Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What the Fiesta Bowl Scandal Reveals about College Football I

The Fiesta Bowl scandal continues to run its course. The NCAA punted and let them off with a wrist slap. The BCS expressed outrage, fined them a few bucks and let them remain a BCS bowl. Now the politicians who took illegal campaign contributions from a nonprofit refuse to give their money back. Each revelation adds to the report on the Fiesta Bowl commissioned by the Board of Directors and published one month ago. The whole story excavates the sordid modern football bowl landscape.

The Fiesta Bowl is the prototype of modern bowls. For over half a century the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton dominated the bowl landscape. Mythical national championships were fought out in media and only by accident occurred. The bowls were anchored in the conferences, and conference champions played out in the bowls.

The original bowls were not pure creations, what is in the America? They arose from city and trade boosters looking for ways to sell their cities and products and boost local visibility, civic pride and wealth. The truest and longest existing of them remains the Rose Bowl sponsored by Pasadena, not LA. The Rose really does have thousands of volunteers who work year around to put on not only the bowl, but a unique and old spectacle, the Rose Parade.

I have watched hundreds of volunteers painstakingly pasting one petal at a time for the magnificent floats, many from cities, but more and more from corporations and now even countries. The parade still boasts local bands and drum and bugle corps and rodeo groups. It hybridizes a deep American tradition with modern corporate sponsorship run amuck. The Rose Bowl remains the only bowl with deep roots in the community and huge numbers of long-term volunteers who make it happen each year.

The Fiesta Bowl changed the landscape in a big way. As the internal report says it “elbowed” its way into a major bowl and finally became, against all odds, one of the major BCS bows that rotate the national championship. It still rankles the Cotton Bowl folks when it shot past many older and even local anchored bowls to gain that honor.

The scandal arose from the way the Fiesta Bowl fought and bought its way into the top ranks. Make no mistake, the Fiesta success did not happen by accident. If you read the Constitutions of the Fiesta bowl and its Insight Bowl appendage, you find a clear corporate mission to build national recognition and presence for the bowl and the city of Phoenix and Arizona. In  2006-07 the combination of Insight, Fiesta and National Champion bowls brought over 400 million dollars to the city and state.

How did the Fiesta Bowl do this? Well first it is a nonprofit so it escapes many legal constraints and reporting constraints upon private enterprises. Second, it formed deep partnerships with the political and economic development and business establishments of Arizona. It spread the wealth around so everyone had a stake.

In classic style, it regularly subsidized trips for senior politicians to go for “education” purposes to see other teams play in Chicago or Dallas or Boston. A Boston trip ended up costing over 54,000 dollars and putting up senior Arizona politicians in the Ritz Carlton and wining and dining them for three days while watching BC play V-Tech This trip, like many before, “educates” leaders about the role, importance and selection of teams. The Fiesta ensured that every local leader got access to good seats and events.

The world of bowls and college athletics runs on relations. The Fiesta Bowl raised the bar to levels unseen by other bowls. In a typical year, the bowl would send Thanksgiving gifts, such as exotic flow bouquets, to every BCS AD and Conference Commissioner. Memorial contributions to charities were funneled to commemorate deceased wives or children of major BCS figures such as coaches or athletic directors.

All of this money and effort and contributions was driven by the desire to “stay on the good side” of major actors in college sports.  The Fiesta bowl schmoozed and codoodled and greased relations across the spectrum of college sports.

As the old bowl system collapsed and new bowls grew like weeds, ESPN ensured the death knell of the small oligarchic world of bowls and college conferences. Fiesta wooed TV as powerfully as it wooed the rest of the college sports establishment. It understood before anyone else that bowls now would be product placement opportunities, and their value lay in TV exposure and as TV windows, not being a community tradition. Tradition mattered nothing compared to TV exposure and wealth.

So the Fiesta Bowl elbowed aside the rickety and broke Cotton and ignored the languishing Sugar and erupted as a preeminent bowl with Orange and Rose. The creation of the BCS eliminated the conference connections and essentially doomed the Sugar to irrelevance. The demise of the conferences the made the Cotton matter left more room for the Fiesta to rise in the ranks. The Rose remained true and pure and the P-10 and B-10 tried to keep the tradition and spirit of bowl rivalries and conference connections alive, but they failed. Fiesta barged into this vacuum to become the preeminent TV BCS bowl.

Part II will look at how this happened and how it spawned the scandal.


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