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Basking in the sun

For the Fiesta Bowl and Tempe, this is as big as it gets

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Posted: Wednesday December 30, 1998 11:05 PM

  Stand and deliver: Thanks to the Cardinals' late-game heroics, the Fiesta Bowl will have some brand new goal posts AP

By John Donovan, CNN/SI

TEMPE, Arizona (CNN/SI) -- This town is on fire.

The NFL's Arizona Cardinals are just days away from their first appearance in the playoffs (in a non-strike season) in 23 years.

The NHL's Phoenix Coyotes are one of the league's biggest first-half surprises.

And college football's national championship game -- the first unified national championship ever, as it's proudly proclaimed here in the Valley of the Sun -- is coming Monday night.

As if any real sports fan didn't know that.

"All we need," says Mary Ann Miller of the Tempe Chamber of Commerce, "is basketball."

The NBA's Phoenix Suns may be sitting this one out, but they'll be the only ones idle here this week, it seems. Everywhere you go in the city -- certainly everywhere you go as you head into Tempe, a city of more than 160,000 jutting up to the southeast of Phoenix -- reminders that the big one is upon us hang like a summer smog over Camelback Mountain.

There's the string of high-profile events scheduled around the bowl, including a New Year's Eve bash in the streets of Tempe that is expected to draw some 175,000 revelers.

There's the parade through downtown Phoenix this weekend that is the largest single spectator event in the state, with 400,000 or more people lining Central Avenue.

There's something called College Football's Biggest Party on gameday, Monday, January 4.

Oh, and there are the endless banners, commercials and billboards to tout the game. And everything's sponsored by big-bucks corporations, the biggest of which is Tostitos, the sponsor of the whole enchilada.

Yes, there's a veritable sea of corn chips in the desert, and the good folks at Tostitos plan on giving them away on just about every street corner this week.

Anyone here have any guacomole?

"It is a significant part of our self-image and the image we portray to the rest of the country -- and the world," Neil Giuliano, Tempe's mayor, says of the game. "We're very proud to be known as the home of the Fiesta Bowl, the national championship game. It means a great deal to our city."

The Valley of the Sun isn't the only place that benefits from the Fiesta Bowl. Giuliano estimates this year's game is worth $100 million to Arizona, thanks to the thousands of out-of-state visitors that swarm to Phoenix and surrounding cities to take part in the party. The Fiesta Bowl says it's been worth more than $572 million to the state in its 28 years.

Hotel rooms are booked. There will be lines at most every restaurant in downtown Tempe through next Monday night. And the national exposure the game gives the city -- where it was sunny and in the low 70s on Wednesday -- is incalculable.

All this because of a game that began in 1971 with hometown favorite Arizona State -- the game takes place in Sun Devil Stadium -- taking on Florida State. The No. 2 Seminoles are back again this year, their fourth trip to Tempe, and are the bookmaker's favorites over No. 1 Tennessee.

"This event, the excitement that goes with it all ..." says Miller, "it's just the fact that so many people are involved. It's become a part of everyday conversation around here. And now, to host the national championship game -- well, that's just big, period."

Giuliano came to Tempe as an Arizona State student in 1974, in time for the fourth game in the series when Oklahoma State and Brigham Young made a little less than $202,000 apiece for playing.

Florida State and Tennessee will pocket between $11-13 million for playing Monday night.

And Tempe -- the entire Valley, really -- will look like several million bucks, too.

"This used to be just a college town -- and there was nothing wrong with that," says Giuliano. "Now, Tempe is so much more.

"This is as big as it ever gets. This is as big as the Super Bowl for us."

Around the Fiesta Bowl will appear each day through the game on January 4.

Related information
CNN/SI's complete coverage of the Fiesta Bowl
No. 1 Vols still playing role of underdog
Send your questions to the Fiesta Bowl mailbag
Fiesta Bowl Breakdown
John Donovan at the Fiesta Bowl: Luck? No killer defense? Vols have something to prove
BJ Schecter at the Fiesta Bowl: Seminoles have air of champions
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