Just a month after she hosted NCAA officials in Phoenix for a site selection visit, Debbie Johnson arrived in Boston. The Director of Arizona’s Office of Tourism was inside the meeting space, acquiring a feel for the presentation room — rehearsing in there a day later.
But on Wednesday, she headed the final presentation that could land Arizona another mega-event. Johnson, other members of the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee and local officials presented Arizona’s hour-long bid for a future Final Four to the NCAA and will learn of their fate in about a week.
For Johnson and Arizona, the stage was nothing new.
Having been represented at heaps of final presentations like the one Johnson gave Wednesday, the Phoenix metropolitan area has become a sports mega-event hotbed. Since University of Phoenix Stadium opened in 2006, Arizona has hosted three college football national championships, a Final Four and two Super Bowls (with another set for 2023). In that same span, no other city has hosted more than four mega-events.
This go-round, though, going up against Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Detroit and Indianapolis, Arizona is bidding on the 2024, ‘25 and ‘26 Final Fours. (It didn’t bid on 2023 because it has been awarded the Super Bowl that year).
Johnson seemed hopeful but not overly confident. After all the community just hosted a Final Four in 2017, an event that generated a statewide economic impact of $324.5 million, according to a study by ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business. But under great tourism and state leadership, Arizona has started to cement the formula to obtain a spot in the unofficial mega-event rotation.
The repeat hosts of mega-event presentations all have an indoor stadium, good weather and excellent hospitality. Arizona is highly regarded for its operations, grasping the efforts and resources of multiple cities that come together for the greater state good.
“We’re here in Boston and we’ve got the city manager for Phoenix and the city manager for Glendale both in our presentation group. That’s unheard of,” Johnson said. “You look at Texas and they have three different destinations that can host a Final Four. We have one.
“So our cities really get that this is our one opportunity.”
In the landscape of Arizona’s collection of tourism leadership, Johnson is the umbrella. Under her, and the Arizona Office of Tourism, is the multitude of Arizona’s convention & visitors bureaus.
Each CVB, including Experience Scottsdale and its President and CEO Rachael Sacco, works to support each other — something those involved say doesn’t happen everywhere. Their intentions are focused on what’s best for visitors in Arizona.
“We’re all wise enough to know that whatever we do makes everybody’s water and boat rise,”Sacco said. “So we work very cooperatively. Brainstorming is sometimes just saying, ‘Hey, we have an opportunity to bid on this mega-event … how do we approach it together?’”
Those brainstorming sessions are set up by Sacco, who has been with Experience Scottsdale (which was formally called the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau) for over 30 years, and happen only when they need to happen. On non-mega-event years, Sacco says the group may only get together a few times a year to touch base.
The conglomerate can speak on a variety of areas and topics because it’s so diverse. It consists of the consortium of Maricopa County CVBs, sometimes other CVBs if the discussion impacts them, the Valley Hotel and Resort Association, the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association, Sky Harbor Airport and other parties that may have an interest in the discussion.
Sacco has assumed the role of contacting each party and setting up a date, happy to use the Experience Scottsdale headquarters as the meeting place for the group. The mega-event discussion is ongoing for the entire year, but the group also works to collaborate on different projects, too.
“When we were looking to do some additional outreach to bring new service here — the Condor flight as part of the Lufthansa, coming overseas from Germany — we all got together and talked about how we could support the airport in making that pitch, how we could help promote that.
“There’s a lot of good that comes out of those meetings.”
Over the last six months, the discussion has shifted to the Final Four bid. Jean Moreno, executive officer for strategic initiatives and special projects for the City of Glendale, said the talks have been about getting commitments for the bid
“Where are we at in the process of securing the number of rooms (for the hotel room block), what else was needed,” Moreno said, “were there any issues that needed to be mitigated, the contracts and those types of things.”
But this is what makes Arizona’s cities unique — Sacco described it as “coopetition.” Each city competes against one another while also working side-by-side to accomplish much bigger things.
A big reason why is because they have to do so. Glendale has the stadium to house a mega-event but drastically lacks hotel space. Phoenix and Scottsdale are in the opposite position. The trio of cities aren’t forced to be something their not, but rather they just call upon their fellow Maricopa municipalities to fill their holes.
When asked about the hotel room block, both Sacco and Moreno didn’t answer. They instead deferred to the expert on the subject — their colleague who just happens to work for another organization, President and CEO of Visit Phoenix Steve Moore.
In preparation for possibly luring a mega-event to one’s city, a certain number of hotel rooms need to be saved, or blocked out so if that city is awarded the event, the rooms are solidified for the host organization.
Moore sends out the same letter to select hotels across Phoenix, Scottsdale and Glendale to gauge how many rooms they can spare for the room block. Before the presentation Wednesday, Moore met with the select hotels first on a webinar, then in person and a final time to make sure everything was ready to present.
He needed to block out a total 10,000 rooms for each weekend they were bidding on the FInal Four. Since they’re bidding on three separate years, the group gathered a 30,000 hotel room block from the trio of Phoenix, Scottsdale and Glendale.
That, though, is small potatoes compared to the Super Bowl. Moore said that required a 22,000-room hotel room block for each year of opportunity. As expected, most of those are coming from Phoenix and Scottsdale.
Moreno says Glendale only has 1,500 rooms eligible for the room block, which makes the relationships between cities that much more important.
In business ventures, some cities refuse to cross city limits, Arizona welcomes it. Moreno and Sacco aren’t micromanaging Moore as he collects the room block. They trust his interests line up with that of the state and what’s best for the bid.
“Very few destinations have as many cities involved — perhaps Los Angeles might be the only other — but a frequent big event city … we’re probably the most unique in terms of having myriad municipalities and different CVBs.
“We do not represent our bids as saying, ‘This is where this shall occur, or that shall occur.’ We present a pallet of the entire destination and allow, and encourage, the NCAA or the NFL or the College Football Playoff, or whomever to choose where they want to be.”
Moore called the greater-Phoenix area “the most driveable city in America,” and while that may be argued, Arizona’s close proximity between its large cities cannot be. Their bids have been so successful because they allow for flexibility.
Before the Super Bowl in 2008, they allowed ESPN to decide where all their shows would be located. ESPN chose Scottsdale then and when they came back in 2015, wanted to show the sunny, resort-centric side of the state again.
Glendale doesn’t have resorts. Its features are drastically different from Scottsdale, and it knows it. Arizona’s bid is a give and take between cities, able to use the benefits and positives of each rather than manufacturing it in one location.
For Glendale, its point of emphasis is its proximity to the stadium. Moreno is in constant communication with the businesses in the area — mainly at Westgate — that could benefit through private events with mega-events.
“They know that if the event happens in our community that they are obviously going to reap the benefits. But they want to be apart of making sure we get that opportunity,” Moreno said. “We have to remain competitive and keep our competitive edge.
“And that competitive edge in my opinion is our regional cooperation and the support of our local business community.”
Johnson speaks to her counterparts from other states across the country, praising the interaction and help each of Arizona’s cities gives each other. Their response?
“Nope, never happens here.”
The NFL and NCAA want that to change. After the Phoenix area hosted its first Super Bowl, the NFL complimented the togetherness the cities and public service departments in Arizona showed.
“We have rarely seen communities that come together and share their resources in the positive way that this community does,” Sacco said that NFL told her.
Unlike some cities, Arizona’s public service departments and CVBs get year-long training and practice with major semi-mega events like the Fiesta Bowl and Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament.
As Moore alluded to earlier, people can come to the Phoenix metropolitan area and drive around to different destinations quite easily.
Tourists in Arizona don’t often just stick around their hotel. The state’s CVBs have structured a leadership model that reflects that — one where cities act in the best interest of the state and its visitors, not itself.
“They don’t recognize city limits,” Moore said. “Visitors don’t care where a certain city is located, they want to be where the action is.”
And as they’ve shown time and time again as they rack up an extensive mega-event resume, Arizona has put the action everywhere.
Story by JORDAN KAYE, Cronkite News