the State Fair of Texas was set to expire in 2015.)

The esoteric significance of this year’s OU-Texas game, finally, is somewhat bittersweet. Thanks to conference realignment, both teams are running out of other rivals.

In 2011, Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten, and in doing so the school abandoned a 99-year-old rivalry with Oklahoma that had been one of college football’s most exciting, especially during the 1970s-1980s when both the Sooners and the Cornhuskers won multiple national championships. Likewise, when Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC at the end of last season, the Aggies departed an in-state rivalry that was almost as electric as the Red River Rivalry, though seldom as impactful on college football’s national championship.
During a Q&A session amid the Big 12 conference restructuring and the mass confusion that followed, Longhorn Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds remarked about Texas’ annual showdown with in-state rival Texas A&M, “The rivalry game for us has always been Oklahoma. The A&M game’s been a great game and all of that…But it’s not something that we have to do. I think the Oklahoma game is something we have to do."

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Beyond the Scoreboard
Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.
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Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.
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