It was 82 cloudless, lovely degrees in Arizona Stadium at kickoff of the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl football game between Utah State and New Mexico State on Dec. 29.
Talk about Chamber of Commerce weather; there were cooling fans on the sidelines in late December, for goodness’ sake.
The guy sitting behind us, an “Aggies fan”—both schools are the Aggies—was from Green Bay. When he and his wife left Wisconsin for Tucson, the temperature was -25. At least a 100-degree difference. “One Oh Five,” he exclaimed. In winter’s cold, the Cheeseheads are “devolving,” he said. “I have hair growing out of parts of my body…”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence.
This was a picture-perfect scene to show one million CBS Sports viewers who tuned in from the frigid north. Four gleaming mountain ranges, flags delivered by military parachutists, a Davis-Monthan Air Force Base flyover, an enormous American flag, a guy fast-painting the Iwo Jima flag-raising while singing “God Bless America,” the regular, heartfelt salutes to our active military, our veterans, our non-profits, our community benefactors, our teachers, and our volunteers; Tucson shone proud and bright that day.
So, too, did the cowbell-ringing fans from New Mexico State, whose Aggies hadn’t played in a bowl game for 57 years. Most weren’t alive when that happened. They brought plenty of life to Tucson, perhaps 20,000 strong, from Las Cruces, 275 miles to our east, and from the NMSU diaspora. This year, a rising NMSU was the perfect team to play in Tucson. They were excited to be here. They were close enough to drive. They were hungry; by halftime, on our side of the field at least, there was no popcorn and only cold pretzels. “It’s nice to see people from out of town enjoying themselves,” a friend said.
Utah State showed well, too, though we’re 855 miles from lovely Logan. Combined, with us locals who simply went to be supportive and to watch live football, there were over 39,000 fans in Arizona Stadium that day, rivaling a UA crowd, and as large as any 2018 bowl crowd outside the big games.
Bowl games bring people to our resorts, hotels, restaurants, bars and attractions. The Arizona Bowl is well-timed during the holidays, when the travel business has a brief lull. Two college football teams are big operations, with large bands, cheerleaders, staff and more than 100 massive humans who eat four or five meals a day.
Beyond that $30 million-ish boost, the Arizona Bowl has become a great opportunity to tell our story to cold, bundled Americans. Visit Tucson, our destination marketing organization, and the Arizona Office of Tourism reinforced the attraction. On the big screen, we’re reminded that Tucson is home to the Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food in America. A state ad showed Arizona’s wonders, to include a shot poolside at El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort, Oro Valley’s beautifully polished pearl beneath Pusch Ridge.
We saw an exciting game, too. It began with back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdown; less than five minutes in, the score was 10-7. When NMSU kicked off, Striking the Border Collie retrieved the kicking tee. The crowd was revved up. It went to overtime, with a USU field goal clunking off the upright, and NMSU winning the game on a burst to the end zone that elicited a spontaneous roar, and subsequent tears of joy, from the NMSU faithful.
“I’m just thrilled for these kids and this community,” New Mexico State coach Doug Martin said afterward. “Just look at these fans who showed up here. This is an unbelievable day for us.”
On the exit ramps, the chant of “Aggies! Aggies!” bounced off the aging facade of original Arizona Stadium, and sent a chill through everyone. The burgundy-clad were off to dinner, maybe a night’s stay, or a tank of gas for the drive home.
Martin said his team and staff had demonstrated just how much a group of people can accomplish when they believe in something. Tucson has something to believe in with the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl, and it would serve us all well to jump aboard.
Dave Perry is the president and CEO of the Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce.