Fans attend the Truly Hard Seltzer NHL Pregame before the Winter Classic in Dallas on New Year’s Day. (Getty Images)

Event on state fair midway gives crowds more food options, relieves crowding in Cotton Bowl

If there were any doubts about whether Texas could pull off the annual outdoor Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, those concerns dissipated on New Year’s Day when the Cotton Bowl hosted 85,630 to watch the Dallas Stars take on the Nashville Predators, the second-largest crowd in the event’s 12-year history. 

While every Winter Classic brings with it a unique perspective, the Cotton Bowl provided an opportunity for the NHL to play up both the venue’s location in the heart of 277-acre Fair Park, home of the State Fair of Texas, and the event’s first foray into Texas. 

The puck dropped just after 1 p.m. local time, but gates to the Truly Hard Seltzer NHL PreGame in the fair’s midway area outside the stadium opened at 9 a.m. and included free fair rides, stages for the teams to conduct interviews and plenty of “unique Texas things,” said Peter Sullivan, Spectra’s general manager at Fair Park. 

“I kinda doubt they are going to have pig races in Minnesota next year,” he said. “We had mutton busting, trick roping, mechanical bulls, line dancing. There was a little Texas kitsch at the event, but it was really unique to us here and I think it went over really well. I think as with most Winter Classics, people wonder how it is going to look and how in God’s name are they going to do it, but we were very happy and excited.” 

The fan fest, title sponsored by the Boston Beer Co.-owned brand that became the league’s official hard seltzer in a deal that started with the current season, was the largest pregame event at an NHL event, the league said, with a record 17 sponsors activating around it.

Rain four days before the game wreaked havoc for the NHL’s ice-making crew, but once the precipitation swept out it didn’t return, and the temperature at gametime under gray skies was 54 degrees. 

Opening up the midway also allowed Spectra to open two plaza areas, both with ample food and beverage options. With the perimeter of the NHL’s ticketed event extended to include the midway, fans were able to come in and out of the Cotton Bowl both pregame and during the game, allowing for an ease of flow inside the stadium during the event and a more fluid way for fans to grab food and beverages. The fan fest was shut down during the game but did reopen afterward and operated until about 8 p.m.

“It makes it easier for food and beverage to service the clientele,” Sullivan said. “Fans could go into the stadium at 11, buy a beer and take a picture and then go back out to the fan fest. Our concourse is a fair amount smaller because of its age, so it allowed a little more room and space and gave more food and beverage opportunities.” 

From the outset, Jay Satenspiel, senior vice president for the central region for Spectra Food Services and Hospitality, said the company homed in on Texas flair to make this Winter Classic stand out from the rest, both inside and outside the venue. Spectra connected with 10 local vendors to bring their specialties to the Cotton Bowl, enhancing both the types of items available and the variety within items already on hand compared.  

“They all did a great job,” he said. They included an artisanal corn dog maker serving loaded fries and a special funnel cake, a Cuban food truck, a specialty tent grilling brats and sausages on site, a pizza booth and a specialty mac and cheese purveyor with six varieties, including variations with crawfish or pulled pork. “Fans went ballistic,” Satenspiel said. Rudy’s, a Texas barbecue mainstay, also made an appearance. Satenspiel said the entire effort was to bring a Texas style of food and flair to the game and “people loved it.” 

While Spectra said they were still working through the final per cap numbers, Satenspiel did note that the Winter Classic saw about a 15 percent rise in per caps versus the annual Texas-Oklahoma football game. Spectra, which took over operations at Fair Park at the beginning of 2019, is master concessionaire for the complex, working with longtime food service provider the Ed Campbell Co. 

Spectra would not provide the per cap for the 2019 OU-Texas game. In 2018, the Ed Campbell Co. set a record $9 per cap for food and drink, but that was without selling beer at concession stands, which began in 2019.

For merchandise, the NHL said this year’s Winter Classic marked the best ever in gross revenue for game-day concession merchandise sales, topping Fenway Park’s 2010 event and Michigan Stadium’s 2014 event. It did not reveal total revenue numbers. 

Fan orders of merchandise via the NHL Fan Access App set a record for merchandise partner Fanatics for any event. An NHL spokesperson said that Fanatics’ giving fans the opportunity to pre-order merchandise via the app and pick it up at the on-site store was a benefit. 

Satenspiel said Spectra had a plan for slightly cooler weather than the OU-Texas game gets, which included not only having ample beer on hand and warm food options but also setting up a compound for boiling water and making and distributing hot chocolate to stands throughout the concourse. 

The 92,500 fans who come to the Texas-Oklahoma game do so in the midst of the State Fair of Texas, which welcomes an additional 100,000 visitors on the same site at the same time as the game. “That is an 8,000-pound gorilla,” Sullivan said. So, in comparison, the Winter Classic was a much easier major event to handle and allowed organizers to deliver on creating an environment that drew fans early and kept them late. 

The only hiccup came with having so many new visitors to the stadium and having three times as many fans enter through the stadium’s iconic Gate A and stop on the main steps to take a picture of the stadium and Cotton Bowl sign. That practice clogged entry there, but Sullivan said things still went fairly smoothly overall and people had ample time to get to their seats, especially with musical acts and the national anthem all starting roughly 30 minutes before the game. 

Whether the largely pro-Dallas crowd or the 25,000 fans that the NHL estimated to have traveled from Nashville, Satenspiel said everyone got what Spectra was hoping for: “A good ole Texas-sized welcome.”