So why did the Fiesta emerge to become one of the four BCS bowls?
Well years of cultivating local and national politicians gave it a very strong political base. Years of lavish gifts and trips and junkets with the BCS elite oiled relations but the piece de resistance grew into the Fiesta Frolics.
Recently renamed the staid sounding “The Fiesta Bowl Spring College Football Seminar,” the Fiesta Frolics grew into a notorious and bloated celebration, networking and sponsorship boondoggle. The Fiesta Bowl for twenty years invited every major AD and staff at all the major football schools, every football coach, all the major Conference Commissioners and staff to meet in Phoenix for a three day orgy, I mean meeting. The attendees paid for transportation, but the Fiesta put them up at the best resorts, paid for two days of golf and gave spa certificates to them and spouses. Nike, ESPN and other “corporate partners” hovered like flies providing endless free food, recreation and networking. A few meetings occurred—I actually used to attend budget meetings linked to the Frolics—but the key lay in the relentless schmoozing and lobbying that yellow blazered Fiesta Officials did. The Frolics became the unofficial national meeting of Athletic Directors, coaches and Commissioners. More attended the Frolics than the NCAA convention and more business actually occurred there. Last year the Fiesta Frolics cost 1.3 million dollars in nonprofit funds.
Networking, business, free gift bags from NIKE and ESPN at every room, and endless food, entertainments and Fiesta marketing—this won the Fiesta bowl its status.
The Fiesta created the prototype of a corporate city driven device to market the city and bring money into the region. It worked. It at least has a semblance of community connections, more than the Cotton or Sugar now have. It paved the way for the endless number of ESPN inspired TV fodder bowls that proliferate now.
Players enjoy them, as I have written about, and coaches love the two extra week of practice the bowls grant them. Going to a bowl can even be a motive to get players to attend to studies in season because they cannot go now if they are no academically eligible.
The Fiesta Bowl did not stint on to whom it gave money to. Both Arizona US Senators, the Governor, two members of the House of Representatives, the Secretary of State and the President of the Arizona Senate are beneficiaries of the $46,000 in illegal campaign contributions over ten years.
Given the politics of the BCS as a quasi monopoly and its relations to the bowls, it makes sense that the Fiesta would try to figure out a way to influence politicians. To be honest, it probably did not need to give money given how many free gifts and trips and tickets it sumptuously provided civic and political leaders for twenty years.
So the Fiesta lessons expose the slick world of moneyed relations and networking that dominate college football and media right now. I have long disliked the idea of a national championship and view the NCAA March Madness with equal parts horror and wonder, but a football version might be preferable to the insidious moneyed corruption that winds around modern bowl politics.
But besides it success at creating and mastering the modern world of bowl and sponsorship complicity and collusion, the Fiesta Bowl teaches a deeper lesson about corruption and unaccountability.
Remember intercollegiate sports are grounded in nonprofit finances. The Fiesta Bowl really consists of four separate nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits have a privileged and unique status in America. Their status and respect go back to DeToqueville’s characterization of American as a country of associations and joiners.
Many modern nonprofits are not just philanthropic organizations that receive donations and provide services needed by the community. Many now sponsor or launch projects that generates revenue such as film festivals, art festivals, refurbishing, or housing projects.
The nonprofit Fiesta Bowl provides a service and product designed to improve the economic and social welfare and visibility of the state of Arizona. Its constitution touts that it provides maximum payout to provide money for education. The Fiesta Bowl epitomizes a modern profitable nonprofit. The profits are not distributed to shareholders, but often gobbled up by the senior officials and the sleek events associated with creating partnerships and sponsorships. Every contribution, every junket, every fancy meal or golf trip could be defended by Fiesta officials as business related to the building artful relations that sustained the enterprise.
Fiesta’s long-time Director John Junker drove and created the Fiesta Bowl and to achieve his ends helped create the modern bowl world. This world builds on relations and networks that he assiduously cultivated and worked for twenty years. Most of the gifts given at Thanksgiving or the donations from the Fiesta Bowl came from him and were charged on his credit cards. In fact the Fiesta Bowl paid all his credit card bills and then tried to recoup whatever money it thought might be “persona’” versus business. It did not help that he did not keep receipts for many of his questionable activities.
What happened here in this cocooned world of nonprofit success and privilege happens everywhere unaccountable and secret power and deals flourish. Junker began to treat the Fiesta Bowl as his own fiefdom, and the Board of Trustees, like many boards of large corporations, fed his benefits and never questioned him because of his success.
The portrait is familiar to anyone who followed the Red Cross scandals or the scandals around high living corporate leaders. He and his spouse drove rich cars provided by Fiesta. Fiesta contributed money to his favorite Catholic charities; Fiesta bought several expensive golf memberships and subsidized family trips. It paid for business trips to strip clubs where money was spent on lap dances. It paid tens of thousands of dollars for a special 50th birthday party where the guests were flow to Pebble Beach for three days. I could go on, but unaccountable power, whether nonprofit or for profit, breeds personal and institutional corruption.
The corruption scales to tyrannical coaches in AAU teams creating their own nonprofits to extort money from basketball coaches to athletic directors who lie sleek life styles to coaches who rule mini-kingdoms that no one questions until they get caught or lose.
The Fiesta scandal is swiftly being swept under the rug by the NCAA and BCS because they are all complicit. It reminds us again that the NCAA has no effective control over the bowls and cannot gain it because of restraint of trade issues. So the bowl world will continue, and as long as the BCS continues its quasi-monopoly pretensions the sleaze that infects college bowl life will continue.