Some of the most compelling evidence of the lengths college football fans will go to see their team in a big bowl game was submitted earlier this month in — fittingly — a courtroom in Birmingham, Ala.
A federal judge delayed the start of a trial so that one of the lawyers, an ardent Auburn fan, could travel to Glendale for the Tigers’ clash against Oregon in the Bowl Championship Series title game on Jan. 10. In his motion, attorney Michael Mulvaney wrote that “this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … it is hard to imagine this ever happening again.”
Thousands of fans like Mulvaney will pour into the Valley in the days before Auburn and Oregon play for No. 1. However, this year, that process will play out three times over, as Tempe hosts the Insight Bowl between Iowa and Missouri on Tuesday, and Glendale the Fiesta Bowl between Connecticut and Oklahoma on Saturday.
Football tourists with money to spend and needing a place to stay, food and drink to consume and stuff to do. It all adds up to what bowl organizers and East Valley businesses hope will be an economic touchdown.
“When you look at this set of bowl games,” said John Eaton, clinical associate professor at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, “I think you have a much better Insight Bowl matchup, a Fiesta Bowl matchup that isn’t as exciting, and the BCS title game that will generate interest and bring in a lot of people from outside the town.”
When the Valley last hosted three bowl games — in 2006-07 — the Carey School of Business estimated an overall economic impact of $401.7 million, including $171.5 million for the BCS championship game between Florida and Ohio State. Fiesta Bowl chairman Duane Woods said that he is hopeful that number can be topped.
“We could see three times the stadium size, based on the demand we’ve had for the championship game,” said Woods, who added that the Fiesta Bowl is hoping to add about 1,300 seats to University of Phoenix Stadium (capacity 73,000) for the BCS title game.
The Carey School of Business has just begun the economic numbers crunching on this year’s games and should announce a dollar figure during the spring.
Michael Martin, executive vice president of the Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau, said retailers in the city are especially excited about the upgraded Insight Bowl pairing. The Insight moved up the bowl pecking order among the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences, enabling it to select 12th-ranked Missouri and Iowa, a program that traditionally travels well to bowl destinations.
Insight Bowl officials are hoping for a record crowd in excess of 50,000 at Sun Devil Stadium. Tempe is the site of the Mill Avenue block party on New Year’s Eve, one of the most popular Fiesta Bowl events. “We think we’ll see a higher turnout of fans,” Martin said. “That indicates that it’s going to be a more positive economic impact on Tempe.”
When bowls select teams, a school’s impact on local business plays as big a role — if not bigger — as on-field achievement. LaVell Edwards, a former Brigham Young coach, frequently told a joke about why his annually-successful Cougars were often not in high demand from bowls: “Our fans would come with a copy of the Ten Commandments in one hand and a $100 bill in the other — and break neither.”
Rick Catlett, executive director of the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., recently told a Florida TV station: “Our team selection is based on three criteria: Heads in beds, fannies in seats and big TV ratings.”
Woods would not go that far, but he said that rewarding a school’s football achievement and economic impact is a delicate balance.
“We always try to make the right decision based on rankings and how teams perform for their conferences,” Woods said. “Fortunately for us, we’ve developed a reputation as a bowl people want to come to. I think the schools know when they commit to coming how important it is to get their fan base out here.”
The BCS title game is for all of college football’s marbles. It sells itself.
The Fiesta Bowl will be a bigger challenge. Big 12 champion Oklahoma is visiting for the third time in five years, and Connecticut is viewed as unattractive; it earned an invitation only because it automatically qualified as Big East Conference champion.
And the economy remains a challenge for the bowl business. While Eaton said that sports is not recession-proof, if fans — like a lawyer in Alabama — really want to attend a big game they will find a way to make it happen.
“When the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl (in 2009), I and a lot of other people were in no position financially to go,” Eaton said. “But I went because it could be another 50 years before it happens again. I think that’s a major part of the mentality of die-hard college sports fans: You never know when you’ll get back.”