Skip to main content

Humanities professors on mega sporting events, fan bases and placemaking in the Valley of the Sun

Panoramic view of March Madness crowd at State Farm Stadium in Glendale in 2017

The Final Four Tournament in Phoenix, 2017. Photo courtesy @TheSunDevils Twitter

April 01, 2024

In recent years, Phoenix has become a destination for several mega sporting events. The city is home to the Fiesta Bowl, MLB Cactus League Spring Training, the Phoenix Open, Arizona Fall League and, since 2020, the NASCAR Championship Weekend. Sunny and snow-free, Phoenix boasts an ideal climate for athletes and fans visiting from around the world.

It is one of only 13 metro areas in the U.S. that have professional teams in all four major U.S. men’s sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL); the Phoenix Mercury is one of the original eight franchises in the WNBA; and the Phoenix Rising FC has officially been the professional soccer team for 10 years.

Still, one might be hard-pressed to call Phoenix a “sports city” in the same way as Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago.

But what if Phoenix offers an alternative for sports fans that other cities can’t? What if the idea of a “sports city” looks different here?

This week, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four and Finals Tournament will be played at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. As the host university, Arizona State University has been planning this event since it first came to Phoenix in 2017 to ensure that the visiting teams, bands, families and fans feel welcome in the Valley of the Sun.

Three faculty members from ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious StudiesTerry Shoemaker, associate teaching professor of religious studies; Victoria Jackson, associate clinical professor of history; and Shawn Klein, associate teaching professor of philosophy — sat down with ASU News for a conversation about Phoenix’s identity in the sports world.

Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What is your relationship to Arizona sports teams, both professional and collegiate? Would you say you have a strong affinity for local teams, some affinity or none?

Victoria Jackson: I competed for ASU and also coached for a hot minute. I feel very committed to supporting ASU sports teams and often work with lots of athletes, so I try to get out to everything I can.

Terry Shoemaker: I would say for the most part I don't have a strong affinity for local teams.

Shawn Klein: I have some affinity; I consider them all my second teams. In the NFL, my team is the Patriots. But then, if I had to choose another team to root for, it would be the Cardinals. Same with the Diamondbacks and so on. But it's not the same, right? To compare it to human relationships: I'm in a deep, committed, long-term relationship with Boston sports teams, whereas with Arizona teams, it's a colleague relationship or casual friendship.

I also haven't been to many local games that weren't against my heart's teams, so it's hard to develop that affinity, whereas with the Phoenix Rising games, I'm there for just them and I do feel more connected and I don’t feel like I'm “replacing” a team.

Q: Can you speak to the importance or role of sports in American culture in general, and how it relates to the research you do?

Shoemaker: I've been active in this subfield of religion and sports. There are some that make the argument that as the U.S. and other countries see a decline in religious commitment and identity, there is an increase in wanting to belong without having to believe, and where there's a recognition that you're part of us. And sports is definitely one of those spaces where there's kind of an immediate alignment with people. So whether you're wearing your Celtics shirt or Suns shirt, there's kind of that immediate recognition.

Klein: I also think that there's something else about sports that might make them more meaningful to us: watching real people do real things in amazing ways. There's a human excellence aspect to it — being connected to human excellence and the pursuit of human excellence and greatness. The athletes are connected to our fandom through our appreciation and the expression of love for that excellence.

Jackson: You know, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for people to emote collectively in extreme ways, and because of the unscripted nature of sports and the element of surprise — especially when games are close — there are things that people do to express emotion with strangers in sporting spaces that you just do, and regularly.

Q: In an article from NPR published last year, Shawn was interviewed alongside ASU Clinical Professor of sports journalism Paula Boivin and Phil VanderMeer, ASU emeritus professor of history, about the struggling fan bases of Phoenix sports teams. In this interview, several factors are discussed, including urban sprawl, transplanted residents and the age of the teams. Do you think other contributing factors impact Arizona sports culture?

Jackson: I’ve been impressed with how the Diamondbacks, Suns and Mercury have recognized and acknowledged close connections with the Indigenous communities of Arizona. (The Footprint Center) has the seals of every Arizona Indigenous nation displayed in its entry. They have uniforms that are inspired and created by Indigenous people. Phoenix teams have also been doing a really good job of recognizing their massive Latino fan base, and it's striking a chord with the community here.

Still, I think sports teams in the West are always going to face the challenge of convincing people to not go outside and play sports themselves and stay at home and watch. You hear this a lot about California and Colorado, and it’s a part of the deal here, too.

Klein: I want to push back a little bit on the claim that (Phoenix) does not have strong fan bases. I agree with Victoria that those who are born and raised here do connect to their teams. Where the Arizona sports teams might be different from East Coast or Midwest ones is that (the fandoms) are not as wide geographically, and part of that is the age — and not just the age of the franchise — but the age of the city. There have been settled communities here for a long time, but in terms of a metropolitan area, Phoenix is relatively new.

Another important factor is winning, and winning consistently. Most of the teams here really haven't done that yet.

Shoemaker: If you look historically at the development of the sports themselves, they were created and scheduled for a specific environment. Phoenix doesn’t have a variety of different types of weather; the first time I went to a Diamondbacks game, it was indoors and air-conditioned. There was this weird disconnect in my mind, like, is this baseball? It seems a bit artificially constructed and disconnected from the environment. And sports have always been connected to the environment.

Q: Phoenix has become a popular location for several massive sporting events. Do you think there is some inherent value to hosting these events?

Shoemaker: The reason we host things is because our weather tends to be sunny and quite boring in the sense that it's very predictable and that we're not going to have disruptions, so there’s also this sports development industry. I've met families that moved out here because they have talented kids and they can come out here and train baseball all year-round. We are starting to see more professional athletes from this area just because of the opportunities.

Klein: I love the idea of thinking of Phoenix as a sports city, and we should be proud of that. I think it adds texture and value to the sporting experience and not just being a place where championships happen. In spring training and the Arizona Fall League, people have the opportunity to see minor league and prospective players that might one day be in the Hall of Fame. I think the range of types of sporting events we can have here year-round has value.

Related stories

More Sun Devil community


Graduating student poses with family on ASU's Tempe campus

Celebrating grads, including an American Indian Studies major

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2024 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Coral Tachine, ’24 BA in American Indian studies, graduates this spring along with an estimated 20,300…

Woman behind brush

No longer in the wilderness

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates. COVID-19 dramatically changed the world, altered societal norms and shifted many priorities. In the case…

Two people posing in gold and maroon graduation robes

Golden Grads return

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2024 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Fifty years ago, ASU alumni Ruth McGregor and Mark Kerrigan completed their degrees. Celebrating this…