The Fiesta Bowl, BCS, and Sports in General

by francine Hardaway on March 31, 2011

I didn’t even have to read the fine investigative reporting in the Arizona Republic to know that everything in it was true. I remember when the Fiesta Bowl started — as a way to draw attention and tourists to Phoenix in 1971. ASU thought it should have gotten bowl bids that it didn’t get, and the local boosters decided to make a bowl of their own. Originally played in Tempe, at the ASU Sun Devil Stadium, it became popular quickly, and sooner or later the surrounding cities vied for ways to attract a share of the economic impact.

Because it was born of affiliations with Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, it attracted a board of prominent local residents (the real estate magnates, car dealers) , and other state glitterati. The corporate leaders were on that board, and it soon became so prestigious that it was difficult for normal people to find a place to volunteer. The men were business leaders, the women the Junior League and the country club set. I never became associated with Fiesta Bowl activities, because I fancied myself a serious business owner, and the women’s roles were totally subservient — the equivalent of a middle-aged pom and cheer line.

Of course there was no governance. No one went on that board to govern: they went on to enhance their own reputations and later on, to build their own resumes as they cycled through Phoenix on the way to bigger and better corporate jobs. And to help the Fiesta Bowl bring more tourists into town who could fall in love with Arizona in January and buy homes in the state. The Fiesta Bowl had little to do with sports after its founding; it was an economic development engine and still is.

John Junker grew up with the Fiesta Bowl. I can’t remember who the first CEO was, but Junker was his assistant, and just got promoted to the CEO role. By that time, the Fiesta Bowl was such an inbred group that I’m sure no one ever questioned either his qualifications or his sense of entitlement. And because the Board was nothing but a big frat party anyway, I’m sure it doesn’t make much difference that it made gray-area political contributions, gave its executives $800,000 a year salaries, and partied with the big boys. Junker did nothing that was “abnormal” for the culture he operated in. That’s the culture of Arizona anyway; old cronies doing each other favors and giving each other business opportunities in the country club locker rooms, disguised as not-for-profit volunteerism.

I’ll bet if they looked underneath the spreadsheets of any other bowl game, they’d find similar shenanigans. This is the new “normal” for sports, both college and professional (is there any difference anymore?), where so much money is now involved. This morning I heard the Giants (baseball) and the Dodgers were both in trouble because one owner-family was getting a divorce and the pesky wife was found to own part of the team and the other owner-family is being sued by Bernie Madoff’s trustee. Now they won’t have the money to “buy” the best players. Oh, woe is me.

Bread and circuses. We still have 11% unemployment in some states, and floundering state governments. We have enormous unsolved problems in immigration, health care, entitlements, climate change — oh, and three, maybe more to come, wars. But everyone in Arizona is worrying that we will lose the Fiesta Bowl. (If I were Frito-Lay, I’d be tearing up my check yesterday. Controversy does not help a brand.)

But let’s throw more money into entertaining ourselves and ruining the lives of young men who play ball.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Phillip Blackerby April 5, 2011 at 10:56 pm

The Ivy League does not allow athletic scholarships. Coaches still recruit, but players still have to get past the admissions committee and figure out how to pay the $200K+ 4-year cost (though one school, Brown, couples need-blind admissions with a guarantee to help all accepted students pay). Student-athletes can take “gut” courses, but not enough to make a major. Some profs give jocks some slack, but they still have to maintain a passing GPA to keep playing. Failure means the loss of both football and a great education. The teams are competitive and entertaining. Football ticket sales still make money for the schools, and pay for other men’s and women’s sports, but the big money is absent. The focus is still on education. Why isn’t this approach a model for all schools?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: