Beyond the allure and attraction of the game of football, what goes into evolving a state’s college bowl event to help it become a beloved tradition? A view into the inner workings of Arizona’s annual Fiesta Bowl and Fiesta Bowl Parade offers some answers to that question.
In 1971, a group of nine prominent business and community leaders—all of whom agreed that Arizona could benefit from having its own college bowl game—founded the Fiesta Bowl. Later dubbing themselves the “Yellow Jacket Committee” and overseeing the Bowl’s development, their ranks included such local luminaries as Bill Shover, Glenn Hawkins and Karl Eller.
What was fascinating to watch over the next several years was the Bowl’s rapid ascension—how it rose from a mid-tier, postseason college-football playoff game to become a member of the elite, four-member Bowl Championship Series (BCS), hosting its annual game and a national championship playoff every four years. In the process, it went well beyond the status quo for how college bowl games progress through the ranks.
For many reasons, the Fiesta Bowl became a model for aspiring college football bowl candidates, showing them how to build a game and the vast, supporting infrastructure surrounding it.
The early years
As might be expected, the process of establishing a major college bowl game in the state wasn’t without its challenges. In fact, behind the scenes of the early negotiations, some of the current Yellow Jacket Committee members freely admit there were a fair share of activity and challenges.
As former Fiesta Bowl executive director Bruce Skinner noted in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1989, “A lot of bowls are entrenched in tradition, mired in tradition. We were the new kid on the block that wasn’t held back by tradition. We’ve been willing to take risks. We’re innovative. We’ve been on the cutting edge.”
Although the tradition Skinner spoke of has become a major component of the Fiesta Bowl brand, it hasn’t come at the expense of losing the risk-taking and cutting-edge spirit that was part and parcel of the Fiesta Bowl’s rise.
The Fiesta Bowl really began to make a name for itself in the 1980s when, freed from conference affiliations, its organizers were able to arrange attractive bowl matchups between major conference opponents. One of the most significant breakthroughs came in 1986, when the Fiesta Bowl convinced Miami and Penn State—then No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in conference play—to face each other in a national championship game. That nail-biting matchup set and, for many years, held the record for the most-watched college football game of all time.
In the 1990s, the Fiesta Bowl hosted the first BCS national championship game, and followed it up with three more. For the 2006 season, the Bowl moved from its former venue at Arizona State University in Tempe to the new University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, and staged the first BCS title game in the double-host format.
A thriving sense of purpose
Today, the Fiesta Bowl organization—which also oversees the Cactus Bowl and several other annual sporting events—operates like a well-oiled machine. Two years ago, the Bowl’s board of directors hired Mike Nealy to helm a team of 30 consummate professionals at the Fiesta Bowl’s Scottsdale offices.
A longtime sports management executive with a flair for teambuilding, Nealy helped steer the Bowl’s course through a number of tricky structural changes in college football bowl play. At the same time, he focused his efforts on creating a strong new culture in the Fiesta Bowl organization itself, with a renewed emphasis on community involvement that occurred on a number of different fronts.
“We have a great team here,” Nealy notes with pride. “A new team of strong people who are very good at what they do. But the one thing they all share in common is a sense of purpose—and that purpose is one of giving back to the community. Sure, we’re an event company that puts on a great football game and other attractions, but the driving force of what we’re doing is all about the good of the community. At the end of the day, the most successful we can be is when we can say we’ve given more back to the community.”
That principle of giving has the numbers to prove itself. Last year, the Fiesta Bowl made $1.5 million in charitable contributions within the state and, this year, it’s on track to donate $2 million. One of the many beneficiaries of its giving is the Boys & Girls Club of Tucson. Elizabeth Bollinger, an executive with the club, says her organization relies on the Fiesta Bowl’s generosity each year.
“We cannot begin to express our appreciation,” she says. “They [Fiesta Bowl Charities] understand that the kids come first, and that has always been their focus. Going above and beyond to bring mascots, food and other items for the kids has made this such a powerful partnership that we’ll forever cherish.”
Another key ingredient of the Fiesta Bowl’s popularity in Arizona is its annual parade. Each year, 100,000-plus spectators crowd the sidewalks along the Fiesta Bowl Parade’s 2-mile route through central Phoenix. This is the third year National Bank of Arizona has been the title sponsor of the Fiesta Bowl Parade, which has become one of the most visible symbols of spirit, fun, excitement and entertainment for families and visitors.
This time-honored Valley tradition, Arizona’s largest single-day spectator event, features a dazzling array of colorful floats and helium balloons, marching bands and horseback units. The parade also helps integrate the community into the workings of the Fiesta Bowl, giving local residents a chance to get involved. Through the years, just as they have for the Fiesta Bowl game itself, thousands of local volunteers have served the parade as marshals, balloon handlers, stagers, guest services workers, drivers and more.
Shannon Williams, chief marketing officer for the Fiesta Bowl organization, elaborates on Nealy’s summation of the Fiesta Bowl’s commitment to giving back to the community.
“It’s something that’s a part of the fabric of everyone who works here. Personally, as a fourth-generation Arizonan, it’s something that’s vitally important to me,” she says.
The spirit of charity—of giving—within the Fiesta Bowl organization goes much farther than the very public gesture of making monetary donations in the community. Jose Moreno, the Fiesta Bowl’s director of community relations and charitable giving, is in charge of all the organization’s charitable outreach into the community, including that of its sizable foundation.
“As a whole, we’re a philanthropic organization, and it’s my job to relay that message to the community,” he says. As Moreno explains, however, it’s also a part of the organization’s vision and charter that staff members give of their own time and efforts. “We’re a very volunteer-driven organization,” he says. “From a volunteer standpoint, we had over 16,500 volunteer hours last year.”
Despite the team’s small size, each month, as a group, they go out into the community to serve a wide array of causes, from hosting groups of single moms to lunch, to renting out movie theaters for cancer-stricken children, to rolling up their sleeves to build children’s playgrounds.
“This past year, we fed over 25,000 kids in need through our food programs. We also support programs combatting children’s cancer, Fiesta Bowl Charities kitchens in various Arizona communities, and many other programs,” Moreno proudly says.
Fiesta Bowl 46
With the 46th annual Fiesta Bowl set for Dec. 31, the Fiesta Bowl organization has been steadily picking up its work pace, setting into motion myriad preliminary activities that need to be operational before the game can actually begin. With an event this size, a mind-boggling array of details needs to be coordinated before the starter’s whistle can signal the initial kickoff. There’s some comfort in realizing that it’s the work of a highly dedicated team and countless local volunteers who, year-after-year, steer it all to its happy conclusion.
“If you look at the big picture, we all want Arizona to be a better place to live, work and play,” Williams says about her organization’s charitable works. “And tying in the celebration of a college bowl game certainly builds excitement. All those years ago, planting the seeds of the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona really allowed our state to exist on a national stage—as a great place for sports—and to demonstrate that we can, in fact, organize and hold high-caliber sporting events.”
Story by Leigh Farr
Photo by Lipczynski