North Carolina won the NCAA Tournament. The Valley took care of everything else.
There were two big winners on Monday night. North Carolina won the NCAA championship. The Tar Heels celebrated by cutting down the nets, carrying on a tradition that would make any mother cringe. Who else climbs ladders while carrying scissors?
And by the time the basketball court is hauled out of a football stadium, the Valley will have solidified its reputation as the best big-game host in America.
Sorry, New Orleans. You have Bourbon Street and great restaurants. But you’re a filthy mess and your weather just doesn’t compare.
This is no small accomplishment. The 76,168 fans that packed the University of Phoenix Stadium were mostly tourists. This was obvious when Cardinals star David Johnson appeared on the giant scoreboard and nobody reacted. Most of these folks will go home thinking good things about Arizona, even if they can’t recognize an MVP candidate in street clothes.
But they all realized there’s more to the Valley than the cliché buffet of gun-toting cowboys, cacti and tumbleweed.
Look at this way. Valley residents have experienced only one major professional championship in 19 years, a World Series title captured by the Diamondbacks in 2001. Our local teams have been mostly a disaster.
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By contrast, University of Phoenix Stadium has crowned six champions in 11 years, hosting two Super Bowl winners, three college football championships and one Final Four. From Boise State’s Statue of Liberty play to Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl-clinching interception, it’s amazing how many memorable feats have happened under one retractable roof.
The conclusion: While the Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and our sunsets must be God’s canvas, the best ambassador for the state of Arizona is sports.
“We all love when (CBS announcer) Jim Nantz talks about bringing the event back (to Arizona),” said Dawn Rodgers, the Final Four’s executive director. “What we’re consistently hearing is it’s a great city to visit, the weather has been spectacular and 95 percent of the time we’re going to have terrific weather …
“If you think about it with a viewership that was up a high percentage, that’s more impressions about Phoenix and Glendale and Arizona. If you live here in the Valley, that’s important to you because it’s so favorable. These fans leave as ambassadors of your state.”
MORE: What we learned from North Carolina’s win
The Valley has received priceless exposure through our cornucopia of sporting events. In the past few months, the College Football Playoff semifinals were held in Glendale; the Waste Management Phoenix Open keeps smashing attendance records and growing in popularity, while the 16th hole is fast becoming a bucket-list item for fans and celebrities alike; NASCAR dropped by Phoenix International Raceway for a few hundred laps; the Cactus League welcomed home the World Series champions; and NFL owners held their league meetings at the Biltmore.
The Final Four was something new and different, and we exceeded all expectations. The 3-point shooting contest at Grand Canyon University showed off one of the most rabid fan bases in college basketball. The three games in Glendale were all competitive, and the energy in the building was fabulous. The scene in downtown Phoenix was awesome, so much that Aerosmith tweeted out their appreciation after playing a free concert and their iconic singer, Steven Tyler, even showed up for Monday’s game.
Toss in one of the greatest upsets in history that happened elsewhere – Mississippi State snapping Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak on Friday night – and the NCAA must be thrilled with what transpired over the past few days.
In return for our hospitality, the Valley was treated to some great theater. The passion and emotion on display more than compensated for a lack of familiarity with these players and teams. We witnessed North Carolina become the fourth team to win a championship after losing the title game the year before, atoning for one of the most painful losses in school history. In the end, Blue Blood beat New Blood.
Better yet, we’ve seen young athletes weep openly after tough losses. It happened in the Oregon locker room. It happened with Gonzaga players after Monday’s game. And at a time when NBA players are robbing fans by sitting out regular season games to rest their bodies, it’s so refreshing to see athletes who really care.
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University of Phoenix Stadium is living a charmed existence. They say you can’t destroy energy, and there must be some powerful stuff swirling inside this building, especially since they rarely open the roof. But the 2017 Final Four also marks the last big event the Valley will host for some time. The Super Bowl rotation will be tough to crack in the future, with beautiful new stadiums expected in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. That means all future magic must come from the Cardinals, if it’s not too much to ask.
After all, we love tourists. But it’s about time Arizonans get a champion to call their own.
Reach Bickley at [email protected] or 602-444-8253. Follow him on twitter.com/dan.bickley. Listen to “Bickley and Marotta” weekdays from 12-2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.