How Frisco turned itself into Sports City USA

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If you’re gonna play in Texas . . .

The song is by country legends Alabama. The next line (and the rest of the title) is “you gotta have a fiddle in the band.” But at some point over the past twelve years, the 1984 hit has become a college football playoff anthem—without having anything to do with Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide, or the College Football Playoff.

Rather, it’s the soundtrack to an annual December scene in the world of FCS (Football Championship Series) football, at stadiums in places like Harrisonburg, Virginia (the home of James Madison University); Bozeman, Montana (Montana State); and, most of all, Fargo, North Dakota (North Dakota State). What fans and players in those cities dream of every season is a trip to Texas—specifically, a Texas exurb thirty miles north of Dallas.

In the NFL, athletes like Troy Aikman and Tom Brady get paid to say “I’m going to Disney World” because they won a Super Bowl. In FCS, hearing “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” means you made it to the championship game in Frisco, where it’s been played since 2010.

When Montana State sealed its December 18 win over South Dakota State in the FCS semifinals, giving the Bobcats their first trip to the title game since 1984, there it was: “If you’re gonna play in Texas . . .”

In Fargo, where the tradition began, North Dakota State has been so dominant that its officials can sometimes drop the needle long before the semifinal match has finished. NDSU has made and won the FCS championship so many times—eight of the last ten years—that fans inside the Fargodome know every word to the song. Some have made up new lyrics, like “If you’re gonna play in Texas/you gotta have the Bison in the game.” Even last year’s champion, Sam Houston State, played the song in Huntsville after its semifinal win over NDSU, most likely to troll their opponents.

The FCS championship game is just one part of the sports landscape in Frisco, which calls itself “Sports City, USA.” Visit Frisco, the city’s tourist office, first came up with the marketing designation in 2017, but Frisco has been built on sports for basically as long as it has been a city. Visit Frisco itself started in 2003, which is also when the junior hockey team Texas Tornado and the minor-league baseball Frisco Rough Riders (the Texas Rangers’ AA affiliate) started playing there. That’s also when the Dallas Stars made Frisco home of the NHL franchise’s practice facility and front office operations. Two years later, the MLS team FC Dallas (formerly the Dallas Burn) opened its new home pitch, Toyota Stadium, in Frisco. And in 2016, the Dallas Cowboys came to town with “The Star,” which is part indoor stadium (capable of seating 12,000 people), part NFL practice facility, part team offices, and 100 percent tourist attraction. Along the way, Frisco’s population grew from 33,714 in the 2000 census to 207,748 in 2020.

“Sports is kind of a thread that’s woven through every part of what our city is,” says Josh Dill, Visit Frisco’s director of sports and events. “In a lot of other cities, people like their sports. But it’s not like a pillar of the community.”

Frisco has the feel of both a theme park and a corporate office park, where the attractions as well as the businesses are mostly devoted to sports. The Southland Conference, which until this season was the state’s leading FCS and mid-major basketball conference, moved its headquarters there from Plano in 2006. (Various waves of conference realignment have disrupted the pecking order among Texas’s smaller Division I sports programs.)

“We knew it was a sports-centric community that was on the move, and growing,” says Southland commissioner Tom Burnett. “And pretty adamant about sports as a quality-of-life issue.”

Back then, Burnett had to travel to Chattanooga, Tennessee, most years to attend the FCS championship game. But not long after settling in Frisco, he and his son attended an MLS Cup game at Toyota Stadium (then called Pizza Hut Park) and realized he was sitting in a 20,500-capacity venue that was perfect for FCS crowds. The annual championship game had been held on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s home field since 1997, but when the NCAA began accepting bids for hosting rights to the event, the Southland (which serves as the official host), Visit Frisco (representing the city), and FC Dallas (which runs the stadium) teamed up on a pitch. The game has been in Texas since 2010, with several nearly automatic contract renewals (it is currently locked into Frisco until at least 2026).

Burnett remembers having to explain during those first meetings that Frisco wasn’t San Francisco. But Dill, who joined Visit Frisco in 2016 after holding similar jobs in Fort Worth and Lubbock, has found that the spiel is no longer necessary.

Now team and league executives meeting with Visit Frisco staff say, “‘No, no, no. We know exactly what you’re from,’” notes Dill. “If you’re a sports enthusiast, you’ve heard of Frisco, and know what’s going on there, at least a little bit.” Sports fans might even know Frisco better than the city where the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers actually play—much to the irritation of the residents and leaders of Arlington, their city is often misidentified as Dallas.

Since 2017, Toyota Stadium has also had its own FBS bowl game, the Frisco Bowl, which most recently featured December’s tilt between the University of Texas at San Antonio and San Diego State. The venue has also stepped in to host unexpected bowl games (because of COVID-19 cancellations and schedule changes) in each of the past two seasons—a relocated New Mexico Bowl between Hawaii and the University of Houston, followed by this year’s completely improvised Frisco Football Classic with Miami (Ohio) and North Texas.

FC Dallas is owned by Dan and Clark Hunt, whose family also owns the Kansas City Chiefs; their father Lamar, of course, started the Chiefs as the Dallas Texans in the American Football League, played football at SMU, and was a lifetime fixture at the Cotton Bowl (Hunt died of prostate cancer in 2006).

“My father was such a gigantic fan of college football, and he loved having those games that are in different venues,” Dan Hunt says. “He was so proud to have college football games at Arrowhead [in Kansas City] regularly, and he challenged both me and my brother Clark with bringing more college football to Toyota Stadium.”

With the FCS championship, Frisco aspires to run the event a bit like a bowl game, with a week of fanfare and promotion, and a bit like the baseball College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. A tradition has taken hold in Frisco to give cowboy hats to all the players in the title game, though the players on this year’s Montana State team already have their own (they do hail from the state where Yellowstone takes place, after all).

Along the way, Frisco has also turned into a home field for one team.College football fans in places like Huntsville or Nacogdoches are no less passionate about the sport than fans in College Station or Lubbock—they are just fewer in number, and their schools have fewer scholarship players, smaller budgets, and more of a regional focus. But North Dakota State is practically an FBS team; or, at least, “the Alabama of FCS.” It doesn’t have to compete with any in-state FBS programs for fans, money, or recruits, and it would probably have nine championships out of ten if last season hadn’t been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, which meant star quarterback Trey Lance was already headed to the NFL when the Bison made their playoff run (he was drafted third overall by the San Francisco 49ers). The previous season, when Lance led the Bison to a win over James Madison in the FCS championship game, he became the third North Dakota State quarterback—after Carson Wentz and Easton Stick—to come through Frisco with the Bison en route to the NFL.

Most seasons, North Dakota State fans buy tickets for the title game long before the matchup is set, confident their team will be there. Even more fans make the trip, despite not having tickets. And many come by car. The school has its own Bison Tracker app for fans to plot supporters’ journey south from Fargo, and both Frisco and Texas are featured prominently in Bison merch.

Fans also wave the Texas flag at North Dakota State home games, and at least one act of desecration has already occurred: the Lone Star with an NDSU green-colored outline of Texas and the Bison logo superimposed over it.

North Dakotans may actually know Frisco better than do most folks from North Texas. According to Mike McFeely of the ForumFargo’s daily newspaper, Bison supporters are practically regulars at the Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ next door to Toyota Stadium, as well as at “go-to spots in Frisco and neighboring Plano like Scruffy Duffies, Twin Peaks, Ringo’s, Wild Pitch, and Tight Ends.” McFeely and NDSU fans have witnessed Frisco’s boom up close, with the unique perspective of those who visit (mostly) just once a year. 

“In January 2012, when NDSU made its first trip to the title game here, you could look from the stadium east toward original Frisco, an old agriculture and railroad town, and see open space,” McFeely wrote. “Now it’s suburban sprawl. There’s a Holiday Inn Express, a Candlewood Suites, a rambling four-story brick apartment complex.

“They call it ‘Fargo South’ for a reason,” says the Southland Conference’s Burnett. “Honestly, I’m not sure there are many people left in Fargo, when we play this game here. It’s like spring break: everyone comes, and they kind of show everybody, this is how you tailgate. This is how you support your team. This is how you travel.”

Saturday’s championship game will be a little different this year because of COVID, as the Forum’s Matt Henson reported. But even the coldest January day in North Texas is still basically Cancún for North Dakotans. Temperatures are expected to get as low as -19 in Fargo this weekend, while Saturday’s predicted temperature in Frisco is a balmy 61. Time will tell if the Bison will add a ninth title to the program’s trophy case, but either way, the weekend is another win for Sports City USA.

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