No Super Bowl in the Desert: 3 years after voters rejected MLK holiday, Arizona lost out on 'Big Game' in '93
On Nov. 8, 1990, a mere 12 hours after Arizona voters rejected a referendum to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday, the National Football League stripped Phoenix from hosting its first-ever Super Bowl in 1993.
In what Chicago Tribune reporter Don Pierson described at the time as "a unilateral and unprecedented decision hailed by other (NFL team) owners," Super Bowl XXVII was pulled from Sun Devil Stadium in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe.
By doing so, the NFL successfully avoided a public relations nightmare and, instead, shifted it directly into Arizona's proverbial lap.
The previous March at the NFL owners' meetings, Phoenix had won an upset bid to host the Super Bowl, beating out the likes of Los Angeles and San Diego - two California cities with major clout.
Owners voted to award Phoenix the game as a courtesy to longtime Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, who was struggling to sell tickets at Sun Devil Stadium after relocating his franchise from St. Louis in 1988.
But they put a condition on Phoenix's hosting duties - the city would get the Super Bowl only if Arizona voters made MLK Day a state holiday. (By 1990, only three states did not have an official King Day.)
After receiving assurances from Arizona politicians that the referendum would pass, the league remained confident that Phoenix would host the game. In the end, the referendum failed by a slim 1 percent margin.
If it had played host to the Super Bowl 20 years ago between the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills on Jan. 31, 1993, Phoenix and Tempe would have had good reason to celebrate. Based on monetary figures from prior Super Bowls back then, the Arizona economy stood to gain more than $100 million.
Before the NFL owners voted to reject Arizona as host, however, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued a statement.
"I don't believe playing Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona is in the best interest of the NFL," Tagliabue said in a statement in late 1990. "I will recommend to NFL clubs that this Super Bowl will be played elsewhere. I am confident that they will follow the recommendation. Arizona can continue its political debate without the Super Bowl as a factor."
Bidwill said in late 1990 that the proposal to make King's birthday a state holiday was "the right thing to do," and stressed his disappointment at Arizona voters' decision and at Tagliabue's action.
Super Bowl XXVII was subsequently moved to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. - which finished second to Phoenix in the initial owners' vote - and Arizona would not play host to its first Super Bowl until 1996, less than four years after Grand Canyon State voters agreed to officially honor MLK Day.
Ironically, in 1990, Phoenix and Tempe had already been observing the holiday. Those cities were penalized for the state's perceived missteps.
"We're telling them (NFL), 'Why punish Phoenix? It has a King holiday,' " Larry Hilliard, then-vice president of the Phoenix and Valley of the Sun Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the New York Times in November 1990.
Not until November 1992 did Arizona voters approve of a state King holiday. Although Phoenix/Tempe ultimately could have hosted the 1993 Super Bowl, the NFL voted to move the site for the Big Game because it did not want to take any chances that there might be another failed vote of the people.
Just how far has Arizona come with the NFL in the two decades since it approved celebrating MLK Day? In 2015, Glendale's University of Phoenix Stadium will play host to the Valley's third Super Bowl since 1996.
On May 18, 1986, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, signed an executive order at the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix that declared MLK Day a state holiday.
Babbitt's order came on the heels of former President Ronald Reagan's decision to have the nation begin observing a King holiday on a state-by-state basis.
African-Americans, which by the early 1990s comprised about 3 percent of Arizona's population, were ecstatic.
But as soon as Babbitt left office the following year to embark on a presidential run, his successor, former Gov. Evan Mecham, a Republican, promptly rescinded the order to honor the slain civil rights leader. The Arizona Legislature had authorized a King holiday, but Mecham led a campaign to put it up for a vote of the people in 1990.
Mecham, who was eventually impeached from office for an entirely different matter, subsequently accused the NFL of "a shameful and disgusting attempt to blackmail this entire state" by taking away the Super Bowl.
Apparently a slim majority of voters agreed with Mecham. Others accused the league of grandstanding.
"I think he (King Jr.) should be entitled to a holiday," Sun City retiree Edward Egan told the New York Times in November 1990. "But I don't like it when everybody starts threatening you."
On the other hand, Arizona's African-Americans, including the Rev. Warren Stewart - pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church that had the largest black congregation in Phoenix - told the New York Times at the time that he held the business establishment partly to blame for not working soon enough in support of the King holiday proposal.
As a result of Arizona's vote in 1990, the NFL Players Association and NFL owners stood united against awarding Phoenix/Tempe the Super Bowl, which had become the single biggest sporting event in the world.
Only two years earlier in February 1988, shortly before Mecham's impeachment, then-acting Gov. Rose Mofford, a Democrat, urged the Arizona Legislature to reinstate the MLK holiday.
"This (losing the Super Bowl) is one of the worst blows we've had in a long time," Mofford told the Chicago Tribune in late 1990. "This means more to Arizonans than anything I know of. This will be hard to overcome for many years."
By the early 1990s about half of the NFL's players were African-American, and the league had become very sensitive in recent years to calls to add minorities to its coaching and front-office staffs, Los Angeles Times staff writer Bob Oates wrote in an article published on Nov. 8, 1990.
When Phoenix/Tempe was selected to play host to the 1993 Super Bowl, NFL officials made it clear that the league could change its position if there were no holiday in Arizona to honor King.
Norman Braman, former Philadelphia Eagles owner and then-chairman of the league's Super Bowl site committee, said that at a league meeting in Orlando, Fla., in the spring of 1989 there were no contingency plans made to relocate the Super Bowl "because we fully expected the King holiday bill to pass in Arizona."
However, Rev. Stewart recalled years later that in 1986 Gov. Babbitt cautioned those who wanted an MLK Day in Arizona that they would have to push hard to keep it.
After years of squabbling about the issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s, today marks the 21st anniversary of an official King Day in the Grand Canyon State.
"He (Babbitt) said, 'Now, I'm signing this (executive order for an MLK Day in Arizona), but I guarantee you that there are people who do not want this to happen and you're going to have to work for it,' " Stewart recalled in a PBS documentary for KAET-TV in Phoenix.
"None of us thought it was going to be the work it turned out to be."