Kelli McGaughay, a resident of Plano, Texas, follows her Texas Longhorn football team to all of their bowl games, and this year’s Tostitos Fiesta contest with the Ohio State Buckeyes wasn’t going to be an exception — recession or no recession.
“My husband’s home office is here, which helps. But we’d have gone anyway,” she said, as she prepared to board a stage coach for a ride through downtown Scottsdale Friday.
And the Texas fan also isn’t planning to hold back if she sees something she wants to buy.
“We’re spending,” she said. “We count this as a vacation.”
East Valley stores and other businesses are hoping there will be lots of free-spending Kelli McGaughays visiting from Ohio and Texas for the bowl game and its ancillary events. After the Christmas shopping slump, they need a good bowl turnout to boost their holiday sales and get 2009 off to a good start.
But there are also indications that the number of football visitors may be down this year.
“We are grateful for the bowl games,” said Robin Meinhart, Scottsdale’s downtown liaison, who conceded that 2008 was a slow year for downtown Scottsdale businesses. “The recession has affected downtowns all across the country. But anytime we can have the fans come in, that really helps.”
She added that if business from Kansas and Minnesota fans in for the Insight Bowl on New Year’s Eve was any indication, sales to Fiesta Bowl fans this weekend should be good.
“I think we were very pleasantly surprised from the Insight Bowl,” she said.
The Fiesta Bowl won’t be played until Monday evening, but already Texas and Ohio State fans are arriving, and a few early birds interviewed by the Tribune Friday said they’re willing to open their wallets.
“Between myself, my wife, my two kids and my in-laws, we’ve already flushed $12,000 into the local economy,” chuckled Rick Lester, a resident of Grove City, Ohio, who was shopping with his wife in Old Town Scottsdale Friday.
Lester’s youngsters are members of a high school band from Grove City that competed in the bowl band competition and will march in the Fiesta Bowl parade Saturday.
He had planned to journey to Arizona for those events even before Ohio State was announced as one of the teams, and therefore he doesn’t figure to attend the game.
But many of the families of the band members decided to stay a couple of extra days when Ohio State was chosen, he said.
Dave Seevach, a resident of Amanda, Ohio, who also traveled to the Valley with the band, said interest in OSU bowl football drooped in Columbus this year because the Buckeyes have played in several Tostitos Fiesta Bowls in past few years.
“Interest waned because of the combination of the economy and being here before,” he said.
Texas fans have their own reason for disappointment, losing a chance to play in the National Championship Game in Miami, said Dr. Sonny Acho, the father of two Texas Longhorn players.
“We’re a little bit disappointed, but we’re pleased to have a bowl game,” he said as he walked through the lobby of the Scottsdale Plaza Resort, where the team is staying.
“(Scottsdale) is a beautiful place, and this is a beautiful facility,” he said of the hotel.
Acho added his spending plan is simple: “we will spend whatever we have, and then we’ll stop.”
Shawn Schoeffler, spokesman for the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, said both teams have large followings and the Texas-Ohio State matchup was the best game organizers could do this year for attracting fans.
“Each of the schools gets 17,500 tickets, and both are sold out,” he said.
However, both schools have had trouble selling their allotments.
“We’ve seen a decrease in the number of people who are participating in our tour,” said Jay Hanson, director of communications for the Ohio State Alumni Association. “We are down about half from most years.”
The association’s unused tickets were returned to the university, which found other buyers, but it was the first year that OSU’s bowl tickets had to be offered for sale to the general public, he said.
Usually they sell out when offered to various tour groups.
“It’s a rarity,” he said of the public sale. “People here don’t recall it ever happening before.”
He attributed the lack of interest to several factors. In addition to the economy and reduced appeal of a repeat Fiesta Bowl, he said the timing of the game on Monday will prevent many of fans from getting home until Wednesday, requiring them to miss extra days of work.
Also many of the fans followed the team to an early-season game in Los Angeles against USC, and they may feel they’ve had their trip for the year, he said.
Michelle Morrill, tour manager for the Texas Exes, the University of Texas alumni association, said the Austin school also has scrambled to sell its block of tickets.
“It seemed like plenty of tickets were available,” she said. “But there still was a lot of interest. It should be a good turnout.”
Ann Lane, spokeswoman for the Scottsdale Hyatt at Gainey Ranch, where the Texas Exes are staying, said the hotel expects to be nearly sold out over the weekend.
“This Fiesta Bowl is a good Fiesta Bowl,” she said. “There have been some cases where the fans don’t support the teams, but these are great fans and loyal supporters.”
She added that after the two teams were announced “the phone immediately started ringing. Within hours we had booked 50 rooms.”
Marilyn Atkinson, owner of Herman Atkinson’s Indian Trading Post in downtown Scottsdale, said her holiday sales may equal last year’s, which would be a favorable outcome.
“We’ve already seen a few (Fiesta Bowl) fans come in,” she said. “People are more cautious in their spending, but we still are managing to have some nice sales. I wish I could say we are packed wall to wall, but I think you have to adjust your expectations to the economy.”