For ESPN’s College GameDay, the road to the national championship begins and ends in Fort Worth.
Beginning Friday and continuing Saturday, the popular college football pregame show will broadcast from Sundance Square Plaza, where workers put the finishing touches on the set Thursday.
Big crowds are expected Saturday morning for the three-hour GameDay, a preview of the Florida State-Oklahoma State game at A&T Stadium in Arlington.
“We’re expecting anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 fans,” Sundance Square spokeswoman Tracy Gilmour said. “We know that the Florida State and Oklahoma State bands and cheerleaders will be here, and we have big contingents coming from UNT and SMU. Everybody wants to come out and show their colors.”
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The party in Sundance Square, which includes taping some segments Friday morning and airing College Football Live that afternoon, is just the beginning of a season when Dallas-Fort Worth finds itself at the center of the college football universe.
Besides the usual offerings from the University of North Texas, SMU and TCU, six college football games will be hosted at AT&T Stadium, including the AT&T Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 and the first College Football Championship Game on Jan. 12.
ESPN will return to Sundance Square during the week leading up to the national title game.
“We kind of dreamed about this for many years,” said Tommy Bain, chairman of the Stadium Events Organizing Committee, which was created by the Dallas Cowboys, the Cotton Bowl and AT&T Stadium to lure the big game to Arlington.
“I would call it a 15-year story,” said Bain, past chairman of the Cotton Bowl. “It really goes back to the end of the Southwest Conference when we no longer had a champion and we did not get selected to be in the BCS bowl mix. We had a vision. We had a desire for the whole North Texas region to get back to the top of college football.”
‘A tremendous lure’
Those plans wouldn’t come to fruition until the Cowboys opened the stadium in Arlington in 2009.
Once the Cotton Bowl moved from Dallas to Arlington, the game quickly became a sellout and now has a waiting list.
Besides this weekend’s game, Arlington will see Texas vs. UCLA, Texas A&M vs. Arkansas and Texas Tech vs. Baylor this year.
The landmark stadium is helping attract those schools.
“It’s a tremendous lure,” Bain said. “These coaches want to expose their kids. They want to bring their kids to the finest facility in the nation and let them experience it — it’s a recruiting tool.”
The College Football Playoff, the organization that will oversee the new four-team playoff and the committee that will pick the teams that get in, has set up its headquarters in Irving.
Bain said having that organization based locally won’t necessarily help bring future championship games to Arlington. But it can’t hurt, he said.
“Well, it helps if we do a good job,” he said. “We want to deliver such a phenomenal experience that they will want it to come back here.”
‘Pray for good weather’
The date for when DFW will bid on a future championship game hasn’t been decided, but Bain expects plenty of competition once cities see how popular the event will be.
“Not every city has the infrastructure and the stadium to host the event, but I think everybody realizes this is going to be the No. 2 television event behind the Super Bowl,” he said.
What is certain is that college football events will continue to come to Arlington each year.
The Cowboys Classic on Labor Day weekend is now an annual tradition. AT&T Stadium will host a College Football Playoff semifinal next season, and Alabama and USC will play in the Cowboys Classic in 2016.
“We may not get five to six games every year, but I believe it will never be less than three games,” Bain said.
But the one thing nobody can control for the national championship is the weather. Everyone hopes it won’t bring a repeat of the ice storm that greeted fans during the week leading up to the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington.
But Bain said he already has a group working on that issue.
“My very first committee was a prayer committee,” Bain said. “And it’s their job to pray for good weather.”