Few cities in the United States are experiencing a sports development and tourism boom like the one happening in the Dallas/Fort Worth area destination of Arlington, Texas.
“We are undergoing a revitalization of Arlington right now,” says Matt Wilson, vice president of sports and events for the Arlington Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We are soon going to have three world-class facilities all within walking distance of each other.”
He’s talking about AT&T Stadium (home of the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys), Globe Life Park (home of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers) and Globe Life Field (the $1.1 billion stadium currently under construction and the new home of the Rangers beginning in 2020).
Add to that mix the high-profile Esports Stadium Arlington — which opened in 2018 as North America’s largest esports arena — and the College Park Center multi-purpose arena on The University of Texas at Arlington campus, and it’s no wonder that so many industry observers hail Arlington as the “sports and entertainment capital of Texas.”
Arlington’s evolution can be traced back to the 1950s, according to Wilson, when a General Motors assembly plant opened in the city and precipitated a population spike smack-dab in the middle of the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area.
The first Six Flags Theme Park in the United States opened in Arlington in 1961 (and is now called Six Flags Over Texas), establishing the area as a destination for family entertainment. Then the arrival of the Texas Rangers in Arlington in 1972 further solidified the city’s Major League status.
Dallas’ NFL franchise relocated from Irving in 2009 to Arlington’s Cowboys Stadium (which was renamed AT&T Stadium in 2013) and made the city a destination for everything from the 2010 National Basketball Association All-Star Game to the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship in 2015.
“AT&T Stadium is not a football stadium; it’s a special events venue,” Wilson says, adding that the Professional Bull Riders Global Cup debuted in the United States earlier this year at AT&T Stadium and featured teams from five countries — Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and the United States — competing for a record $750,000 purse.
Another high-profile event took place in January at AT&T Stadium with the 10th annual International Bowl Series, with 16 high school-aged football teams representing nine countries from three continents. This was the fifth consecutive year Arlington hosted the tournament, which included eight U.S. national teams competing against teams from Canada, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
Meanwhile, after the Rangers relocate to nearby Globe Life Field next year, Globe Life Park will undergo significant renovations, making it capable of hosting more baseball, as well as football, soccer and other sports. Perhaps most significantly, Arlington’s new XFL franchise (unnamed as of March 20) will kick off at Globe Life Park in February 2020. The relaunched league promises to expand upon the original XFL, which premiered in 2001.
The Esports Capital of the United States
The city also made national headlines recently with the opening of the $10.5 million Esports Stadium Arlington, a 100,000-square-foot facility dedicated to live competitive gaming that features cutting-edge LED displays that are custom-made for presenting video games to a mass audience.
The inaugural event, the Season 6 Finals of FACEIT’s Esports Championship Series, took place in November 2018, as the world’s top Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams competed for an international title. (FACEIT is a leading independent competitive gaming platform for online multiplayer person-vs-person gamers.)
Fans of esports cheer just as voraciously as soccer fans, according to Wilson, who adds that the inside of the venue looks like a TED Talks stage for videogaming.
“Why esports — why would anybody watch this? That’s the No. 1 thing I get asked most by my colleagues around the country,” he says. “I turn the question around and ask why some people watch golf. They watch because they can follow different competitors and storylines, and they can watch and learn. Plus, there are no clear demographics for esports. You can’t say, ‘This is who’s playing.’ So the opportunities are wide open.”
Arlington’s dedication to esports is indicative of local officials’ commitment to providing unconventional sports experiences not only for the sake of sports tourism but also to further engage the local community. Wilson refers to the strategy as a “holistic approach.”
For example, Esports Stadium Arlington opens its gaming gallery (located outside of the competitive arena) to the public from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. on days when no competitions are scheduled, and the indoor stadium often doubles as a convention center.
“We do baseball, basketball and football all really well, but we’re also getting into more of the nontraditional sports to incorporate even more people and activities,” Wilson continues when discussing other sporting opportunities in Arlington. “Let’s say there’s a 12-year-old kid out there, but baseball or football don’t appeal to that kid. We want to give everybody the opportunity to compete.”
To that end, Arlington has hosted both the US Quidditch Southwest Regional Championships and men’s and women’s tryouts for the United States Australian Football League.
‘A Young Austin Vibe’
As if there weren’t enough sports tourism excitement happening in Arlington, the Arlington Independent School District also is building a multi-purpose sports center in an attempt to elevate opportunities in the community, as well as boost tournament potential.
Opening in August 2020, the $40.7 million AISD Fine Arts Center and Athletic Complex will feature a 1,200-seat arena that will welcome wrestling, basketball, volleyball and gymnastics events, as well as a 900-seat natatorium with a 50-meter competition pool, a diving area with one- and three-meter boards, and a warm-up pool.
“This will give us a really cool championship venue in the heart of our entertainment district, near where the Cowboys and Rangers play,” Wilson says.
All told, he adds, there are more than $5 billion worth of improvements taking place in Arlington right now. Not all of the upgrades are sports-related, but they do play a significant role in boosting economic impact.
Texas Live!, for example, is a $250 million entertainment district backed by the City of Arlington, the Texas Rangers and other stakeholders that opened in August 2018. The 200,000-square-foot center offers dining, indoor and outdoor entertainment facilities, and (opening later this year) a 14-story, 300-room Live! By Loews hotel, which also will feature a 35,000-square-foot Grand Event Center.
Texas Live! is situated between Globe Life Park and AT&T Stadium, and it will be adjacent to Globe Life Field when it opens next year.
These developments, along with a slew of new breweries and thriving retail establishments, have given Arlington what Wilson calls “a young Austin vibe” — a reference to the capital city of Texas that is renowned for its support of independent businesses and a vibrant cultural scene.
Beyond downtown Arlington, sports participants and their families also will find plenty to do. Attractions include Six Flags Over Texas and the adjacent Hurricane Harbor waterpark. Arlington also boasts about 5,500 hotel rooms, many of them with more affordable rates than those in neighboring Dallas and Fort Worth, according to Wilson.
“The longtime misperception about Arlington was that it was slow when there wasn’t a game,” he says. “Now, no matter what you’re looking to do, you can definitely find it here.” SDM