Behind the scenes of the Sun Bowl game, association works to make El Paso shine

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While El Pasoans geared up for the holiday season and winter break, the Sun Bowl Association was working around the clock.

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Sun Bowl Association Executive Director Bernie Olivas poses with the NC State and Arizona State helmets after the teams were selected to play in the Hyundai Sun Bowl game on Sunday. Kick-off is slated for Dec. 29 at 1 p.m. MST.

Staffed by a seven-member, full-time crew and relying heavily on volunteers, the Sun Bowl Association juggled the 43rd annual Sun Bowl Andeavor All-America Golf Classic, the 81st Sun Bowl Association Thanksgiving Parade and the 56th annual WestStar Bank Don Haskins Invitational basketball tournament in the past weeks, but those events all lead up to the biggest event – the Hyundai Sun Bowl.

“It’s more like a juggle that has a lot of things in the air,” said Bernie Olivas, executive director of the Sun Bowl Association. “I knew what I was getting into and when I hire people I make sure that they know what they’re getting into, but we love it.”

Olivas said working long hours is just part of the job.

“The first thing I tell when I hire someone, I say ‘You know you’re working on Thanksgiving? You know you’re working on Christmas?’ and they understand,” he said.” That’s the nature of being in a bowl business and the event business. That’s what we do, we put on events.”

Now in its 84th year, the Hyundai Sun Bowl pits the Atlantic Coast Conference’s NC State against Arizona State of the Pac-12 to battle it out in the Sun Bowl on Friday, Dec. 29 at 1 p.m. MST.

Olivas and his team will be kept three goals in mind as the kick-off drews near. First, having a high-quality event for El Paso and second, giving El Paso positive national attention with help from Sun Bowl broadcaster CBS.

“The third goal, and to me might be the most important goal, is to have a positive economic impact on the city of El Paso and we do that by trying to attract teams that will bring a lot of a fans to come and stay in our hotels and eat at our restaurants and shop at our stores,” Olivas said. “Those are the three main goals we have here at the Sun Bowl, I think we do very well at all three aspects and of course CBS helps us quite a bit in their broadcast.”

The economic impact the bowl game brings to El Paso has ranged from $14 to $17 million annually, according to Olivas. However, a power match-up between Notre Dame and Miami in 2010 brought in a sum of $24.3 million to the city.

“There’s no doubt about it, bringing Notre Dame into El Paso was a huge, huge cash for us,” Olivas said.

“Before we had a shot at Notre Dame, we pretty much knew we had Miami. That stirred up a lot of interest in El Paso, bringing the ‘U’ and then matching them with Notre Dame. It was a great catch for the Sun Bowl and for the city of El Paso to have one of the most storied universities in the nation come to El Paso.”

Once the teams arrive, they are greeted by mariachis and folklorico dancers as well as the Sun Bowl Court, association members and fans. The greeting, first-year Sun Bowl Association Executive Assistant Amber Herrera said, is to give the teams an El Paso-style welcome.

“We make sure they see what we’re about and see how the Mexican style and family welcoming means to them because it’s a very different welcoming than other bowl games,” she said.

Herrera says the welcome starts the day the teams are announced, when people start deciding whether or not they want to travel here.

“We start doing that (welcoming teams) through our social media, through our community, everyone in our community is great about promoting the Sun Bowl and making sure that they do the best that they can to make these players feel welcomed,” she said.

Once here, the teams participate in several events around El Paso in between practices, including dinners, hospital visits and an afternoon at Fort Bliss with soldiers, all leading up to the Fan Fiesta and kick-off.

The Sun Bowl crew also on the watch for potential negative feedback from visiting players, like the Twitter post sent out by then-USC freshman defensive end Leonard Williams in 2014. He tweeted: “Out here in El Paso. Sh–ty city but glad I can enjoy this moment wit [sic]the USC family.”

“When they tweet something out like they do, our reaction is to change their mind,” Herrera said. “That’s what we want to do, we want to change their perspective on what they’re doing here and why they’re here. We want to make them feel welcomed as well as we possibly can, and we want them to make sure that (they realize) El Paso is a great place.”

Olivas echoed Herrera’s sentiment, saying he only worries about the stigma if it is still felt as the teams depart back home, as a lot of the players have never been to El Paso.

After the game, the Sun Bowl Association will send surveys for teams to fill out and give feedback, for everything from how the invitation was received, how clearly and smoothly instructions for events were given and how they ran, as well as their overall experience in El Paso.

“It doesn’t bother me when they say it before they get here,” Olivas said. “I tell the media, ‘Hey, that’s what they feel, that’s fine, we’ll see how they feel when they leave’ and I don’t think any of those players who said something bad about El Paso before they got here feel the same way after they spend a week here. It would bother me more if they were saying the same thing when they left and I have never heard anything bad said about the city of El Paso after the team has experienced it. Once they get here and see what kind of city we have, what kind of people we have, what kind of events we put on, I think it changes their whole perspective of the city.”

The biggest critique of the Sun Bowl Association, Olivas said, comes from themselves.

“After every event we sit down in our conference room and discuss what we did right, what we did wrong, and how we can improve it. Every year it seems to get better and better, you’re never going to be perfect, but that’s what we’re trying to get. There are no bigger critiques than ourselves.”

After the game clock winds down and the 2017 Sun Bowl Champion is crowned on December 29, the association takes a very short breath, then begins working on the next bowl game.

“We work on it year-round, a lot of people think we just work in December, play the game, and then take the rest of the year off, but it’s a long process,” Olivas said. “As soon as the previous one is over, I like to have everything wrapped up from the previous game by the end of January and that means putting everything away, paying all our bills, so that on February 1st, we can start working on the new bowl.”

Then the clock begins again for the 2018 holiday season.

“It’s a long process, a lot of that process is critiquing ourselves from start to finish as to everything we do, what went right, what went wrong, how can we make it better,” Olivas said.

“If they (Sun Bowl events) weren’t getting any better they wouldn’t be around. If the football game wasn’t any good, the conferences wouldn’t align with us. Our job is to put on events and we try to make them better every year and that’s how they continue to survive and grow.”

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