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Official Review by Aaron S. Terry, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Cactus Bowl has had many names since its inception back in 1989, including the Copper Bowl, the Insight.com Bowl, the Insight Bowl, and the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but has always been played in Arizona, albeit in different stadiums. The game has been known as the Cactus Bowl for the past 3 years, and is currently sponsored by Motel 6.
The game is currently played at Chase Field (a baseball stadium in Phoenix, Arizona), which opened in 1998 as the home of the MLB expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. Chase Field is notable for being the first stadium built in the US with a retractable roof over a natural grass playing surface, and is one of four baseball stadiums that currently sponsor bowl games, the others being the Miami Beach Bowl, the St. Petersburg Bowl, and the Pinstripe Bowl. There is also a fifth bowl game that is not played at a football stadium, the Bahamas Bowl, which is played at a soccer stadium in Nassau.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concessions stands at Chase Field during the Cactus Bowl offer pretty much anything you can imagine, including lots of variety and some pretty unique dessert items, such as churro dogs and pretzel crusted brownie sticks; the options appear to be exactly the same as what you would find during a Diamondbacks game. Since this is a pro stadium, prices are a little higher than what you would normally see at the college level, but are on par for other pro venues.
Main dishes include Polish sausage, several types of brats and hot dogs, with both regular and upscale versions available, as well as burgers, pizza, wings, nachos, chicken tenders and chicken sandwiches, upscale grilled cheese and other types of sandwiches, subs from Subway, salads, and all manner of Mexican cuisine, including tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tamales. Main dishes cost between $6 and $12, but there are several snack-type items available, including popcorn, kettle corn, pretzels, peanuts, fries, and fruit cups which run $3 to $8; the cheapest thing on the menu are the chips from Subway at $1.50.
Dessert options are where Chase Field really shines, so if you have a sweet tooth you may find yourself in heaven here. Selections include several varieties of ice cream and frozen yogurt, including Cold Stone, plus Cracker Jack and boxed candy, cotton candy, regular or giant cookies, caramel apples, cheesecake, and the aforementioned pretzel crusted brownie sticks and churro dogs (dessert prices range from $5 to $10, although you can get regular cookies from Subway for $1 each). The churro dog is undoubtedly the most exotic option; a full-sized churro nestled in a doughnut-batter hot dog bun, topped with 3 scoops of vanilla ice cream and whip cream, and then drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauces. You will no doubt need a spoon!
The variety at the concessions stands at Chase Field during the Cactus Bowl continues in the beverage department, offering all of the mainstays plus a full selection of alcohol products. Bottled water, fountain sodas (Pepsi products), and slushies, in addition to canned and draft beer, non-alcoholic beer, margarita and other cocktails, wine, and liquor on tap are all available starting at $5.50. Unfortunately, only one size of fountain soda is offered ($8), but Subway again takes the prize for cheapest drink item (milk for $2).
The atmosphere at the Cactus Bowl is exceptional. Even though the game is played on a baseball diamond, the staff does a great job setting up the field to optimize sight lines for the fans. There is also superb entertainment, most notably in the form of paratroopers landing on the field before the game, and pretty solid décor all over the venue. The staff's attention to detail on the little things really brings the game to life.
The most exciting moment (except for your team winning, of course) definitely comes a few minutes before kickoff, when a series of military paratrooopers land on the field, each trailing smoke or a flag, circling carefully above Chase Field to careen precisely through the opening in the roof. There are also the traditional fireworks during the singing of the National Anthem, performance by both bands, and colorful displays as the teams come onto the field. The only possible downside is that the staff should keep the roof open just a little bit longer after the game starts, to allow the smoke from the fireworks to dissipate. See a video of the action here:
The décor at the Cactus Bowl, however, is great. Lots of colorful signage, especially the giant orange and white banners displaying cacti, is plastered along the walls, and the end zones are even painted with the teams' names and colors, instead of sponsor logos or city names like at many bowl games. There are several stands set up in the concourse selling souvenir hats and t-shirts, and the prices for these are less than the cost at other games.
In terms of field setup, the playing surface is laid out brilliantly, with one of the sidelines running right along the first baseline, instead of diagonally across the field. In addition, temporary bleachers are set up along the opposite sideline, bringing the fans much closer to the action. Contrast this to the setup at the Pinstripe Bowl, for example, where the football field is laid out diagonally across the infield and outfield, leaving large triangular gaps on both sidelines between fans and the field.
The best pregame entertainment for the Cactus Bowl at Chase Field is the Oasis pregame party, set up one block south of the stadium, next to one of the parking decks. Here you will find food, drinks, and a great party atmosphere, including live music, performances by the teams' bands and pep squads, a large-screen TV to watch other bowl action, and even bouncy houses and a play area for the kids. This is a great place to go before the game and meet up with other fans; admission is $25 per person. See a video of the fun here:
In addition to the pregame party, there are lots of other restaurant options if you are looking for a bite to eat before or after the game. Chase Field is in the heart of downtown Phoenix, so is within walking distance of a number of options, including Hard Rock Café, Majerle's Sports Bar, and Tilted Kilt. Game Seven Grill is also a good choice, and has a patio and sometimes live music.
If you are going to be in town for a couple of days, downtown Phoenix also has several entertainment options, including the Capitol Museum and the Arizona Science Center; either of those would be a great way to spend a couple of hours. Being a huge city, Phoenix also has plenty of hotels, including all of the major chains, so you should easily be able to find one that meets your needs.
Attracting fans to bowl games is always difficult, and Phoenix is even tougher than average, given how far the participants' fans have to travel. From a mathematical perspective, there are very few FBS programs on the west coast, and the ones that are there are very geographically dispersed. Consequently, it would be almost impossible to invite 2 nearby schools to the Cactus Bowl. Nevertheless, the staff is consistently able to draw crowds of well over 30K (in a venue that holds less than 50K), which speaks to both great decision-making in choosing schools that travel well, as well as strong work creating a satisfying bowl experience.
The crowd at the Cactus Bowl includes a good number of fans from both teams, as one would expect, but also a lot of hometown fans who don't necessarily have any allegiance. This second group is of course not as loud as the first, but all in all, the crowd displays a good deal of energy, is engaged in the game, and seems to really get into the spirit of things.
Getting in and out of Chase Field for the Cactus Bowl is actually pretty easy as far as bowl games go. The airport is less than 5 miles from the field, and because the stadium is located downtown (and because this is a night game), there are more than enough parking decks to accommodate the crowd; the daytime traffic in the area is a lot more than what you will see during the bowl game, and the downtown area was built to accommodate it. That said, you should easily be able to find a parking space for around $20 within a couple of blocks. However, if you are looking to save some green, or avoid traffic, you can always use the light rail; trains run daily every 20 minutes, there are 8 different park and ride locations around the city, and a full-day pass is only $4.
Once you get to Chase Field, there are gates all around, so getting in and out is pretty easy, with no long lines, especially if you get there a little early. Moving around the concourse is also pretty easy; again, the stadium was built to accommodate a bigger crowd than what you will find at the bowl game, so you should not have any problems getting to the bathrooms or concession stands. One caution, however, is that if your seats are in the upper levels, you should plan to use the stairs. Technically the elevators are reserved for those with a medical need, so there are not very many of them, and I did not see any ramps or escalators.
Tickets to the Cactus Bowl start at around $40 (not including Ticketmaster fees), which is about average as bowl games go, but you should be able to find them cheaper from 3rd party resellers, since the game won't be sold out. Parking is reasonable at around $20, but you could save money by using the light rail. The only potential concern might be the concessions, which may be on the high side depending on what you are used to, but you could always eat before or after the game and save money that way. So all in all, if you plan ahead this could be a great value for the money, and you are guaranteed a great experience given the great sight lines, décor, and entertainment the staff packs in here at Chase Field.
The staff deserves a lot of credit for how they set up the field here; by lining up the turf with the first baseline, and bringing in temporary bleachers along the other sideline, the staff made sure that all fans have a great vantage point from which to see the action.
The décor around the venue also deserves a mention; having the team names painted in the end zones is a nice touch, and one that not all bowl games choose to do. It is also great to see the Cactus-themed décor everywhere, which really makes it feel like Phoenix.
I also can't say enough about the paratroopers; having 6 of them make pinpoint landings on the field, trailing smoke and flags in support of both the participating teams as well as the state of Arizona, was an amazing display to behold. I especially liked how they engaged in antics like kicking the target cones around; having this type of entertainment at the Cactus Bowl really makes the experience memorable, and will make your visit all the more worthwhile.
Another fun addition is the live tweeting screen at the game; fans can send tweets about the Cactus Bowl during the game, and some will show up on the board for others to see. This is a great way to make the experience more interactive for the fans, and is a nice nod to new technology.
If you have never been to a bowl game before, or if you have never seen football played on a baseball field, the Cactus Bowl at Chase Field is definitely a game you should look into attending. While it may not have as big a name as some of the other bowls, it is a nice, modern facility, with great staff who put on a great show, and would definitely be an awesome way to spend some time during the holidays.
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