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How Arizona became the center of the sports world in 2023

The Phoenix area was at, or near, the center of the sports world for much of 2023.

Glendale hosted the Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs in February. Phoenix hosted the World Series this fall, as the Diamondbacks made a surprising run before ultimately losing to the Texas Rangers. Spring training was the first "normal" one since the pandemic. The Phoenix Mercury and WNBA welcomed back Brittney Griner, after her detention in a Russian prison. And that’s not to mention major moves made by the Suns and the apparent demise of the Pac-12.

As we put a bow on 2023, The Show asked Paola Boivin to talk about some of the biggest stories of the year.

She’s director of the Cronkite News Phoenix Sports Bureau at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the conversation started with what — to her — were the biggest deals of this year.

PAOLA BOIVIN: Well, I think the Diamondbacks, because it was so unexpected. I mean, two years ago, they had what? 110 losses? In mid August, I believe they were still under .500 and just was never on my radar. And then this magic started happening at the end of the regular season and then into the postseason. And — it’s so cheesy, and I know it is — but the way sports brings a community together, it was so fun to see the city excited about something.

MARK BRODIE: All right. So I have to ask now, there’s going to be obviously pressure to repeat or to at least continue, even if you don’t get back to the World Series to make the playoffs and make a run. They’re in a division now that also includes Shohei Ohtani with the LA Dodgers. So … how realistic is it that the D-Backs — they obviously have a lot of really good young players, a really strong core. Is this sort of a two-team race in the NL West now, do you think?

BOIVIN: You know, it’s $700 million, right? How do you compete with that, especially so much of it, almost all of it is deferred, right? They still have money to work with. But they only play the Dodgers X amount of times. We see how the Milwaukee Brewers were a heavy favorite over the Diamondbacks in that Wild Card game. So we see how anything can happen in the postseason. And I don’t sense a lot of panic from the Diamondbacks. You know, they probably got an extra $25 million by being in the postseason, so they’re starting to spend that wisely. I thought (Eugenio) Suarez, (Eduardo) Rodriguez, some of the people they picked up already.

BRODIE: Third baseman and a pitcher, yeah.

BOIVIN: Yes. Excuse me. Right. Both. And then probably will still spend some money on a hitter now that the Ohtani stuff has finished up. And so I think they’re in a great place. And having someone as young and talented and as Corbin Carroll sort of to build around is fantastic.

BRODIE: All right. So let’s move across the street now to Footprint Center where the Phoenix Suns made a few splashes in 2023: a new owner, a new superstar in Kevin Durant and later in the year with Bradley Beal coming over from Washington. So far this year, it’s been a kind of up and down season with a lot of injuries. I’m curious, when you look back on the Suns in 2023, what comes to mind for you?

BOIVIN: You know, as much as the big three come to mind and the additions they made, Mat Ishbia is who comes to mind because there was such a culture problem with the Suns behind the scenes, on the court. And his sort of commitment to the Mercury is one thing, building them a new facility. They’re building new headquarters. The way he brought — during this season already — brought back a bunch of the former star players as a reunion I thought was a huge sign, and you sort of hear the praise. And so, I mean we’ve seen in this town ownership is everything. And they seem like they’re in a good place.

Now, this injury thing is driving me crazy because they still don’t know who the Suns are, right? Right. But, you know, they’re adding the pieces like Grayson Allen, who I never thought I would love as much as I love right now. Those kind of things are making this team really interesting. So Ishbia is what comes to mind first.

BRODIE: But with the Diamondbacks, there’s a certain level of expectation with the Suns now, right? They’ve been good for a number of years. They had the Finals run a few years back, but when you have sort of a big three and you spend the kind of money that they’re spending, there are expectations that go along with that.

BOIVIN: Yeah, and that’s not a very big window. I think, when you look at (Kevin) Durant and these pieces they put together. So I think there is the pressure. If anybody can handle it, it’s (Devin) Booker. I think that’s his demeanor has been amazing during his run of success. And so I’m intrigued by it. But absolutely, I think there’s a sense of urgency with that organization.

BRODIE: So you mentioned the Mercury, and obviously this was a big season for them, not so much record wise, wins and losses, but they got their superstar back. Brittney Griner, of course, came back from being wrongfully detained in Russia. And even though the team wasn’t all that successful, it seems like that was a really big deal, not just for the Mercury, but for the entire WNBA to have her back.

BOIVIN: Oh, 100%. I mean, just that horrible situation — which she really has still not fully talked about, probably far worse than we even imagined — brought to the attention of people around the world and introduced some people maybe to the Mercury and to basketball. But it was absolutely a unifying kind of experience. And this past year’s kind of been the year for women’s sports anyway. Women have been in athletics have been much more vocal about things. And so it was very interesting to see all the eyes on the Mercury. And then, you know, (Diana) Taurasi still sticking around. Yeah, there’s a window there too, for the Mercury that seems to be closing a little bit. So I’m going to be really intrigued to see what happens next year, even though the draft lottery didn’t go their way.

BRODIE: So 2023 was also a year of big change in college sports all over the college sports ecosystem, perhaps no bigger than in the West, right? With the Pac-12 essentially going away, ASU and the UA will be moving to the Big 12 next year. We’ve talked about this in the past, but now that sort of the dust has kind of settled a little bit, what do you make of the fact that this institution, this conference is essentially gone, and ASU and US will have a whole new set of rivals to be playing against?

BOIVIN: Yeah, you know, a couple of things. As I’ve been able to reflect just the last weeks, months, how things are unfolding. One, I’m still really sad. That was so much a part of my sportswriting career in those towns. I loved all those cities that we went to. And it was a conference that really cared about women’s sports, for one. Very heavy academic focus for many of those schools. And so it had an identity. They could just never get the whole TV contract situation resolved, and they really botched it at the end. So there’s a reflection on that and how it didn’t need to end that way.

So there’s that part of it, but there’s also the reality: It’s going to be fine. Already people are kind of excited about these new rivalries, the conferences, you know, as we’ve talked, ASU and UA really aren’t going to be traveling that much more than they are now, and it could benefit them financially in other ways. But we also have to learn how it’s going to impact, as we’ve discussed, some of the Olympic sports and things like that.

BRODIE: Right. Well, and also between ASU and UA, ASU of course, still to some extent dealing with the fallout from Herm Edwards in the football program, not playing in a bowl in 2023. UA is having some financial issues and looking at potential cuts in the athletics department, it seems like 2024 is going to be, if nothing else, a really interesting year for those two schools athletically.

BOIVIN: 100%. I mean, we see what’s happening. ASU football, I think the fan base is still very excited about their young coach in Kenny Dillingham and the way he’s recruiting, despite all the losses and of players and also the losses on the field. And I mean, Arizona football has been surprising everybody. What a great run they’ve had this year.

BRODIE: They’re ranked in the top 25

BOIVIN: Top 25. And I don’t think anyone saw that a year ago. And so it is. It could be a key turning point. We know that football feeds these athletic departments financially. And if they can both find some success, that would be good for both schools for sure.

BRODIE: Not to mention UA men’s basketball is also, so far anyway, having a pretty fantastic season.

BOIVIN: They could be the best team in the country right now, and they could end up in the Final Four just down the road here, which would be fascinating.

BRODIE: That’d be really interesting, wouldn’t it, to have the Wildcats in the Final Four in Glendale?

BOIVIN: Right. And I think it’s a real possibility, the way they’ve been playing. I’ve been really, really impressed. Great coach.

BRODIE: All right. So looking ahead to 2024, I know that people hate being asked to look into a crystal ball, but I’m going to ask you anyway.


BRODIE: So we’ve talked about the Diamondbacks, we’ve talked about the Suns. We didn’t really talk too much about the Cardinals and the Coyotes. The Coyotes having so far a surprisingly good season. The Cardinals not having a terrific season. If you had to guess one Arizona team that was going to make a deep run into a postseason in whatever sport and potentially win the championship, which team do you give the best odds to?

BOIVIN: That’s a great question. I’m going with the Suns. I just think when you talk about how formidable those top players are, you’re not going to get that kind of a group like that again on this team. I think Devin Booker simply gets better every year. I know health is going to be an issue. We have to pay attention to that. So the Suns would be a slight edge over the Diamondbacks. It’s just so hard. There’s so many factors in baseball that can change the dynamics of where things go. So Suns a slight edge over the Diamondbacks as far as great success next year.

BRODIE: All right, Paola Boivin, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for coming in.

BOIVIN: My pleasure. Always fun, Mark.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.