A few yards from the press box elevator, Arizona Bowl volunteer Kaila Forster printed the names and scores of every bowl game on a large whiteboard.
In chronological order, using flawless penmanship, Forster began at 2:30 Friday afternoon; she finished an hour later, beating the Arizona Stadium kickoff by a few ticks of the clock.
Cure Bowl. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Quick Lane Bowl. She listed all 41 games, from the most obscure (Dollar General Bowl) to the most grand (Rose Bowl).
Cranky people insist there are too many bowls. To that I say “nuts.”
On Friday, outlined by a blue-gray December sky, the Arizona Bowl provided the best argument yet for keeping all 41 bowls. As a millennial might say, Arizona Bowl II was a super dope show.
Air Force beat South Alabama 45-21. The Air Force band was so good that I’ll be whistling “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder” for days.
Forgive me if I exaggerate a bit — it is after all New Year’s Eve — but for three hours Friday afternoon and into the evening, the Air Force-South Alabama game was the best day of the sports year in Tucson.
It reminded me of those agreeable winter afternoons at the old Tucson Open, when you’d soak in the idyllic weather, gaze at the heavenly mountain shadows and couldn’t think of another place you’d rather be.
Instead of the star being named Arnie or Tiger, it was an Air Force safety named Steelhammer.
Weston Steelhammer. Can you beat that?
A few months ago, Arizona Bowl chairman Ali Farhang looked across a lunch table and told me that Friday’s game would draw at least 30,000 people.
“We need to get some luck, we need to get an anchor team like Air Force or New Mexico,” he said, “but it’s not just wishing and hoping.”
I wondered if he had forgotten his medication.
A year ago, the first Arizona Bowl drew 20,425 to watch Nevada and Colorado State play on a cold winter night (41 degrees at kickoff) and Farhang insisted an after-dark kickoff would not work.
“It’s going to be 70 degrees at 3:30 when we kick off this year,” he said at the lunch table. “The weather gods had better be listening.”
Farhang was off by one degree. It was 69 at kickoff Friday and 33,868 tickets were sold.
Maybe there weren’t 33,868 people in the seats — it might’ve been closer to 27,000 — but it is a testament to the organizational power of the Arizona Bowl to sell that many tickets for a game that will not be confused with, say, the long-standing Sun Bowl, traditionally televised by CBS.
In the middle of the second quarter, Arizona Bowl executive director Mike Feder toured the stadium and made a check of all six beer-selling stations.
In some places, with four cash registers humming, more than 100 people stood in line for a $6 beer.
“From what I’ve been able to gather, we have a bigger crowd than 15 or 20 other bowl games,” said Feder. “Those are games that have been around for years and years.”
His math? Correct.
Through Friday, the Arizona Bowl had drawn more fans than 18 other games, including the old Tucson Copper Bowl — now the Phoenix Cactus Bowl — which drew 33,328 for Boise State-Baylor on Tuesday night in downtown Phoenix.
It drew more than the Las Vegas Bowl (29,286), more than the New Mexico Bowl (29,688), more than the Foster Farms Bowl (27,608) and more than the Military Bowl (26,656).
The Arizona Bowl was a success because it chose to market its tickets differently than all other bowls. It “gifted” 5,000 tickets each to Air Force and South Alabama and allowed them to keep the profits from those tickets.
It then enlisted dozens of Tucson sponsors to buy tickets and spread them to first-responders, military members, teachers and underprivileged children. That probably put another 10,000 in the seats, which is not unusual in the bowl business.
But remember: This game is just 15 months old. The Arizona Bowl hasn’t had time to build the community’s trust.
Nevertheless, Farhang, Feder and their marketing and sales people tapped into the mother lode of Tucson sponsors, dozens of them, from Desert Diamond Casino and Crest Insurance to Pizza Hut and El Charro.
They succeeded in making this a game for the masses.
When the Arizona Bowl’s affiliation with the Sun Belt Conference expires in 2018, it is likely to pursue bigger game, possibly a Pac-12 affiliate, and by then get an opportunity to join ESPN’s exhaustive bowl-game programming guide.
But ESPN’s partnership isn’t fully necessary. The unique approach of media partner Campusinsiders.com, and hundreds of independent cable TV channels such KTVK Channel 3 in Phoenix and WJTC Channel 44 in Mobile/Pensacola, probably draws close to as many eyes as one of ESPN’s many outlets.
And, besides, you never know if ESPN would insist on an 8:15 p.m. Tuesday kickoff, the way it did for the Boise State-Baylor game. That would crush all momentum the Arizona Bowl has built in its 15 months of existence.
The Arizona Bowl may be the 41st of 41 bowl games in age and experience, but on Friday afternoon it gained its wings.