The San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl returned to San Diego on Dec. 28, bringing crowds and tourism dollars to downtown for the annual parade and – for the first-time – a football game at Petco Park.
“When the ball kicked off, there was a big cloud lifted,” said Mark Neville, CEO of the San Diego Bowl Game Association, the nonprofit that puts on the Holiday Bowl. “It was a celebration, not just for our organization but for the entire city.”
Despite some scattered rain in the morning, the celebration kicked off in the morning with the annual Holiday Bowl 5K with around 1,000 participants running or walking along Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway. The run was followed by the Port of San Diego Holiday Bowl Parade, which features the most “big balloons” of any parade in the U.S. – including the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The event also featured local marching bands, drill teams, low riders and floats.
Unlike previous years, this year’s parade did not include grandstand seating because of a change in the parade route due to a cruise ship docking near the usual grandstand site of Broadway Pier. Instead, parade goers viewed the festivities from along the sidewalks of Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway.
The main event of the Holiday Bowl festivities was a matchup between the 9-3 University of Oregon Ducks and the 9-4 North Carolina Tarheels. After a hard-fought game, the Ducks prevailed 28-27 in a thrilling finish. Neville said the exciting matchup was typical of the Holiday Bowl.
“We’re proud of being recognized as being the most exciting game out there,” he said. “Some of it is purely luck, but we also go after teams that create that excitement. We came into it with North Carolina and Oregon, two of the highest scoring teams in the country. The over-under was way higher than any other bowl game out there. We like to create those matchups that fans are going to enjoy.”
Fans also enjoyed the game in the new venue. The Holiday Bowl signed a five-year deal with Petco Park, with 2020 supposed to be the first game held there but was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. Last year’s game was again supposed to be the first, but hours before kickoff, the matchup between UCLA and North Carolina State was cancelled due to an outbreak of COVID among the UCLA Bruins.
Neville said the new venue made the game an “event” for the 36,242 people in attendance. “One of the highlights for me was we did a thing called ‘Take Me Out to the Bowl Game’ since we were in the baseball park,” he said. “That’s what we want people to remember so that when this game comes around next year when we’re selling tickets, people are going to remember that that was fun.”
Ticket revenue is a “good percentage” of the funds needed to meet the annual budget for the Holiday Bowl, which Neville said is now pushing $10 million.
For the Holiday Bowl, this year’s game was a needed lifeline after two years of COVID-related cancellations. “We had to get this game in, and we did,” Neville said.
For the last two years, the organization had been operating on reserves, which Neville said had been accruing since the Holiday Bowl’s founding in 1978.
“Our founders had foresight to protect the organization,” he said. “If we did end in the black in a specific year, it went right into our reserves. And we were fortunate that they did because these last two years we lost over $3 million and that was pretty much what we had in reserves. Those reserves were there for a rainy day, well, we had two rainy days.”
Another game saving move for the San Diego Bowl Game Association was to expand beyond football. Last February, the organization announced the launch of Sports San Diego – a new sports commission for the region with a purpose to drive tourism through sports events.
“The pandemic provided us the opportunity to see how we can provide an even bigger impact for the region. Sports San Diego, the sports commission, is what came of that,” Neville said. “We totally evolved to be able to have a bigger impact.”
In addition to the Holiday Bowl, Sports San Diego now hosts events like the Transplant Games and the World Surf League Junior Championship. All in all, the organization plays host to over 20 events in the area, with more to come.
“I can’t tell you what they are, but over the course of the next couple months we’re going to be announcing a couple other big events that will be similar to Holiday Bowl that we own and operate,” Neville said, adding that the similarity to the Holiday Bowl is that the event will fill another “void” of time where tourism is historically slow in San Diego.
The economic impact of the Holiday Bowl on San Diego region is “significant,” said Julie Coker, president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority.
“On average, the festivities leading up to the game and the game itself bring in roughly more than $30 million through ticket and merchandise sales, hotel room nights, and revenue from our restaurants and bars, and other businesses,” she said. “We’re confident that this year’s economic results performed similarly to prior years. And we are excited about the growth potential with the game scheduled to be played at downtown’s Petco Park through 2025.”
Coker added that San Diego’s tourism sector gains are especially important during the holiday season when both corporate and leisure travel tend to slow down.
“The influx of visitors staying in the hotels, dining at the restaurants, and shopping helps boost our local economy as well as supports jobs for San Diegans,” she said, adding that the event also serves to increase San Diego’s reputation as a “great year-round travel destination.”
“The bowl game being televised is seen by millions and showcases San Diego’s beauty which helps promote our city as a place that is worth visiting and coming back to,” she said. “This sets the stage for continued tourism throughout the year, not just during peak travel season.”
Neville said he views the Holiday Bowl as “more than a game.”
“It is a premier event,” he said. “It was a really good night for San Diego. Putting the football game on national broadcast television and having such a great game, a full stadium at Petco Park, an amazing event – I hope we made San Diego proud.”
San Diego Bowl Game Association/
Sports San Diego
CEO: Mark Neville
Headquarters: San Diego
Business: Nonprofit promoting sports tourism in San Diego region
Employees: 8 full-time
Websites: HolidayBowl.com, sportssandiego.org
Notable: Since 1977, the Holiday Bowl has generated $977 million in economic impact and 819,000 hotel room nights for the San Diego region.