Perhaps as overdue appreciation from the football bowl gods, Tucson attorney Burt Kinerk got a pinch-me-it's-true phone call from Albuquerque the other day.
"I'm sending a private jet for you and six other Arizona fans," the voice said. "You'll have seats to the Arizona-Nevada game in a private suite, and I'll make sure you're back in Tucson for tipoff to the Arizona-Florida basketball game. It won't cost you a cent."
With one phone call, Kinerk was treated better by the Gildan New Mexico Bowl and its supporters than in the 15 years he founded, gained accreditation for and staged the Copper Bowl (with its attendant corporate sponsorship names).
"Tucson is such a natural place to hold a bowl game," Kinerk says now, the hurt gone from his tone 13 years after former Fiesta Bowl chief John Junker literally hijacked the game and moved it to Phoenix. "As I look back, it's sad our hospitality industry, the city and the county, did not embrace the game, nothing substantial, and just let it go."
If Albuquerque has a bowl game, shouldn't Tucson?
If Mobile, Ala., and Shreveport, La., and El Paso all have bowl games, doesn't it seem odd that Tucson, which is larger and has a more welcoming climate and tourist facilities, doesn't?
Each of the 31 American cities staging bowl games this year has someone like Kinerk, a get-things-done community servant working to better the order. That's the only way a bowl game survives in the off-Broadway markets. One man must take charge. In Tucson, that man was Burt Kinerk.
So it was a pleasant surprise when Albuquerque attorney Turner Branch, whose name "Branch Field" adorns the turf at UNM's University Stadium, phoned to invite his old friend to Saturday's festivities.
Perhaps they should hire Kinerk as a consultant; it's both ironic and predictable that the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, in its seventh season, is fully into the woes that rode shotgun with Kinerk from 1989 to 1999.
Tickets sales in Albuquerque, estimated at maybe 9,000, are slower than a desert tortoise. Fans from the participating schools, Arizona and Nevada, will leave about 11,000 of their total 15,000 ticket allotment unoccupied.
There's more: The state of New Mexico shaved its appropriation to the Gildan New Mexico Bowl from $330,000 to a mere $50,000 this year. Why bother? Because 50K keeps "New Mexico" in the title.
Otherwise, Saturday's game would be as faceless as the Belk Bowl (Charlotte, N.C.), the Beef 'O'Brady's Bowl (St. Petersburg, Fla.) and the GoDaddy.com Bowl (Mobile, Ala.)
The Gildan New Mexico Bowl is still kicking for one reason: ESPN bought the game and six other low-brow bowl games for the not-so-grand purpose of live December programming. Had ESPN begun buying up struggling bowl games in 1999, the Copper/Insight/Weiser Lock/Domino's Pizza bowl would probably still be played at Arizona Stadium.
Not that Tucson cared.
Only 37,237 attended the inaugural Copper Bowl on New Year's Eve, 1989, to watch the Arizona Wildcats play North Carolina State. By 1999, on death watch, a scant 35,762 showed up on New Year's Eve afternoon to watch Colorado beat Boston College 62-28.
Those numbers will overwhelm the spotty fans-in-the-stands numbers Saturday in Albuquerque. But ESPN will, as they say in the business, write it off.
"If you got the right group involved in Tucson, it could work," says Kinerk. "But it comes down to how the community perceives the game. We could never get to the point of getting that acceptance.
"There are so many bowls now; I would like to see Albuquerque hang in there, but it's tough when the stadium is half-empty."
Tucson struggled for far more than community support. The Pac-10 would not recognize the Copper Bowl and repeatedly declined to link its middle-tier finishers to Tucson. That's why the game was often stuck with a dreadful matchup, such as Indiana-Baylor in 1991, Texas Tech-Air Force in 1995 and Missouri-West Virginia in 1998.
Tucson had climate, big-league hotel amenities and a functional stadium, but no charm, no buzz, no Pac-10 support and, ultimately, no future.
Albuquerque's issues are sometimes more advanced than those of the old Copper Bowl. For instance, there is almost no novelty about playing in a bowl game any longer. They are littered all over the map, available to .500 finishers. Even when the hometown Lobos played in the game, in 2006 and 2007, attendance never exceeded 34,111. Here's a really bad sign: Three of the last four GNMB games drew fewer than 26,000.
The New Mexico people aren't apt to be rescued by a gee-whiz, we-gotta-be-there audience the way Tucson did in 1993.
In '93, Kansas State qualified for its first bowl game in 11 years (and second in history). An estimated 20,000 KSU fans traveled to Tucson and 49,075 were in the house for its victory over Wyoming.
"There were so many Kansas State fans here," Kinerk remembers, "that some had to get hotel rooms in Willcox."
Those days of getting a lucky draw in the bottom section of the bowl calendar are rare. On Saturday, Arizona and Nevada will open the bowl season with a few diehards in the stands.
If ESPN's cameras weren't humming, you'd almost think it was Willcox.
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or email@example.com