The return of Arizona State University’s football team to Camp Tontozona outside of Christopher Creek will yield huge benefits to Rim Country beyond the $250,000 per day fans, players and coaches will likely spend.
That’s the message a triumphant Payson Mayor Kenny Evans delivered to cheering locals at last week’s Payson Town Council meeting.
“The exposure for the region is of much greater value than the direct economic benefit,” said Evans. “We told them we appreciate and desperately need the money they’ll bring to town, but the long term impacts lie in all those people it’ll bring up here and all the exposure.”
The announcement last week marks the return of a 47-year tradition, which brought ASU’s football team to an idyllic set of playing fields alongside Tonto Creek on down a dirt road from Kohl’s Ranch.
In the old days, the team worked out for a week or more during the summer. The arrival of the team brought an average of 1,000 people per day to town, with a peak of about 3,000. Many big name ASU and Arizona athletes took advantage of the summer training camp to escape the oppressive Valley heat to watch scrimmages and hang out in the mountains.
“You’d come into town and find Famous Sam’s absolutely filled, with prominent sports figures everywhere,” said Evans. “They’d (watch) practice all day and hit the hotels, bars and restaurants at night. The place was standing room only.”
Payson backers even convinced ASU this time to focus the August camp on weekdays, when hotels and restaurants more typically struggle for business. Payson only has about 500 hotel rooms, which usually fill up during the peak summer vacation period.
“But what’s more important: Once they experience Payson — they’ll be back,” said Evans.
The mayor said that many alumni and members of the ASU administration retained a soft spot for Camp Tontozona even after former ASU football coach Dennis Erickson shifted summer workouts from Tontozona to a new $8.4 million domed stadium in Tempe.
Then last year, ASU hired Todd Graham as the new coach.
Tontozona backers promptly invited the new coach to visit Payson and tour the training camp.
Evans said Graham and ASU Athletics Vice President Steve Patterson journeyed to Payson in the fall. Local supporters made their pitch over lunch at The Rim Club, then gave the ASU entourage a tour of the area.
Evans said he suspected Graham’s emphasis on football fundamentals, team building and character played the leading role in his embrace of the advantages of preparing for the season with a week together at Tontozona.
“One of the things that really got my attention was that Coach Graham is a traditionalist. He’s not a new wave coach. For him, it’s about a lot more than the pigskin. He’s a life coach for his players. He knows only a handful will make their living from football — so he wants to focus on the whole individual.”
Therefore, he saw the benefit of renewing a half-century tradition by training in a beautiful, but isolated place free from the distractions of Tempe, Evans said.