Few cities better represent the Texas ethos of Friday Night Lights – and the big money behind it – than the Dallas suburb of Prosper.
Spectators gather in a 12,000-seat stadium with a two-story press box, scenic digs for college scouts and a 60-foot-wide video scoreboard — a venue that cost about $50 million. These high school football games don’t always fill the seats, but a local hospital chain paid $2.5 million for the naming rights to the stadium anyway. It’s all for the glory of a bunch of teenagers.
When the stadium opened four years ago, it was a state-of-the-art facility that underscored the region’s transformation from farmland to one of the fastest-growing counties in Texas.
But it could soon be the second most expensive stadium in the Prosper Independent School District. On Nov. 7, voters will consider a bond package of as much as $2.8 billion, including $94 million for a new 8,000-seat venue that could be the most expensive in Texas history. It’s part of continued growth in recent years that gave Dallas the fastest population growth of any metro area in the country by 2022, as people flocked there for cheaper housing, lower taxes and rapid job growth.
It leads to the need for more infrastructure, including for sports and education, and to a flood of debt issuance. More than 20 high school football stadiums have opened across the state since 2020, according to a database that tracks projects. School districts in the cities of Katy and McKinney recently built $70 million in complexes, and voters in La Porte, just outside Houston, approved $56 million for the Bulldogs in May.
“The thing about our state is that on any given Friday night you’re going to have about 50 games with over 10,000 people,” said Todd Dodge, a retired coach who won seven high school state championships and saw players like quarterback Sam Ehlinger go on to a career in the NFL. “That absolutely does not happen in other states. That’s the mentality when school districts pass bonds.
The vote will be a test of the goodwill that exists for high school football in Texas, where 30 years ago Buzz Bissinger wrote Friday Night Lights, a chronicle of an Odessa team that spawned a movie and then a hit television series (“Clear Eyes , full hearts, can’t lose!”). But there are signs of growing opposition to the proposals, amid a flood of newcomers from California, rising awareness of traumatic brain injuries caused by sports and growing tension over public education, especially when it comes to social and cultural issues.
Although there have been no polls in Prosper on the proposal, budget conservatives are often wary of the high price tags for stadiums. Education advocates sometimes worry that major athletic projects will detract from academics.
In 2019, the state legislature began requiring bond measures for stadiums and other arenas with more than 1,000 seats to be issued separately from measures for academic buildings. Voters rejected at least $460 million in stadium proposals in the November 2022 and May 2023 elections and approved only about $330 million, according to state data.
“They just haven’t been as successful as they should be,” said Ryan Gregory, managing partner in Houston at PBK, an architectural firm that specializes in school projects. He blames the lack of support partly on newcomers from other parts of the country, who may not have grown up with Texas football and have a different view of the need for the facilities.
Small town feeling
There are plenty of newcomers in Prosper. According to Census Bureau data, the population increased by 25% between April 2020 and July 2022. Twenty years ago the city didn’t even have a supermarket. Now there are almost 40,000 people and a median household income of about $159,000.
Prosper ISD, which includes parts of neighboring suburbs, enrolled 3,400 new students last year. In 2002, the school had 1,000 students and three campuses. In 2023 it will have 28,400 students and 25 campuses.
“Prosper, and North Texas as a whole, is modern Rome,” said Bill Beavers, chairman of the school board.
Texans have always loved football, but it wasn’t always so expensive. The venue that provided the backdrop for Friday Night Lights, Odessa’s 18,000-seat Ratliff Stadium, was built in 1982 for $5.6 million, or about $18 million in today’s dollars. Despite its relative age, it still ranks among the best high school football stadiums.
To keep up with the competition, it may soon get a facelift. In November, voters will consider an $8 million bond measure for upgrades.
Robert McSpadden, who runs a popular Texas Football website where he is known as Texas Bob, says tearing up turf and installing artificial turf is one of the hottest recent trends, along with video boards that can show instant replays.
McSpadden is also tracking stadiums in other states — there’s Mitchell Stadium in West Virginia, built in 1936 and ranked as one of the best in the country, and Union Tuttle Stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which will undergo a $36 million renovation in 2021 got. he says the reverence for high school football in Texas — and the willingness to spend money on it — is just different.
“The culture is not the same in other states,” he said.
In Sherman, a city of 45,000 about 70 miles north of Dallas, voters recently approved a $47 million bond measure for a new stadium. Economic growth driven by the semiconductor industry – GlobiTech Inc. was founded there and Texas Instruments Inc. is building new factories – has generated strong revenues, meaning there will be no tax increase tied to the bonds.
“A lot of times these stadiums take a big hit,” said Sherman ISD Superintendent Tyson Bennett. “They see it as Friday Night Lights. There are so many other student organizations that benefit from this.”
In addition to football, stadiums also provide a showcase for the marching band, drill team and homecoming king and queen. Science club students can raise money on game days by hooking up a Crock-Pot and selling Frito pies.
The fever for school districts to build expensive stadiums and boast the fanciest facilities seemed to have its origins in the Dallas suburbs with the Carroll school district, said Alan Hargis, 67, who recently attended a game to cheer on his son, the defensive midfielder, to support. coordinator for the Allen High School football team. Carroll’s Dragon Stadium in Southlake was built in 2001 for less than $20 million.
“That caused a shock at the time,” says Hargis.
In Prosper, skeptics point out that if the era of super-charged population growth passes, existing taxpayers will be blamed for the big bond measures, which will be paid out over decades.
“Do I believe in a $100 million stadium? Absolutely not,” said Kyle Sims, 58, a retiree who lives in McKinney. “When I played football, I played on a grass field with metal bleachers and I didn’t have all the big TVs and stuff.”
School officials say the bond package simply reflects the region’s growth and the impact of inflation, which has made construction more expensive. They point out that on Friday evening there could be about 400 students in the stadium who participate in related activities, but are not football players. And the new stadium would have an eight-lane track and also host special events.
Amy Gorgueiro, who served on a planning committee for the bond package, said that as a Republican she hates debt but recognizes that the bond package is the only way to finance new school buildings. Her daughter performed at the drill team’s halftime show before graduating last year.
“I see people doubting the need for a new stadium, I understand that,” Gorgueiro said. “But the new stadium will be another option for our children to learn and grow because it will not only be used for football.”
–With assistance from Thomas Black and David Wethe.
Get the latest sports news from Boston
Get updates on your favorite Boston teams, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.