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In Texas, Winning Is the Name of the Game

August 10, 1986|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

Dallas did, and are the folks there glad they did. Basketball people in that city say events like the Final Four go a long way to raise the consciousness of sports fans. They see basketball played at a high level and want to see more.

Dallas, though, has always embraced basketball. The Mavericks were the first NBA team to make money in their first season of operation. They averaged 7,789 fans a game then, much to the astonishment of those who predicted that professional basketball would be as welcome to the football crowd as the arrival of sheep were to cattle ranchers.

"There was no question that the city was ready," said Kevin Sullivan, director of media relations for the Mavericks. "We have seen an increase in interest, mainly from people who moved here from the East, the transplanted Knick and Celtic fans. By the time they got here in the late '70s, it was too late to claim Cowboy fanhood. They couldn't get season tickets even if they wanted to. So we filled the void for them."

Television, though, created the void. With cable sports channels, Texans were, for the first time, able to watch basketball played in Boston and New York and Detroit, before the state had its own teams.

"We see basketball game after basketball game," said Bill Little, sports information director at the University of Texas. "There are more Celtic fans in Austin than you'll find Rocket fans.

"When Abe Lemmons was coaching basketball here, it became the thing to do to watch basketball. Texas fans will come to see what is winning. If Texas is winning, they'll come to see the Texas Relays or Texas swimming. Football is king, but it's more balanced than ever."

Baseball has been in Texas longer than basketball, but that means it has also been second to football longer. One theory about baseball is that kids in Texas like to be out of doors, hence baseball over basketball. But in the fall, when the end of baseball season overlaps with the start of football, baseball players jump ship to football.

"The history of schoolboy football in Texas is so long and so colorful that football in the small West Texas towns is the major event of the year," Mike Stone, president of the Texas Rangers, said. "I don't think baseball will ever compete with that."

Stone, too, counts his fans as transplants from other regions.

"I do think baseball is gaining some popularity in the state," he said. "When we are playing the Tigers, I think there are more Detroit fans in the stands than for the Rangers. I think a lot of that is the result of the significant infusion of people from the Midwest into the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. This has been in the last three to four years. "

The growth has been apparent. The Rangers experienced a 31% increase in attendance last season, the second-highest increase in the American League. Another significant factor is that the Rangers are winning. At the moment, the team from Arlington is right behind the Angels in the American League West. The Houston Astros hold a solid lead in the National League West.

"There is a certain fickleness if you don't produce wins," Stone said. "But I think a large part of it has to do with the success of the Cowboys. It's almost as if: 'You don't win in Texas, you're nothing.' You know, you have kids in Boston who will go to Red Sox games no matter what. But more and more people are watching baseball here, and we have more knowledgeable fans.

"To be perfectly honest, I don't think the Rangers have earned a lot of fan expectation in the 14 years we have been here. In the fall, when football exhibition games start, we haven't been in the race. There are plenty of fans to go around. We don't really view ourselves as being in competition with the Dallas Cowboys."

Good thing, because the Cowboys are far and away the No. 1 sports draw in the state. No one wants to say they are in competition with the Cowboys. Implicit in such an admission is, "We are No. 2, distantly."

Sullivan of the Mavericks said everyone in Dallas knows that Tuesday is the day Cowboy Coach Tom Landry has his media luncheon. "I could schedule a press conference the same day, but why would I?" he said. "No one would be there. They'd all be at the Cowboys' luncheon."

In the colleges, what were once football factories have become multi-sport factories. The University of Texas is now producing some of the most successful all-around sports teams in the nation. Still, football has not suffered. Far from it. In fact, it has been the success of football as an income-producing sport that has bankrolled the rest.

It's the same at other schools. "Football pays our way," Larry Hays, baseball coach at Texas Tech, said. "We don't feel like we are in competition with them--we all work together. If football does well, it seems like the total program does better. Out in West Texas, we talk about baseball and football going hand in hand."

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