Evolution in motion: Fiesta Bowl launches youth initiative, embraces change in college football landscape

Former Heisman Trophy winner and ESPN College Gameday analyst Desmond Howard, the keynote speaker at the 2023 Arizona Bank & Trust Fiesta Bowl Kickoff Luncheon, spoke to the media about conference realignment, NIL and his football playing career. (Photo by Jonah Krell/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The college football landscape has rapidly evolved with the season now days away from beginning. Name, image and likeness (NIL), conference realignment and the transfer portal once again have dominated the offseason headlines.

The Vrbo Fiesta Bowl is now a part of the swirling change, enhancing its reach in the process. The organization held the 2023 Arizona Bank & Trust Fiesta Bowl Kickoff Luncheon Tuesday at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, revving up excitement for the start of the season and anticipation for the College Football Playoff.

Fiesta Bowl Executive Director and CEO Erik Moses introduced the “Fiesta Bowl Friday Night Showdown,” a new initiative starting Friday to spotlight Arizona high school football. The program will spotlight weekly games across the Valley and feature on-site fan events, experiences and engagement, in addition to student-athlete and student-section highlights.

The timing of the inaugural initiative – which Moses describes as adding “a little more sizzle to that steak” of youth football – was pivotal, with the CEO recognizing the ongoing colossal shift in college athletics and the need to stay relevant.

“The thing that is always constant is change, and especially in this business,” Moses said. “So I think we all have to roll with the punches, and the thing that I’m focused on in this position is to make certain that the Fiesta Bowl organization is well positioned for that change.”

The Friday Night Showdown is an important step toward the Fiesta Bowl holding a strong football footprint, with Moses’ mission being to “foment the passion around college football (and) around football generally.”

This season’s College Football Playoff will be the final year using a four-team format, which will expand to a 12-team field starting next season. The Fiesta Bowl is set to host a quarterfinal and semifinal matchup in the first two years of the new system.

“It gives us more storylines,” Moses said about the new format. “We get something similar to what we see at the NCAA Final Four. You may get a small team that ends up beating, say a TCU beating Michigan or something like that, that happens maybe in a first round. And then the extended playoff gives more teams an opportunity to really just be represented and to get more people involved in it.”

The Vrbo Fiesta Bowl hosted the 2023 Arizona Bank & Trust Fiesta Bowl Kickoff Luncheon Tuesday at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa. (Photo by Jonah Krell/Cronkite News)

But even the incoming 12-team format might not provide the most accurate and fair representation of the best teams in the country. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey recently told ESPN that the CFP format needs to be reconsidered amid the recent conference realignment that saw Oregon and Washington announce their jump to the Big 10 and Arizona State, Arizona, Utah and Colorado elect to move to the Big 12 after the 2023 season.

That format will consist of the six highest-ranked conference champions and the next six highest-ranked teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions will receive a first-round bye.

Former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, who was the luncheon’s keynote speaker, also voiced Sankey’s concern when speaking to the media Tuesday. Howard compared the current issues with the 2021 expansion proposal – brought forth by Sankey and a four-person CFP subcommittee – that was derailed by Oklahoma and Texas leaving for the SEC, saying the moves “blew up (the subcommittee’s) whole plan.”

“I think now we had the same thing happen,” Howard said. “History is starting to repeat itself. We got this College Football Playoff expansion, it’s going to be 12 teams, everyone’s excited – boom, boom, boom. And then all these teams left for the Big 10 and left for the Big 12 and now I think, like Commissioner Sankey said, you’re going to have to rethink now the college football playoff expansion once again.”

While the Fiesta Bowl enters its 53rd season and the CFP begins its 10th, both are far from polished as the landscape continues to shift. Howard says it will simply take time for all the upheaval to settle.

“One thing people have a problem with is change,” Howard said. “People kind of resist change, and what they hate more than change is instantaneous change. And it’s all coming so fast and so quickly.

“So it’s a lot to take in right now. We are living in real time trying to figure out what it’s going to mean – for [the Pac-12], for the College Football Playoff – and we’ll see where the chips fall when it’s all said and done.”

Jonah Krell JOE-nuh krel (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jonah Krell expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Krell, who completed his bachelor’s in sports journalism in May 2023, has been a reporter for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and play-by-play broadcaster for KASC Blaze Radio.