Arizona enjoying three-year run as country’s sports mecca

It’s impossible to watch a nationally televised sporting event played in Arizona without scenic shots of a sunset behind a saguaro or the Grand Canyon in the middle of the day. The shots, ready-made for television, almost become cliché, but every big game has them.

And big games keep coming back.

“This is the Valley of great competition and great events,” said Ray Anderson, Arizona State University’s athletic director.

After what happened this year and what is scheduled for the next two, it’s hard to disagree.

Arizona is in the midst of a three-year stretch of hosting arguably the three biggest American sporting events: Super Bowl XLIX this past February, the College Football Playoff National Championship in 2016 and the Final Four in 2017. All the games will be at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

Brad Wright, co-chair of the Arizona Organizing Committee, the organization hosting the College Football Playoff National Championship, said bringing these games to Arizona is a no-brainer.

“We really get a chance to host world-class events on a national and international stage and really showcase the state,” Wright said. “And I think we get the opportunity to do that because we’re a world-class destination. We have world-class infrastructure, and we do a great job throwing a party and hosting these things.”

The timing of having the games back-to-back-to-back was either coincidental or very well thought out, depending on your point of view. The NFL awarded Arizona Super Bowl XLIX in 2011. The Arizona Organizing Committee put in its bid for the college football game in 2010. The Final Four announced in late 2014 that it would be coming to the Valley.

Arizona-based organizers of both collegiate events say it was not planned to have them fall one after the other.

Super Bowl Central

The NFL decorated Phoenix with all kinds of Super Bowl memorabilia, including the life-size XLIX in downtown Phoenix. (Photo by Meghan Kuebler)

But it worked out that way. Arizona officials have worked hard to bring these games to town regardless of the year, and that includes Andrew Bagnato, a partner at Bagnato Pflipsen Communications, a local public relations firm. Bagnato, who wrote the bid to bring the 2017 Final Four, said Arizona’s history of hosting big events in the past has led to the three-year boom.

“When you have one and show that you can do it right, then it raises your profile with all the other events,” Bagnato said. “I think what happens is there gets to be a kind of critical mass where people say, ‘OK, we know what we’re going to get when we come to Phoenix.’”

In 1997, the NCAA mandated all Final Fours be played at domed stadiums with a capacity of at least 40,000. The last time an arena hosted a Final Four was in 1996, part of the reason the West has not seen the tournament since Seattle hosted in 1995.

JoAn Scott, managing director of men’s basketball championships, said while the western part of the country has large venues that would otherwise be suitable, like the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles and Century Link Field in Seattle, none has a roof. University of Phoenix Stadium does, a big reason why it won the bid.

“We need the big stadium,” Scott said. “We’ve been very fortunate it’s been at capacity every year.”

Scott said the NCAA has what she called a “portable seating system” which overlays the field and expands capacity. For the 2015 national championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, 71,149 people watched Duke beat Wisconsin. The Indianapolis Colts drew 63,385 fans for their Wild Card game against the Cincinnati Bengals, a game deemed a sellout.

What University of Phoenix Stadium lacks, though, is proximity to downtown Phoenix. Super Bowl XLIX held Super Bowl Central downtown, 17 miles from University of Phoenix Stadium, about a half-hour drive.

Scott said the downtown area did such a good job hosting all of the game’s ancillary events, so it’s not a concern for the Final Four. She said there are approximately 10 venues in the country suitable for the Final Four, many of which don’t have the stadium downtown.

Before the Super Bowl, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said downtown was “ready, willing and able to host events of the highest magnitude.”

That holds no less true for the College Football Playoff National Championship or the Final Four. In both instances, event coordinators plan to emulate how the Super Bowl took over downtown and made it work.

“We’ve tried to understand what really worked for (the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee) and not reinvent the wheel too much,” Wright said.

Plans are to have something similar to the NFL Experience, as well as a 5K run and music festival.

Just like the Super Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the Final Four falls perfectly in line with Arizona’s springtime weather. On April 6, the day of the basketball championship game this year, it was 69 degrees and sunny in Glendale.

Arizona capitalizes on its weather in a big way when it comes to sports.

Every year, the Fiesta Bowl kicks off the calendar. The Waste Management Phoenix Open follows a month later, and once March rolls around NASCAR comes to Phoenix International Raceway for a Sprint Cup Series race and Cactus League baseball begins.

“People come here because they enjoy our weather, our resorts, our golf courses,” Wright said.

Wright and his team are next on the clock. The NCAA started its college football playoff format last year, and Wright was in Dallas to watch not only Ohio State beat Oregon, but also how the city hosted the game.

While this won’t be the first time college football’s national champion is crowned in Arizona, the 2016 game will be unlike any other. Under the old BCS format, the Fiesta Bowl was in a four-year rotation to host the game. Fans were in one day and out the next.

“It’s going to be a four-day celebration of college football, not just a one-day event,” Wright said.

So what’s next for Arizona? It’s hard to match the prestige of the current three-game set, but there are plenty of events that can still make their way to the Southwest, including a possible bid for the 2020 Super Bowl.

Statue in football gear

The Super Bowl decorated the iconic Phoenix statue in front of Renaissance Square with its gear in preparation of the game. (Photo by Meghan Kuebler)

The state has hosted three of the four major sports’ All-Star Games, welcoming the NFL in 2014, MLB in 2011 and NBA three times, most recently in 2009.

The NHL was slated to come in 2006 but the game was canceled so players could travel to compete in the Winter Olympics. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he hopes to see the game in Arizona in the future.

Officials from Arizona State and the Arizona Coyotes are considering a joint bid for a future Frozen Four. The tournament is booked for the next three years, and Arizona could be in the running for the 2019 season, especially considering ASU’s transition to Division I.

The Coyotes have also publicly stated their wish to host the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Championship, showcasing the best players aged 20 and under, as well as an outdoor game. As of now, either one coming to Arizona is considered unlikely.

UFC Fight Night came to Phoenix last December for the first time. The state has sizable representation in the UFC, including former ASU wrestling stars Cain Velasquez and Ryan Bader, which could lure the event back.

Though a questionable sport, the WWE has also held some of its biggest events in the Valley, including the 2013 Royal Rumble downtown at US Airways Center and Wrestlemania XXVI at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2010.

When Arizona won the bid for the college football championship game, Wright said he was excited, but then realized the job the state was about to undertake. The Super Bowl is yesterday’s news. The College Football Playoff National Championship Game is today’s and the Final Four is tomorrow’s. Wright just hopes it doesn’t end there.

“The lasting impression we want to leave is this is a great place to host your event,” Wright said. “We’re not just in this for one game. We’re in this for a lot of them.

“Our legacy hopefully is this was a great event and people want to come back.”