How Petco Park landed the Holiday Bowl, and what to expect in unique downtown showcase

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The setup for the Holiday Bowl is shown Dec. 22, 2021 at Petco Park in downtown San Diego. (Photo by Aaron Eudaley, FOX 5)

SAN DIEGO – From playoff baseball to Paul McCartney, Petco Park has been the backdrop of memorable moments of all shapes and sizes in the nearly 20 years since it opened in downtown San Diego.

But next week opens a new chapter for the ballpark as it hosts the 43rd annual SDCCU Holiday Bowl.

How we got here

It’s been a period of change for the game as it was canceled last year due to the pandemic and already was in need of a new venue with the demolition of the former SDCCU Stadium in Mission Valley.

The last Holiday Bowl came Dec. 27, 2019 when No. 19 Iowa delivered a 49-24 beatdown of No. 22 USC. That ultimately was the final game of any level played at the Mission Valley stadium before it was gradually torn down to clear the way for the brand new, 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium.

While Snapdragon opens next fall, it’s the downtown ballpark where the Holiday Bowl will live for at least the next five years.

The Dec. 28 matchup, which airs on FOX 5, marks the first-ever football game in Petco Park history, a move cleared by San Diego City Council this year in a joint agreement with the Padres.

It modified a Joint Use and Management Agreement between the two sides which prohibited football from being played there. According to the city, the game has generated $977 million in total economic impact since 1978 and is the driver behind more than 819,000 booked nights at area hotels — so the interest was clear to open the door for an event that creates “significant impacts” in the community, a staff report shows.

“This is a win for San Diego before the game is even played,” Council President Pro Tem Stephen Whitburn said in July when the decision was approved.

Now slated to be smackdab downtown in the center of all the action, Holiday Bowl CEO Mark Neville — who started as an intern with the bowl game in 1991 — is positively giddy.

“In the 31 years I’ve been with the bowl game, I’ve never been this excited about it,” he said. “Being downtown, it’s going to be a monster downtown. The fans are staying downtown. All the events are downtown.”

What to expect

While unique to the Holiday Bowl, baseball stadiums from Chicago’s Wrigley Field to the Oakland Coliseum to the defunct Tiger Stadium in Detroit have hosted football games for decades.

In fact, Virginia Tech and Maryland square off next week at Yankee Stadium for the Pinstripe Bowl.

But after a generation in Mission Valley, moving the Holiday Bowl downtown opens up options for organizers to field an event unlike any seen in its illustrious history. When the game was announced in June, Padres CEO Erik Greupner called it “a truly one-of-a-kind experience among all college football bowl games.”

This year’s game pits No. 18 NC State against UCLA in what’s likely to be one of the better bowl matchups outside of the four-team College Football Playoff.

The setup for the Holiday Bowl is shown Dec. 22, 2021 at Petco Park in downtown San Diego. (Photo by Aaron Eudaley, FOX 5)

“We’re really fortunate to get these two teams,” Neville said Tuesday. “Two of the most exciting teams, the highest-scoring teams in the country. UCLA came on strong there at the end (against USC) … and on the other side, we’re really happy. We have our first ACC team ever in NC State, Philip Rivers’ alma mater. They finished 9-3, are ranked 18th in the country and score a lot of points, too.”

Neville added, “A lot of fireworks. Very consistent with our legacy as America’s most exciting bowl game.”

For fans watching in person and on TV, the east endzone marked with the Wolfpack red and white runs along the first base line while the west endzone in UCLA’s classic blue and gold is in left field in the shadow of the Western Metal Supply building.

And it’s not just the football game happening downtown. These events are planned throughout the week:

San Diego Padres pitcher and El Cajon native Joe Musgrove sitting at his Point Loma home next to his 5-month-old puppy, Theo. Musgrove, who tossed the first no-hitter in team history earlier this year, will serve as honorary chairman of the annual Holiday Bowl. (Jimmy Dedios, FOX 5)

Added to the week of bowl action is a familiar face in Petco Park: Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove. The El Cajon native, who famously tossed the first no-hitter in team history this year, will serve as honorary chair of the Holiday Bowl and as grand marshal in the Holiday Bowl Parade.

He told FOX 5 this month it’s his first foray into football since his years playing at Grossmont High School.

“I said, ‘Man, if you can find a way to get me in there, I would love that,’” Musgrove said.

So, buckle up, San Diego. It’s a year of firsts for the Holiday Bowl and Neville says organizers are eager to showcase what all the game has to offer in a new venue.

“Having the game down there, all of the excitement (with) the entertainment districts, the Gaslamp Quarter, East Village,” he said. “We’re still going to be doing our crazy pageantry with the pregame show that’s really a salute to our local military community, the halftime show and, of course, the game.”

Planning to attend? Tickets are available online with prices starting at $90 apiece. Or you can watch the game in its entirety on FOX 5. Tune in Tuesday, Dec. 28 at 5 p.m.

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