Let’s cut to the chase right away—there may be no greater bastion of fair weather and bandwagon fans in the United States than in Phoenix, Arizona.
There are two reasons for this.
The first and most profound reason is that a great portion of the city’s population is not native to the state. The rapid ascent of Phoenix to become one of the largest cities in the nation has been fueled primarily by a massive influx of people from other states, people who bring their existing sports loyalties with them.
Secondly, of the major spectator sports, only Arizona State and the Phoenix Suns have a historical foothold in the area. The Suns came into existence in 1968, and it wasn’t until 20 years later that they were joined by the then-Phoenix (now Arizona) Cardinals. The Winnipeg Jets moved here in 1996 to become the Phoenix Coyotes and two years later, the Arizona Diamondbacks threw out their first-ever pitch.
The roots of a definable Phoenix sports identity are still loosely planted in topsoil.
Unlike the Bostons, South Bends or Lincolns of the world, no Phoenix-based team enjoys the luxury of a rabid and devoted fanbase, ASU included. With so many loyalties from all over the country melting in the pot of Phoenix, this is a quintessential “What have you done for me lately?” market.
Knowing these facts is critical to understanding the situation in which the Arizona State football team now finds themselves.
Having long endured sagging attendance and mild indifference in the minds of most Phoenix sports fans, the Sun Devils are now poised to capture their attention in 2011 in a way that the program has not done since the Jake Plummer and Pat Tillman-led Rose Bowl team of 1996.
The reasons are twofold.
The Current Phoenix Sports Landscape
When I was in college, I worked for the Phoenix Suns marketing department. My first season there was the disastrous 2003-2004 campaign in which the team won a mere 29 games.
I was often tasked with taking several hundred game tickets, lower levels at that, to school to hand out to anyone who would take them.
As the old saying goes, I couldn’t give the tickets away. It was as if I was handing out parking tickets instead of NBA tickets.
However, the next season they had Steve Nash and were the talk of the NBA. As the team was now winning, the Suns were the hottest ticket in town. That is until…this season, when the team’s title-contending days ended. Now, the once-hottest ticket in town can routinely be had for less than face value.
That’s how fickle the Phoenix sports fan typically is.
Fluctuating attendance and interest is not unique to the Suns.
For years since their move in 1988, the Cardinals were…well, the Cardinals. That is to say, they were a punchline. Except for a 1998 playoff win, they were among the worst teams in the NFL.
A new stadium in 2006 and a few playoff trips, including a run to Super Bowl XLIII, made the Cardinals the favorite sons of the Valley. People who had long dismissed the Cardinals rushed out to buy their gear and proclaim their “longtime” love for the Red Birds.
All it took to undo a great deal of that progress was a terrible 2010 season and continued quarterback uncertainty. Their recent string of sellouts is now in jeopardy. The continued NFL lockout has only dampened the enthusiasm for the upcoming season.
The Diamondbacks are owners of the state’s only world championship, the 2001 World Series title. Yet, over the last several seasons, including this one, they routinely play in half-empty stadiums unless teams with rooted Valley fanbases, such as the Cubs or Giants, come to town.
Last and arguably least are the Phoenix Coyotes. Despite being the most successful local team recently and making the the playoffs the last two seasons, their attendance has been Florida Marlins-esque. A horrendous decision to build their new arena in the west Valley, an ongoing “will they or won’t they” relocation and ownership fiasco has left all but the hockey diehards numb to the Coyotes.
These collective failures have created a void atop the Valley sports hierarchy, a spot that can now be taken by ASU football.
The Sun Devil Situation
Every one of ASU football’s competitors for both interest and dollars is in the midst of the kinds of slumps that immediately turn off the Valley sports fan, and none of those teams figures to return to level of success needed anytime soon.
That opens the door very wide for ASU in 2011.
The Sun Devils are coming of a better-than-expected 2010 season which they ended with a thrilling double-overtime win over hated rival Arizona, providing impeccable momentum.
They return all but two starters to a roster loaded with young talent.
They are a trendy pick as a pre-season Top 25 team and are even gaining some sleeper national title contender attention from Sports Illustrated.
They even have new uniforms that have proven immensely popular with the players and fans.
The stars have aligned and the pieces are in place.
All ASU has to do to capture the top spot is…
ASU likely will be ranked in the upper-20s when the season begins. They have a scrimmage disguised as a game to open the season against UC Davis. Their first real test comes the following week when they host Missouri.
That game will be nationally televised on ESPN and figures to be the debut of their new black uniforms. The Tigers are a quality team, having won 39 games over the last four seasons. A win would vault the Devils up the standings and give them momentum the following week on the road in a very winnable game against Illinois.
Then the true test.
A 3-0 ASU team, at that time ranked in the mid-to-upper teens, would play host to USC on September 24th.
Yes, USC is still under sanctions and not a truly elite team, but this is still USC. A team ASU hasn’t beat since 1999. A team that routinely stands as the longtime nemesis to the Sun Devils.
If ASU is 3-0, this game will be sold out and the hype will be intense. A win would be the legitimizing game in the minds of not only fans, but of the players.
ASU would own this town. The crowded Sun Devil bandwagon would then be overflowing.
While ASU would obviously need to keep up their winning ways, especially in their October 15th road game against Utah, the USC win would tell the Phoenix sports fan that this ASU team has turned the corner. An appearance in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game would later serve as the official coronation of the Sun Devils as Arizona sports royalty.
However, it’s a journey that all starts with 4-0.
With a highly regarded recruiting class already shaping up for 2012 and many key pieces still with multiple seasons of eligibility, this could be the beginning of ASU’s long awaited takeover of the Valley sports scene.
Sparky may no longer be on the side of the helmet, but he can soon be King of Arizona.
Follow me on Twitter @ASU_Examiner for the latest updates and analysis on ASU football.