It will come as no surprise to big-time sports fans that Arizona is a home of winners. The National Football League’s Arizona Cardinals were in Super Bowl XLIII. The perennial National League contending Arizona Diamondbacks won the most exciting World Series ever in 2001, and the Phoenix Suns have one of the best overall records in the National Basketball Association over the past two decades. Suns’ point guard Steve Nash is undoubtedly the most popular person in the sports-crazy state – indeed, he’s probably more recognizable than our governor. But then, most politicians probably lack his crossover dribble and are suspect from behind the three-point arc.
Viewers around the country are annually treated to dazzling panoramas and stunning sunsets during telecasts of everything from Cactus League Spring Training baseball to the Waste Management Phoenix Open (formerly the FBR Open) and Tucson’s Accenture Match Play Championship golf tournament. But Arizona offers so much more for sports fans.
Variety in play
Arizonans are – by (and with the help of) nature – doers. They run, they play, they hike and bike in the mountains and they ski on the water and the snow. If anything, Arizonans tend to take things a step or two further than most. Take, for example, the wildly popular Bisbee 1000, held every October in the mile-high mining town built on the side of mountains in Cochise County. Not content to hold a simple 5K race, the town instead combines the running with the climbing of more than 1,000 steps carved into the hillsides. The steps are steep, the air is thin and the willing participants number in the thousands.
And when Arizonans aren’t doing, they’re watching – in huge numbers – everything from ice hockey in the Sonoran Desert to horse racing in the high country to drag-boat racing at the edge of one of the largest cities in America.
While Arizona major-league professional teams compete with squads from around the country, some of the state’s most heated athletic contests are intrastate battles involving the state’s universities. Tempe-based Arizona State University, the largest university in the United States, locks its Sun Devils’ horns with the Wildcats of The University of Arizona in a variety of men’s and women’s sports. The annual ASU vs. U of A football games are legendary in their intensity, and this incredible rivalry filters through every sport, from the heated volleyball matches down to the club sports, including men’s ice hockey and rugby.
It should be noted that there is no such thing as a fan of both schools – it’s one or the other. And sometimes it’s neither, as some eclectic fans head a couple hours north of Phoenix to root for the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona University. The ’Jacks, who hold many of their sporting contests in an on-campus domed stadium, like to think that their nickname is the most clever in the state, but that honor probably goes to the Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes. And even they’d get a run for their money from the Yuma High School Criminals, so named for the old Territorial Prison that was the destination of Russell Crowe (or Glenn Ford, depending on the version) in 3:10 to Yuma.
Arizona is home to two (and sometimes three) postseason college bowl games. The Insight Bowl, which is played in late December in Sun Devil Stadium on the ASU campus, pits teams from the powerful Big Ten and Big 12 Conferences. The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, played in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, has an amazing, if relatively brief, history. Despite being in only its fourth decade of existence – quite young, by bowl-game standards – the Fiesta Bowl has parlayed a stunning setting, outstanding Arizona hospitality, and top-notch match-ups to elevate itself to the pinnacle of the bowl-game hierarchy. In addition to its annual post-New Year’s game featuring top teams from around the country and producing some of the most exciting and unforgettable contests in bowl-game history, it also hosts, on a rotating basis (along with the Rose, Orange, and Sugar Bowls), the BCS Championship game every fourth year.
The state also features a couple minor-league enterprises with loyal followings. The Arizona Sundogs of the Central Hockey League pack ’em in at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, about an hour’s drive north of Phoenix. And just about the time the dust has settled from the Major League Baseball season, the Arizona Fall League – a showcase for top draft picks – kicks off and runs through Thanksgiving, with games played throughout metropolitan Phoenix.
Because of Arizona’s mild desert winters and high-country summers, many sporting events are seasonal. This allows, for example, a horse-racing fan to catch live races at Turf Paradise in Phoenix from October through the end of April and then a full slate of racing at Yavapai Downs in Prescott Valley from late May through early September.
Sports with speed
Arizonans love their auto racing. NASCAR roars through Phoenix twice each year, with the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in mid-spring and the penultimate event in the NASCAR calendar in early November. Both events are held at Phoenix International Raceway.
But auto racing isn’t limited to the Phoenix area. Rubber is burned all over the state – from the one-third-mile, semi-banked clay oval at Mohave Valley Raceway, just south of Bullhead City, to Tucson Raceway Park, to the three-eights-mile dirt track at Prescott Valley Raceway and on to the quarter-mile dirt oval at Thunder Raceway in Show Low in the White Mountains.
After a tour of the state, you can always return to Firebird International Raceway on the southern edge of metropolitan Phoenix, with its 1.6-mile asphalt road course with 14 turns, as well as tracks for the National Hot Rod Association nationals, the All Harley Drags motorcycle races, monster trucks and off-road racing. And if that’s not enough, Firebird also features drag-boat racing in early November.
That should be plenty to keep just about any sports fan happy throughout the year in Arizona – unless, of course, one is a cricket fan. Oh wait…there’s the Arizona Cricket Association, with matches in Tucson and Phoenix from October through March. Game on!