Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl

They’re ready for Game Time!
Jon Volpe, CEO, NOVA Home Loans;
Alan Young, Executive Director,
Arizona Bowl; and Ali Farhang,
Arizona Bowl Chairman
and Managing Partner of
Farhang & Medcoff Attorneys.
Photo at Arizona Stadium
by Shelley Welander/she.we
Studio. Photo Assistant Seth Nager.

Scenes from the 2016 Arizona Bowl
block party. This year’s festivities
will take place at Armory Park,
Dec. 28 & 29. Photos by Chris Mooney.

We Got Game!

The year ends with a bang — the fun and festive NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl. Here’s the story behind the event, and why it’s such a boon for our community.

Arizona Stadium is quiet now, the field as tranquil as a cat stretched out in the sun, the stands — capable of containing more than 55,000 screaming fans — are empty and waiting for Dec. 29, when the fuse gets lit.

This isn’t like any other showdown Tucson has experienced, because no matter who wins, we all win.

That’s one of the great benefits of the Old Pueblo hosting the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl. Whichever teams from the Sunbelt and Mountain West Conferences square off at Arizona Stadium, or who leaves the field as the victor, many thousands of people throughout Pima County will reap the rewards.

Now in its third year, the Arizona Bowl is growing by quantum leaps, and residents and visitors across the southeastern part of the state are catching on.

“When Tucsonans realize that this is their game, not anybody else’s, and the proceeds and benefits go back to the community, they are onboard,” says Alan Young, executive director of the bowl.

What started as a simple mission of bringing a college bowl game back to Pima County, which hadn’t held such an event since the Insight Bowl in 1999, has grown into an extravaganza — a weekend of fun for the visiting teams, football fans, and revelers of all sorts.

Today, college bowl games are a much-loved part of the American cultural landscape, but it wasn’t always that way. The first bowl — held in 1902 — was inauspiciously titled the “Tournament East-West Football Game,” though today we know it as the Rose Bowl. The University of Michigan crushed Stanford University 49-0 in that inaugural event, which took place in Pasadena’s Tournament Park. The fan reaction to the blowout was so negative that for the next 13 years, in lieu of football, the Tournament of Roses Committee staged such exciting contests as ostrich races and chariot competitions. After crowds tired of “Ben Hur, Done That,” football returned.

For the 2017 season, there are more than 40 bowl games spread throughout the country, with others scheduled to come online in the future. It’s not an easy process to convince the NCAA to add such a contest to the roster, but the sports-minded folks behind the Arizona Bowl knew that it was worth fighting for.

“I was formerly the CEO of the Arizona Sports & Entertainment Commission,” explains Alan Young, “and I have been involved with the bowl business for about 25 years. This is kind of my wheelhouse. The effort here in Tucson has been helped by a lot of very good, energetic people, including Ali Farhang, Mark Irvin, Fletcher McCusker, and a long list.”

Farhang, a local attorney and the chairman of the Arizona Bowl, also has a background working with major sporting events, including the Fiesta Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl Basketball Classic. He says that he and other like-minded individuals had discussed many times bringing a college bowl game back to Tucson. “It was a labor of love, and I was obstinate enough to never take no for an answer. At one point I was introduced to Alan Young when he was the executive director of the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission. It was a project that they were excited about, and together, we were able to get NCAA sanctioning, set a date, and get some teams. We knew we had a bowl game approximately three months before the game was to be played, and I think we learned about three years worth of lessons in three months.”

One of the most critical components of establishing a bowl game is securing a title sponsor. NOVA Home Loans proved to be a perfect fit. This wasn’t the first time that NOVA was a sponsor for an athletic event. The company has provided its support to everyone from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Phoenix Suns to UA teams. “I first heard about the Arizona Bowl in the summer of 2016 on the football field at Salpointe,” says Jon Volpe, NOVA’s CEO and chairman. “One of my fellow football coaches, Ali Farhang, approached me at practice and told me that he was able to get approval for an NCAA bowl game to be played in Tucson, but without a title sponsor, they wouldn’t be able to make it a reality. He asked if NOVA Home Loans had any interest. Once I heard about the economic impact it would have on Southern Arizona, and the way local charities could receive all of the net proceeds, I was sold.”

It takes teamwork to host a bowl game — the coordination of many individuals and entities that all need to contribute a vital part. Along with Arizona Bowl’s fulltime employees and members of the board, there are groups such as Visit Tucson that ensure players and coaches have a great time in Southern Arizona. The cooperation of the staff at the venue is equally important. “We obviously couldn’t hold this bowl game in Tucson without the tremendous support and cooperation we receive from the University of Arizona,” observes Volpe. “From the onset they have been amazing in helping us turn Arizona Stadium into the home of the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl. The participating teams and fans have been so impressed with every inch of the stadium and grounds. We are so grateful that UA President Robert Robbins and Athletic Director Dave Heeke also have been enthusiastic supporters of our game, almost from the moment they arrived in Tucson.”

When December rolls around, the citizens of Tucson are the envy of much of the country. Running around in the sort of wardrobe that is more suitable for spring in most areas of the world, we are able to eschew shoveling snow for more relaxing pursuits, such as playing golf or even kicking back in a hot tub.

Though we get many snowbirds flocking to town for the warm hospitality and good weather, it provides a healthy boost to our economy to have thousands more arrive to attend a college bowl game and all the related activities. The first year of the Arizona Bowl, more than 20,000 fans attended. That figure jumped to over 33,000 for the 2016 contest.

“The dollar figure that we use from last year, mainly based on spending by tourists coming in for the game, is $21 million,” says Young. “We hope to grow that total by 20 percent this year. That impact is based on hotel rooms, car rentals, meals, everything that is the result of the bowl game and the festivities.”

But the reach of the Arizona Bowl extends far beyond the stadium. The game lays the groundwork for many thousands of people to pick our city as a vacation destination, and more.
“We want to create economic impact,” notes Young. “We want the community involved. But the branding of this bowl as it relates to Tucson is so important. Whether it’s the players, who come here for the first time in their lives, or the administrators or the fans. Our goal is not just for them to come for the game, but to bring their family back every year for a vacation, or buy a home here. Even relocate their business to our city. We already have heard instances in all of those cases where this type of thing has happened.

“Just having TV coverage of a beautiful day in Tucson, showing the stadium and the mountains is so important,” he adds. “We have a new TV network this year — CBS Sports Network — that saw the broadcast over the last two years and said, ‘This is really a special place to hold a game. We would like to televise that.’ So we started talking and bidding on it.”
The teams and fans who come to the game not only spend their dollars here during their stay, and create memories that may very well draw them back again, their sheer numbers and spending power also can help to kickstart upgrades to infrastructure, such as road improvements.

And when you are marketing a community to businesses looking at potentially moving to the area, or opening a satellite office, it helps to be able to tout certain amenities. “Part of this is all about community spirit, community pride,” enthuses Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “One of the things that you put on your checklist, along with building a downtown, getting new businesses, and providing social support services, is having a bowl game. We had so many years where we were losing sporting events, so to be able to bring this back and to say as a community, ‘We can do this,’ is significant. Businesses are looking at this and thinking, ‘Tucson’s able to support a bowl game. That’s something that’s important.’ The influence of being able to successfully accomplish this is much more than just the game itself.”

Southern Arizona’s nonprofit organizations have their own reason to be pumped up about the Arizona Bowl: a direct impact from the proceeds.

Among the organizations that have benefited from the bowl are Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson, Diamond Children’s Medical Center and the Tucson Indian Center.

 “We gave out over $200,000 to more than 20 different charities last year,” says Young. “We hope to raise that to $300,000 and add more charities. We’re committed to giving the net proceeds of this game to charity, so it’s in a direct relationship to how well the community supports it through ticket purchases and sponsorships. People can be assured that the more they contribute, the more that charities will receive.”
There are other ways that the community benefits, including the Arizona Bowl’s Heroes Tribute Program. “You can buy any amount of tickets that you like and donate them back to first responders, teachers, or service members,” observes Young. “We also can issue them to the ticket buyers who can then give them away. It was an extremely successful program last year. We gave away more than 13,000 tickets. That’s just an example of how Tucson supports our game and charities.”

Benefiting nonprofit groups is at the heart of the bowl’s mission. “It’s part of NOVA Home Loans’ core values to give back to our community,” says Volpe. “It is who we are as a company. It is why we do what we do. When we were negotiating the terms of our title sponsorship, we never negotiated over how many TV spots we’d get or what our signage would look like. We only negotiated over, ‘How much money can we give back to charity? How do we fill the stadium so we can give a million dollars?’ If there wasn’t a charitable component to this bowl, we wouldn’t be involved. I am personally a product of the generosity of Tucson’s charities and business leaders. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of giving. I firmly believe that giving is contagious and I am incredibly proud to be part of a bowl that holds giving as the centerpiece of its values.”

With more than 40 college bowl games being held each year, the competition to get top conferences involved is as fierce as a five-man scramble to retrieve a fumble.

It certainly took a Herculean effort, and a Hail Mary pass or two, for the Arizona Bowl to be able to enlist the two conferences that organizers chose. “We came along after most of the bowls and the conferences had been matched up,” Young recalls of the first year. “We were a little bit late in wanting to get our game. There’s basically a six-year cycle and we came in after the first year was over. I knew people from the Mountain West and the Sunbelt Conferences, but more importantly, they fit well with the size and the type of game we wanted to have. The Mountain West is a natural because — except for the University of Hawaii — all of the fans can drive to the game. Tucson is in the footprint of the Mountain West. Size-wise and talent-wise, we looked to the Sunbelt because they have a lot of real powerful offensive teams that can put on an exciting game. Both of those conferences were looking to put on one more bowl. We’re fortunate in a number of ways to get both of those.”

The Mountain West Conference has a dozen members that participate in football: the United States Air Force Academy, Boise State University, Colorado State University, Fresno State, University of Nevada, University of New Mexico, San Diego State University, San José State University, UNLV, Utah State University, University of Wyoming and University of Hawaii.

The Sunbelt Conference includes 14 teams that participate in football: Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Idaho, UL Lafayette, UL Monroe, New Mexico State, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy University, Idaho and New Mexico State.

For the first Arizona Bowl, the University of Nevada squeaked by Colorado State 28-23. Last year, Air Force came from behind to overwhelm South Alabama 45-21.

The stats don’t tell you, however, what the game means to the student athletes who are playing it. Volpe, himself a former standout football player in high school, college (Stanford) and as a pro in the Canadian Football League, knows firsthand what the 19- to 20-something-year-old players are feeling. “A bowl experience for a football player is the culmination of years of hard work paying off,” he remarks. “No player wants their season to end, and to get to a bowl game means that you are one of the best teams in the nation. The pressure to perform at this high level and win is huge, but it’s also coupled with the incredible opportunity to visit a new place, see a new landscape, experience the culture of the city, and feel the hospitality of the host city. Many football players on the rosters of bowl teams haven’t had the chance to experience the level of fanfare and importance that comes along with playing in a bowl. It’s an incredible experience — and it’s even sweeter if you win!”

In early December, the teams from the two conferences are chosen for the Arizona Bowl. All the players and coaches get the VIP treatment during their time in Tucson, including staying at top resorts such as the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, and The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa. They also get feted at Old Tucson Studios. “They watch bull riders, and see stuntmen fall off of buildings and eat steaks while sitting in an old saloon hall,” says Volpe. “These are things they’ve only seen on television, and we put them right in the middle of it.”

What’s a bowl game without a party? For the Arizona Bowl the festivities for fans will begin Dec. 28 with an evening Downtown Block Party, presented by Rio Nuevo. The activities will take place in Armory Park, and include local musicians, school marching bands, cheerleaders, kids activities and food. The Block Party also will take place following the conclusion of the game on Dec. 29.

On game day, fans with tickets to the Arizona Bowl can enjoy the Desert Diamond Casino Tailgate Festival, which will include competitions by local restaurants to produce the best nachos, a kids area, beer for sale, food vendors, and a concert by chart-topping power pop band Neon Trees.

Inside Arizona Stadium, the excitement will continue. “It was an incredible pregame last year, and we hope to replicate that with skydivers and flyovers from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and a lot of ancillary entertainment,” says Young. “Steven Powell will sing the national anthem this year. We’re going to have a DJ throughout the game, performing during timeouts, quarter breaks, at half time. And at halftime the bands from the two universities will participate.”

Since Arizona Stadium is centrally located, and there are major cross streets nearby, it’s easy to get to, but many fans would still like a little help getting to the game or locating parking. “There’s going to be plenty of parking but we’re looking at having shuttles from various areas,” says Young. “Even from outside communities like Green Valley.”

Ticket prices will remain a bargain, especially for a bowl game (the average ticket price for last year’s Rose Bowl was nearly $400). “Our ticket prices range from $25 to $200. It’s an incredible stadium in which to watch a bowl game, and we’ve been able to keep the prices very affordable for our fans. Hopefully we can accommodate every range of ticket buyer,” says Young.

For Farhang, a veteran of playing football, baseball and a little basketball, mapping a strategy for success for the Arizona Bowl is not unlike creating a game plan for a winning season. You take what you’ve learned from your successes and shortcomings, and you learn from it.

“After the first year we committed to never having the game be played without the sun. We learned little lessons, like not holding a night game, along the way. It’s about putting together a better event, not staying the same,” he sums up. “You know what I’m looking forward to this year? The continued support of our community and people coming together — friends, neighbors, colleagues — and enjoying our community, each other, packing Arizona Stadium and letting everybody in the world know we are Arizona.” tl