The Fiesta Bowl has provided thrilling football, crowned national champions and pumped millions of tourist dollars into the Valley’s economy.
The event’s rise from a fringe bowl with a minor conference shown on syndicated television to a top-tier game shown on national television provides lessons for any startup or growing business.
On the eve of the final Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium, I thought it would be instructive to look back on its 35 years from a business perspective. (That and I don’t want to write another one of those "here’s what’s gonna happen this year" columns where I get everything wrong.) So, here are the ingredients for success of the Fiesta Bowl and any start-up or growing business:
It has to benefit someone else: The real reasons for this bowl game were to give Arizona State University a place to play a postseason game and to showcase the Valley. The organizers needed to come up with a better rationale to persuade the NCAA it should add to the 10 bowl games already being played.
"Our team never gets to go to a bowl game" wouldn’t cut it. The organizers found a little nobler cause — proceeds would go to fight drug abuse.
No business is viable if it only benefits the proprietor.
Don’t take no for an answer:
The NCAA turned down the bowl backers in 1970. They took another shot at it. Persistence pays off.
Right time and place: The Fiesta Bowl was actually the Valley’s third postseason football game. The first was the Salad Bowl played at Phoenix Union High School’s Montgomery Stadium from 1948-52. The second was the original Copper Bowl, an all-star game at Sun Devil Stadium from 1958-60.
But the Valley in 1971 had a much larger population base than it did in 1948. It could support a bowl game. Perhaps more importantly, locals didn’t necessarily have to. By 1971, it was possible for money from TV rights to pay a lot of the bills.
Sometimes an idea is ahead of its time or a venture fails because of execution.
Opportunity: In 1976 when Arizona and Arizona State decided to leave the Western Athletic Conference for the Pac-10, one of the questions was would this spell doom for the Fiesta Bowl. At the time, the Western Athletic Conference champion went to the Fiesta Bowl. It was presumed that in most years that would be ASU, Arizona or Brigham Young. Arizona and BYU both had large followings here. So without the two Arizona schools, would the game still be viable?
The Fiesta used the departure of the two schools to get out of its deal with the WAC, and it didn’t partner with another conference. That gave the Fiesta flexibility that few established bowls had. It also became less dependent on ASU’s participation, which gave the game credibility.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize opportunity’s knock.
Remember who your customers are: This is what the Fiesta Bowl has done best. And like a lot of businesses, it’s not always obvious who the customers are. The paying fans? Sure. The customers also include the TV network and the participating schools.
Shortly after moving from syndication to CBS, the Fiesta Bowl began playing on Christmas Day. The bowl took flak from sportswriters and local fans. On a day with lots a people at home and few sporting events on the tube, it was a big ratings hit. That took care of the customer.
This year, there was pressure for the Fiesta Bowl to take Oregon or Penn State over Notre Dame. But Notre Dame is a huge TV draw. The Fiesta Bowl ignored the sports talk shows, the bloggers and newspaper columnists and took care of its TV partner, ABC.
Next year’s move to Glendale is another example. Yes, the game will lose ambiance, moving from a college campus near a great entertainment district to a field by a freeway. But as executive director John Junker told me a couple years ago, the new stadium gives the bowl more revenue. It needs more revenue to pay the teams and stay in the top tier of the Bowl Championship Series. When athletic directors look at these things, they don’t take ambience into account. They are the customers.
Innovation pays: In 1985, the Fiesta Bowl was looking to increase its payout to participating schools in order to land more attractive teams. It came up with an idea — a title sponsor, Sunkist. Now everyone does it. Yeah, it’s tacky and crass. But it helped the bowl.
The bowl’s best outside-the-box move came in November 1986. The Fiesta Bowl pulled off a huge coup. The bowl landed No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Penn State to play for the national championship. It did so by getting NBC to up its rights fee and moving the game to the evening of Jan. 2, the day after the other major bowls.
It was the first time the Fiesta Bowl hosted a national championship game. It remains the most watched college football game in history.
And with it, the Fiesta Bowl became a truly major event.