On This Day in Sports History: The Super Bowl is Pulled From Arizona

Sun Devil Stadium
Sun Devil Stadium / Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On March 13, 1990, the NFL held its yearly committee meetings to take care of all things football and business-related. One of the many items on their agenda was deciding the location for the Super Bowl in 1993. After votes were gathered, the committee announced Tempe, Arizona would be the host city for Super Bowl XXVII, and the big game would be played in Sun Devil Stadium three years later. But there was a provision: committee chairman Norman Braman, then the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, warned Arizona's representatives that if the state did not recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official holiday, the NFL would host the Super Bowl elsewhere.

On March 19, 1991, the league did just that, moving the Super Bowl to Pasadena, CA -- and Tempe became the first and only host city in NFL history to have the biggest event in American sports taken away from it.

If you didn't know that Arizona didn't recognize MLK Day at some point in the past, you're not alone. Ronald Reagan created the holiday in 1983 after signing a bill recognizing the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In 1986, Arizona's state legislature voted against recognizing the holiday, but Democratic governor Bruce Babbitt issued an executive order that lawfully brought MLK Day into existence in the state.

That did not stop those who were against the motion, however. Babbitt's successor, Republican governor Evan Mecham, said Babbitt did not have the authority to issue such a document and rescinded the executive order in 1987. This was met with backlash across the nation. Stevie Wonder and Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, teamed up to organize an entertainment protest of the entire state after Mecham rescinded the order. Mecham was impeached only a year later on charges of obstruction of justice and financial misconduct.

But that didn't fix the problem. The state's legislature approved the holiday in 1989, but state law requires new holidays must pass by popular vote. The vote was to take place after the NFL meetings in 1990. Knowing Tempe was a potential host city for Super Bowl XXVII, Arizona civil rights activist Art Mobley attended the league meetings to ensure the issue of the state's lack of recognition for MLK Day was a discussed issue. The NFL ultimately settled on Tempe, but only if the popular vote to enact MLK Day was passed.

The actual popular vote was a bit of a mess. Instead of simply asking the voters if the state should recognize MLK Day, two initiatives were presented: One to replace President's Day with MLK Day, and another to make MLK's birthday a state holiday. Voters were unsure if they could vote yes for both, so neither initiative passed. The NFL held firm and followed through on its promise, holding a vote in Hawaii to take away the Super Bowl from Tempe and hold it in California instead.

Of course, Arizona eventually voted to recognize MLK Day as a state holiday. The very next year, in fact, they finally made it as easy as possible and posed a simple "Yes or No" initiative to the public asking if the state should make MLK Day part of the calendar. The vote passed, and Arizona was awarded Super Bowl XXX as a result.

This is an interesting series of events to look back upon, given how much money was at stake. If the NFL of today decided to switch Super Bowl host cities two years before the fact in response to a civil rights movement, it would consume the news cycle for weeks, if not months -- especially considering the NFL has very rarely been on the right side of the news when it comes to non-football issues over the last few years.

In this scenario, however, the NFL wielded its immense power in pursuit of a greater good-- and it worked.