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Who says community service has to be boring? Not Snell & Wilmer’s Steven Wheeler. Since 1995, Wheeler — the head of the firm’s environmental, natural resources, and energy practice group — has played an integral role staging the Fiesta Bowl, Phoenix’s annual college football extravaganza. This year Wheeler was elected to chair the event, one of four bowl games that hosts college football’s national championship contest on a rotating basis. The Fiesta Bowl game (which is actually played in Sun Devil Stadium in nearby Tempe, Ariz.) doesn’t host the championship this year, but that doesn’t mean Wheeler isn’t staying busy: With more than 50 related events, the Fiesta Bowl is Arizona’s largest annual celebration. Wheeler, 51, first became involved in Fiesta Bowl activities in the late 1970s, when he was an associate at Snell & Wilmer. As a child, Wheeler had lived in Phoenix for a few years, but the city he returned to, with its soaring skyline and growing corporate base, was quite different than the one he remembered from the early 1960s. And Wheeler quickly discovered that Snell & Wilmer expected him to do his part to make sure the city’s growth continued. “Frank Snell [the firm's co-founder] came to see me and told me to get involved in something, anything that interested me,” recalls Wheeler. Wheeler had always been a big sports fan. Growing up, he’d set about 20 state and national age group records as a swimmer. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, he had continued to swim and also played on the junior varsity basketball team. Wheeler opted to get involved with the Fiesta Bowl to satisfy Snell’s mandate. At the time, the Fiesta Bowl was decidedly second-tier. Unlike more established bowls like the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, the game didn’t have an affiliation with a major conference or feature top-ranked teams. And Wheeler’s first Fiesta Bowl-related job wasn’t exactly glamorous. “I got up at 5 in the morning to park cars for the balloon race,” he recalls. The job didn’t even include tickets to the game. “I think all I got out of the deal was a polyester windbreaker, which I thought was pretty cool,” he says. Wheeler eventually graduated to running the balloon race, and then five years ago was asked to join the board of directors and become general counsel. The game Wheeler now oversees as chairman is a far cry from the one he first volunteered for more than 20 years ago. In 1998 college football responded to demand for a clear-cut national champion by establishing the “bowl championship series,” an alliance among four of the top bowls, which take turns hosting the top game. The Fiesta Bowl’s organizers were determined that their game would be one of the four. To land a spot in the rotation, they had to guarantee the top colleges good facilities, suitable accommodations, and corporate sponsorships. The Fiesta Bowl was the first to license naming rights to a bowl game — first to Sunkist, and now to Tostitos. The pitch worked, and the Fiesta Bowl beat out several more established bowl games to secure one of the four coveted spots. Last year the Fiesta Bowl hosted the first game of the new alliance, the national championship match. “I think some of the older bowls sat on their laurels,” says Wheeler. “We got out there and sold our game and our city.” Today Fiesta Bowl week has grown into a major annual event. The game, which has sold out for 14 consecutive years, is just a starting point. The committee oversees an annual parade and ball, a 10K road race, a national marching band contest, and a second football game, the Insight.com Bowl in Tucson, Ariz. The football game and related events are seen by more than 35 million people and bring $133 million to the state. To stage the event the Fiesta Bowl employs a full-time, year-round staff of 30 in its own building and recruits 3,000 volunteers. As chairman, Wheeler doesn’t have to park cars anymore, but he does just about everything else. He meets regularly with gubernatorial and congressional staffers, deals with colleges and television networks, and negotiates deals with corporate sponsors. Like a big-time college coach, Wheeler also hits the recruiting trail. “Sometimes getting the best teams depends on your connections with the school and the coach,” says Wheeler. “Hey, you never know where that coach at Southern Miss is going to wind up. This is a relationship business.” Just like the law. Am Law 200 Index

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