TUSCON, Ariz. (AP) — About 12:30 p.m. Monday, Kym Adair and her staff entered scramble mode.
With Boise State unable to participate in the 2021 Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl because of COVID-19, Tucson’s bowl game needed a replacement — and fast. The game was scheduled for noon Friday. Adair, the executive director of the Arizona Bowl, and her team had about 5½ hours to pull off a Hail Mary.
They worked the phones. They talked to conference commissioners, deputy commissioners, athletic directors. In an interview Tuesday, Adair couldn’t recall exactly how many. “It’s all a blur,” she told the Arizona Daily Star.
The Arizona Bowl always has been a scrappy underdog. Finding a replacement team that could assemble quickly, pass COVID protocols and get to Tucson safely proved to be an impossible task.
The 2021 game had to be canceled. The official announcement came via Twitter at 6:08 p.m.
“We work all year to put this together,” Adair said. “It’s definitely sad, disappointing and frustrating that we weren’t able to bring the game to Tucson and all that it provides to the community.
“We had a couple moments there where we thought we had identified a team or two, but ultimately it fell apart. We worked our hardest. We turned over every rock possible to try to make this game happen.”
Soon after, they began to deal with the fallout.
For the first time since its inception in 2015, the Arizona Bowl would go dark. Even last year — when the pandemic seemed to be at its peak and COVID ravaged one of the participants — the game kicked off on schedule. Fans weren’t allowed inside Arizona Stadium, but the contest was televised to a national audience on CBS.
Eighteen college football bowl games were canceled last season because of COVID. The Arizona Bowl was one of the lucky ones. This time it couldn’t escape that fate, becoming the fourth game in the 2021-22 cycle to be nixed. (The Holiday Bowl, scheduled for Tuesday evening in San Diego, became No. 5.)
“The Arizona Bowl has always stood on three pillars: Giving all net proceeds to charity, shining a huge spotlight on Tucson and Southern Arizona, and creating significant economic impact,” said Ali Farhang, chairman of the Arizona Bowl board of directors. “The cancellation of the game is a blow to all three.”
Despite the likelihood of rain Friday, Arizona Bowl officials had mammoth expectations for this year’s game.
The Arizona Bowl is in the first year of a three-year sponsorship deal with Barstool Sports, a controversial but popular multimedia outlet that also was set to stream the game. Scott Stapp, lead singer of Creed, was scheduled to perform at halftime. Ticket sales — which, along with concessions, provide the bulk of the bowl game’s charitable contributions — were up, officials told the Star.
About 25,000 tickets had been sold entering this week, Adair said. Since moving to an afternoon kickoff time in 2016, the Arizona Bowl has averaged 35,565 fans (not counting last year).
Adair anticipated the 2021 Arizona Bowl “being able to give more to charity than we were ever able to give before.” The bowl game has donated more than $4.5 million over the past six years, Adair said — an average of $750,000.
The Arizona Bowl generates an annual economic impact of $25 million to $30 million for the city of Tucson, Adair said. Because of the cancellation, hotel rooms that were expected to be booked through New Year’s Day likely will go unoccupied.
Boise State was supposed to arrive in Tucson on Tuesday. The team — more than 100 players, plus coaches and support staff — was set to stay at the JW Marriott at Starr Pass through Friday.
Boise State’s opponent, Central Michigan, arrived in Tucson on Sunday. The Chippewas instead headed to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, serving as the replacement for Miami, another victim of COVID protocols. Central Michigan is staying at The Westin La Paloma before leaving town Thursday. CMU will face Washington State at 10 a.m. Friday.
Doing right by Central Michigan and the Mid-American Conference — which is in year two of a six-year agreement with the Arizona Bowl, along with the Mountain West Conference — added another layer to Monday’s scramble to save the game.
“We’re all football fans at heart,” Adair said. “We greeted these kids on Sunday when they arrived. We could see how excited they were for our bowl game. Even though we weren’t ultimately able to provide that experience, we absolutely wanted them to have that at the Sun Bowl if we couldn’t find a team.”
The Arizona Bowl will fall short of its charitable goals this year, but the community won’t come away empty-handed. Adair has about 20 boxes of merchandise featuring Boise State and Central Michigan in her office. The plan is to donate it to local charities that support the homeless.
Figuring out how to do that is one of the many issues Adair and her staff need to “unwind” in the coming days, she said. Those tasks include “canceling as much as we can cancel,” trying to get refunds from vendors, and reaching out to sponsors to “let them know what’s happened and ask for their continued support.”
The Arizona Bowl had a week’s worth of activities lined up, most of which have been canceled. A pep rally at Jacome Plaza featuring cheerleaders, mascots and bands was scheduled for Thursday. The Barstool Sports Tailgate Festival — including a live stream of the “Barstool College Football Show” — at the University of Arizona Mall was to have preceded the game. Pre-kickoff festivities included an Air Force flyover and the Wings of Blue skydivers descending into Arizona Stadium.
The New Year’s Eve Downtown Bowl Bash is still on. It’s scheduled for 6 p.m.-1 a.m. and will feature food vendors, live music and the annual “Taco Drop.” Adair said it was important to give “a free event to our community to say goodbye to 2021 and celebrate 2022.”
Adair and her staff will turn their attention to next year’s game as soon as next week. Although Farhang described this year’s cancellation as “numbing” and “beyond devastating,” he emphasized that the Arizona Bowl is in it for the long haul.
“We’re going to feel sorry for ourselves tonight,” he said late Monday. “Then we’re going to get up in the morning and deal with all the issues that we need to unwind with the game’s cancellation — and work on 2022.
“It’s about more than one team. It’s about more than one game. It’s about building a tradition of success.”