"We got off the plane and there was literally a red carpet. And they had this mariachi band playing," recalls Cavalli, who today is in charge of San Francisco's new college bowl game. "I don't know if we can have that level of hospitality out of the box, but we're going to do everything to make the teams feel special."
Almost certainly more special than they deserve.
Announced to mostly shrugs last month, the San Francisco Bowl, which will be played at Pac Bell Park on New Year's Eve, will pit the third-place team in the Mountain West Conference against either the third-, fourth-, or fifth-place team from the Big East Conference. Last season, that would have meant that either Colorado State or Utah (both 7-5) would have played Pittsburgh (6-5). A year before that, Pitt, Syracuse, or Boston College would have played an equally mediocre Nevada-Las Vegas team.
These matchups were so underwhelming that the director of the Mountain West -- which will profit directly from its involvement in the game -- told Sports Illustrated, "The general sentiment is, 'Oh, God, just what we need.'"
Which raises an obvious question: Why is a bowl game with contractually assured mediocrity coming to San Francisco?
To hear John Marks, president of San Francisco's Conventions and Tourism Board and new chairman of the San Francisco Bowl Game Association, tell it, the San Francisco Bowl stemmed from two common-sense quests. The hotel industry wanted to generate tourism during its traditionally moribund week between Christmas and New Year's, and Pacific Bell Park needed another big-grossing event during its off-season.
The catalyst was Cavalli, a local sports jack-of-all-trades who worked for Stanford's athletic department in the late 1970s and early '80s, started his own sports marketing and public relations firm, and later served as CEO of the women's professional American Basketball League, a well-regarded but short-lived effort that lost out to the National Basketball Association's better-financed women's league, the WNBA. "I like to joke that you can still see the NBA tire treads on my back," Cavalli recalls.
In 1999, after restarting his sports consulting practice, Cavalli was approached with an interesting proposition from a group that owned the charter for the Freedom Bowl, an out-of-business bowl game that had lasted 11 years in Anaheim.
They wanted to revive their game in San Francisco, at 3Com Park, as a for-profit enterprise. (Most bowls, which are required to give 75 percent of their funds to the participants, are nonprofits.)
The game never happened, but the idea stuck with Cavalli. "I thought, 'We'll have a much better chance of success playing the game at Pac Bell Park' [which was then under construction]," he says. "[The 41,000-seat venue would] definitely draw, and it would be a lot easier to sell out than 80,000 seats at Candlestick."
Cavalli took the idea to the Giants' business arm, which promptly hired him as a consultant on the project. Cavalli helped craft an application for a San Francisco Bowl charter.
"And then, at that exact moment," he says, "the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] put a moratorium on new bowl games."
The bowl ban was in place for obvious reasons: There were simply too many bad teams and uninteresting matchups. At the time, 50 of 117 Division I college football teams were playing in post-season games that meant less and less.
In 1998, the NCAA started the Bowl Championship Series, which rotated the so-called national championship game (between the two teams rated best by a computer formula) among four games -- the Orange, Fiesta, Sugar, and Rose bowls -- that each paid between $12 million and $14 million to the participating schools.
In the new bowl landscape, those games were followed by a second tier of games paying between $1.2 million and $2 million per team. These games, the Cotton, Citrus, Gator, Alamo, Holiday, Outback, Liberty, and Peach bowls, tend to be interesting, if less-than-high-stakes, matchups between good teams.
And then there's the third tier -- more than a dozen other bowl games between teams with records like 6-5 and 7-4 -- that pays each team between the $750,000 minimum and $900,000. Cavalli and the Giants badly wanted to join the ranks of the Motor City Bowl, the Silicon Valley Bowl, and the Poulin Weed-Eater Independence Bowl.
The only way around the moratorium, however, was to lure an existing bowl to San Francisco. They negotiated with the Aloha Bowl, but a deal never materialized. Then the San Francisco Bowl got a break: The NCAA lifted its ban on new games, admitting the S.F. Bowl, along with Charlotte's Queen City Bowl and Honolulu's Hawaii Bowl.
The San Francisco game is ahead of its third-tier competitors in some respects: It has an attractive venue and a television contract in place with ESPN. But it doesn't have a corporate sponsor yet, and it will offer the lowest possible per-team payout.
"We're going to include some free hotel rooms," Cavalli says, "so we're over the minimum."
And then there's the matchup, which will probably be less than sexy.
The hope is that the early games will yield teams whose fans like to travel. "Is it gonna be Notre Dame or Pittsburgh?" wonders John Marks, who estimates a bowl game could mean $10 million for the local economy. "If we get UNLV, we probably won't sell out."
Cavalli hopes that, if the games fare well enough, the Mountain West might eventually opt to send its second- or even first-place teams to San Francisco, nudging the game's prominence upward.
When he allows himself to dream a little, he thinks about what the San Francisco Bowl might be if it gets every break imaginable, if its competition suffers while it sells out, if its New Year's Eve television ratings dwarf Dick Clark's, if its games all play out as epics.
And when he dreams about this perfect world, he sees a San Francisco Bowl that's an awful lot like ... San Diego's Holiday Bowl?
"That's a great model for us," says Cavalli. "They have a tradition of very exciting games, and they have volunteer committees for everything. They have a 'visit to Sea World committee' and a 'visit to the zoo committee.' ... You want to reward these teams with a great experience they'll remember all their lives."
Even, apparently, if they haven't earned it.