SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – John Junker has witnessed some of the biggest games in college football history during his 30-year run as a bowl organizer.
He saw Penn State take down mighty Miami in 1987, watched Ohio State upset the Hurricanes in 2003, and was there when Texas knocked off Southern California at the 2006 Rose Bowl.
As president and CEO of the Fiesta Bowl, Junker professes that Oregon vs. Auburn in Monday's BCS national title game could top them all. "To me, those are some of the real enormous games and this, I think, is bigger," he says.
And indeed the matchup is a hot ticket, thanks to the fact that the teams are newcomers to the championship and each boast prolific offenses. The No. 1 against No. 2 showdown is sure to be another financial windfall for the Phoenix area, too.
There's just one thing. Around here, it's hard to tell one of the major sporting events of the year is about to happen.
There are no big signs at the airport touting the area as host of the title game, no strings of billboards dotting the freeway every few miles, no overwhelming, isn't-this-great enthusiasm from the people around town.
Other than a few condensed pockets — the fanfest in central Scottsdale being one — even the Duck and Tiger faithful who came in for the game don't exactly stick out, their team colors nearly blending in with everyone else in the nation's fifth-largest city.
Some Auburn fans didn't even fly into Arizona. They landed in Las Vegas to spend a few days living it up on The Strip before heading across the desert for the championship.
With an area that takes about an hour to drive across and a long history of hosting big events, Phoenix is treating what would be a spectacle in most cities as just another Monday that happens to end with the most important college football game of the season.
"Phoenix is so spread out that it tends to swallow up big events like this," said Fiesta Bowl spokesman Andy Bagnato, who grew up in the area. "It's a great city for putting on big events and people who want a piece of those big events know where to come."
No doubt, it is a great place for big events.
Phoenix has been site of two Super Bowls, the World Series, the NCAA Tournament, playoffs in all four major sports. The NBA All-Star Game has been here twice and baseball's version will be at Chase Field in the upcoming season. There are two NASCAR races here and the Phoenix Open has the biggest crowds of the PGA Tour, 400,000-plus fans — many of them at the rowdy 16th hole — crowding around the course.
It's also become a bowl haven.
Phoenix hosts the Insight and Fiesta bowls regularly, and became the first area to be the site of three bowls in one season four years ago with the addition of the 2007 BCS title game.
According to an economic impact study by the W.P. Carey School of Business, that initial bowl threesome generated $401.7 million for the state, 3,576 jobs and $10.1 million in state and local taxes. Fiesta Bowl board chairman Duane Woods said that even with a not-so-glamourous Fiesta Bowl between Oklahoma and Connecticut, the area could bring in around $420 million from this year's tripleheader.
"For each of our bowls, we have a whole different crowd coming in," he said. "People really do see this as a destination bowl for them. They come out for the week, they enjoy the weather, all the other things."
The weather and all those other things are part of what makes Phoenix have such a good draw for bowl games.
Not only do fans want to come here when their teams get into an Arizona bowl, many are already here. Phoenix is filled with transplants from all over the country, and every year there's a migration of "snow birds," older people who come down from colder places for the winter.
Even when teams don't travel so well — like UConn last week — the locals tend to fill in the empty seats consistently, including this season, when a record number of ticket packages for all three games were sold.
"It historically has helped a lot because in the BCS we've had teams from every conference," Junker said. "Some teams are bigger draws than other — people would be kidding themselves to say otherwise — but we have people from everywhere here, so there's some connections to almost every part of the country."
This season has been another good one for the desert bowls.
The Insight Bowl, which got a boost from tie-ins to the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences, sold nearly 70,000 tickets for the game between Iowa and Missouri. The Fiesta Bowl faced an uphill climb with UConn being so far away and its fans stuck in inclement weather, but attendance still topped 67,000, thanks to an always-strong contingent of Sooners fans making the trip.
And, with two teams new to the championship and two of the nation's most exciting offenses, the BCS title game has been off the charts.
The championship has been sold out almost since the teams were announced. Tickets with a face value of $300 are going for thousands of dollars and one pair reportedly was listed at $15,000 each — or about the cost of a 2011 Ford Explorer.
Ticker broker StubHub.com even had to suspend tickets sales for a while after one seller who didn't have enough tickets to fill orders.
In all, there will be over 70,000 fans will be inside University of Phoenix Stadium Monday night and thousands more in the area for the game, between 10,000 and 15,000 from Auburn alone, by one count.
"It's bigger than the Super Bowl," Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes said.
That's true for anyone connected with Oregon or Auburn. For the rest of Phoenix, it'll just be Monday.