History Lesson: How Arizona Fumbled & Recovered the Super Bowl in the 90’s

Douglas TowneJanuary 4, 2023
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In 1991, the NFL moved Super Bowl XXX from Phoenix to Pasadena after Arizonans vetoed an MLK holiday in a contentious and confusing vote. Afterward, the state had much to prove.

Protesters rally for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at the Arizona Capitol in 1989
Protesters rally for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at the Arizona Capitol in 1989

Talking from his office at First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, Dr. Warren H. Stewart remembers well the acrimony and disappointment that  followed the defeat of two Arizona ballot propositions in 1990 to create a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. 

“The mood in Arizona was a deep funk after both [propositions] were defeated in 1990,” the pastor says. “For the people who supported it and the business community, it collectively put Arizona in a bad place.” 

For many Arizonans – and African Americans in particular – the sustained resistance to an MLK holiday was crushing. For the state’s prospects as a sports and corporate entertainment hub, it proved completely ruinous. In response to the vote, the NFL yanked away a Super Bowl that was to be played in Tempe in 1993 and serve as Arizona’s big debut on the national sporting stage. No Michael Jackson, no Garth Brooks. Those talents, along with an estimated $200 million in economic impact, would flee to Pasadena. 

Though Arizona would eventually repair its reputation and host Super Bowl XXX in 1996, it would not be the last time her social policies would run afoul of national sensibilities, and not the last time the threat of a Super Bowl boycott would compel the state to change course.

The push for an MLK holiday in Arizona was launched long before its dramatic intersection with the Super Bowl in 1990 – and from the beginning, it had the uncanny power to divide Arizonans. The Arizona legislature’s first resolution to create a state MLK holiday was proposed in 1972, four years after King’s assassination, where it died in committee. 

The debate smoldered until 1983, when the creation of a federal MLK holiday brought the issue to a boil in Arizona. Following the example of 17 other states, the Arizona Senate passed a state MLK holiday bill, which was modeled after the federal holiday in that it combined the existing state holidays for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln into President’s Day, and allowed observance of MLK without a net gain in paid holiday hours. The Arizona House, however, struck it down by one vote. 

Some observers chalked it up to racism. Others demurred, saying the House vote merely reflected Arizona’s longstanding penchant for against-the-grain policymaking and small government.  “I never heard anyone say anything racist; the Arizona legislature just didn’t want to spend money for another state holiday,” recalls Betsey Bayless, then the Arizona Department of Administration director for the state’s Democratic governor, Bruce Babbitt. 

In May 1986, from the pulpit of Stewart’s church, Babbitt announced an executive order to create a state MLK holiday on the third Monday of January, seemingly ending the controversy. After all, several Arizona municipalities, including Phoenix and Tucson, were already observing MLK Day. 

However, some holiday supporters suspected opponents would contest Babbitt’s move. “It felt like a temporary victory at most,” Stewart says.

Six months later, in a three-way race to succeed Babbitt as governor, Republican Evan Mecham won with 40 percent of the vote. After taking office in January 1987, Governor Mecham rescinded Arizona’s paid MLK holiday as his first official act, saying his predecessor had no legal right to declare it. The cancellation inspired nationwide ire and triggered a convention boycott of Arizona. Led by Stevie Wonder and seminal rap group Public Enemy, a groundswell of top musicians joined the boycott with their MLK holiday protest song, “By the Time I Get to Arizona.”

After a chaotic 15 months in office, Mecham found himself in the crosshairs of the legislature, which impeached him on charges of obstruction of justice and misuse of government funds, matters technically unrelated to the MLK holiday. By constitutional decree, Arizona Secretary of State Rose Mofford took his place as governor. “When Mofford became governor, it was a tumultuous time, politically,” Mofford press secretary Athia Hardt recalls. “The governor was thrown into the center of political controversy that was heated and unpleasant, and Arizona’s image was hurting.” 

Amid the tumult, at least one sector of Arizona’s cultural landscape – pro sports – seemed to be faring well. In March 1988, about a month before Mofford took office, NFL team owners voted to allow St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill to move the team to Phoenix for the 1988 NFL season. Local NFL fans were ecstatic – particularly since the state’s favorable winter weather immediately put Greater Phoenix on the shortlist for a Super Bowl.

However, the MLK controversy was still hot on the mind of then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

“After the Cardinals moved their franchise from St. Louis to Arizona, the league was eager to hold a Super Bowl in the state where summer spends the winter,” Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble says. “In 1990, the NFL voted to award the 1993 game to Arizona, but intimated that if anything were done to dishonor the memory of Dr. King, it would rescind the award and hold the Super Bowl in another location.”

Local leaders attempted to evade the inevitable collision of sports and politics with the formation of the Phoenix ’93 Super Bowl Committee. Aligned with local business interests, the group saw that creating an MLK holiday was essential to its success and ending the boycott against Arizona. Hoping to settle the matter, Mofford called a special legislative session that passed a bill swapping Columbus Day for an MLK holiday in September 1989, which she signed. 

“It appears we’ve elected to stick a football in one of Dr. King’s hands and a business briefcase in the other,” Arizona Senator Pete Rios said at the time. The Democrat voted for the trade, but like many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, resented the economic pressures that produced the legislation. 

But again, there was a hitch. A coalition of Mecham supporters and Italian-American Arizona residents (who were upset about the loss of Columbus Day) banded together to launch their own signature campaign. 

“Opponents of the legislation managed to get enough signatures [84,700, almost twice the 43,350 required] to have the holiday undergo a ballot initiative,” Trimble says. As a result, Proposition 301 – designed to put the decision to replace Columbus Day with MLK Day directly in voter’s hands – was added to the next election. Opponents were confident that Arizona voters would veto MLK Day if given the chance. 

Meanwhile, Arizona’s Super Bowl dreams were coming to fruition. In March 1990, the league awarded the Super Bowl to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, edging out Los Angeles. “I feel like I won the lottery. It is the lottery,” Mofford said afterward. 

But her elation would soon turn to chagrin.  

The Arizona legislature, hoping to halt the public vote to ratify MLK Day, created a new bill, which Mofford signed. Designed to mollify supporters of Columbus Day, the legislation created an MLK holiday, restored the Columbus Day holiday, repealed the previous King-Columbus Day exchange, and blocked the upcoming public vote.

However, the new legislation quickly encountered two problems. MLK holiday foes, led by Mecham, filed petitions forcing it onto the ballot as Proposition 302. Arizona Attorney General Bob Corbin complicated the issue and ruled that both MLK holiday bills would be on the November 1990 ballot, and if both passed, the one with the most votes would be enacted.

Despite pre-election polls indicating that a majority of Arizonans favored honoring MLK with a holiday, neither initiative passed. Popular in Phoenix and Tucson, Proposition 302 lost heavily in rural counties and garnered only 49 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Proposition 301 also lost, likely baffling friend and foe alike. “The two competing propositions in 1990 were so confusing,” Bayless says. “People were saying, ‘What am I supposed to do? I want a holiday, but am not sure how to vote.’ I think voters generally wanted to approve an MLK holiday, but the propositions split the vote.”

Voter confusion, racism, backlash over another paid state holiday and rural voters opposed to the Valley benefiting economically all contributed to 302’s defeat – along with economic blackmail. “The NFL’s call to pull the Super Bowl was perceived as a threat, and the vote could have been in retaliation, as people don’t like to be threatened,” Stewart says. 

NFL commissioner Tagliabue recommended that the 1993 Super Bowl be moved, which the league did, to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. It was the first time in U.S. history that politics conspired to relocate a major sporting event. The MLK issue also impacted the Fiesta Bowl. The nation’s two top college football teams, Notre Dame and Virginia, turned down invitations in 1990. Convention cancellations continued, which would eventually result in a $30 million loss for Arizona. 

After the defeat of the propositions, holiday supporters asked Stewart to lead a group to promote an MLK holiday on principle without the baggage of economics or the Super Bowl. “The name of our organization was self-fulfilling: ‘Victory Together,’” he says. “We brought together the most broad-based coalition Arizona has ever seen; we had people sitting at the table for two years who would have never sat together at the same table for any other reason.”

Higher motives aside, money was a factor. Bayless, later a Republican Maricopa County supervisor, recalls frequent discussions about lost revenue because of a lack of an MLK Day. “The head of the Phoenix Convention Center reported daily that we had just lost another convention or event, and it was costing Arizona a fortune,” she says. “So, from my perspective, it started to become less about MLK and more about money.”

In November 1992, 61 percent of Arizona voters approved Proposition 300 to create MLK/Civil Rights Day. Supporters, including Rosa Parks and Stevie Wonder, celebrated in what is now the Footprint Center. “When we put our minds together and lay aside our prejudices and intentions, we can work together for the common good of all,” Stewart says. 

“When people later had a single straightforward question, they voted yes for a holiday,” Bayless adds. “At the time, everyone was saying Arizona was so bad, but we were the only state that approved an MLK holiday with a vote of the people. So, we felt proud.” 

Its detention time served, Arizona returned to the NFL’s good graces. In March 1993, the NFL awarded the 1996 Super Bowl XXX to Tempe. Finally, the Valley was on its way to becoming a major sporting event hub, hosting two more Super Bowls over the next 25 years, plus a College Football Playoff National Championship (2016) and NCAA Final Four (2017).

Happily ever after? Not quite. While Arizona’s appeal as a big-ticket sports hub is now a matter of gospel, so is its knack for divisive policymaking – a reality that nearly derailed Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale. That 2015 game would see the New England Patriots hang on to defeat the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in what became the most-watched TV program in American history.

In February 2014, the Arizona legislature passed Senate Bill 1062, allowing business owners to refuse service to gay customers on religious grounds. The controversial bill received national attention and inspired protest rallies, and its passage would likely have compelled the NFL to move Super Bowl XLIX from Arizona. Governor Jan Brewer withheld public comment on the bill but eventually vetoed it a week after its passage, saying the “broadly worded [bill] could result in unintended and negative consequences.”

 “I call them as I see them, despite the cheers or the boos from the crowd,” the Republican said at the time.

“I don’t think Brewer had any intention of vetoing the bill [before the protests],” says Demion Clinco, the only openly gay member of the 2014 Arizona House. “Her veto came from the clarity she received from corporate America that said they would pull back from or out of Arizona, including the Super Bowl.” 

The Tucson Democrat says Arizona’s pursuit of high-profile magnet events like the Super Bowl – which left a $720 million economic footprint on the Valley in 2015 – has forced the state to move the needle on social issues. “Arizona has this duality of wanting economic growth and a conservative [social] agenda, but these two things don’t dovetail in the current age where everything is open, and consumers are making choices about what they want to support.” 

Clinco says Arizona narrowly avoided shooting itself in the foot in 2014 – and he’s not convinced the chamber is empty. “We still haven’t learned our lesson as the legislature continues to push ideological laws that attack under-represented groups, which result in self-inflicted negative economic impacts to Arizona.”