From transplants to entertainment options, building fan base in Valley challenge for sports teams

The Suns have a strong fan base because of past success but recently, more support from the visiting team can be seen at games. Winning is believed to be one way to fix that. (Photo by Jamie Nish/ Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — It’s a Saturday evening at Gila River Arena in Glendale and the Arizona Coyotes are hosting the Winnipeg Jets. A few minutes into the opening period, fans continue to find their seats and settle down for a night of hockey. As the puck finds the back of the net and the horn sounds, a roar of excitement fills the arena.

In favor of the opposing team.

A common sight at Arizona professional sporting events, fans flock to the respective sites to cheer on opposing teams — otherwise known as their “hometown teams.”

“It’s become the new normal,” Derek Wolfe said.

A long-time resident of the Phoenix area and a Coyotes season ticket holder, Wolfe has become accustomed to the large number of opposing fans at games.

“It’s almost inevitable really,” he said. “You know when you go to a game here that a good portion of the fans, if not half, are going to be there for the other team.”

Analyzing the behavior and loyalty of fans has long been a topic of discussion in the sports stratosphere. In Arizona, the discussion has often been much more animated.

A state that non-residents flock to in droves and home to Phoenix, Maricopa County is the fourth-most populous county in the United States and had the highest population growth in the United States in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It gained 81,360 people, an average of nearly 223 people per day, between July 1, 2015 and July 1, 2016.

Combined with a frequent lack of success over the last 20 years and three relatively young franchises, the Phoenix metropolitan area — one of 13 in the United States with four professional sports teams — continues to struggle with a fan base devoid of undying loyalty.

The Coyotes, Diamondbacks and Suns, despite their successes in the past, have struggled with fan attendance in recent years. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have managed to construct a relatively loyal fan base in the past decade and have sold out every home game since beginning play at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006.

“You get rooted as a child,” Patrick Battillo said. “You’re raised on certain traditions and values and I think that’s a huge issue.”

Known as “Mr. ORNG” and a superfan type in the Phoenix Suns community, Battillo moved to Arizona when he was 7. He jumped head first into a fanfare that began as a child in New York.

“I didn’t even know Phoenix was in Arizona growing up,” Battillo said with a laugh. “My parents had Puerto Rican friends who were fans of the Suns and I began watching games with them.”

Often, the most loyal of fan bases are found in cities where winning seasons are a common occurrence or where a strong tradition has been embedded in the fan base for some time.

Much of that lies in whether or not a team has been able to establish a history of sustained success.

“You can point out other factors but it’s pretty clear with the Coyotes,” Wolfe said. “(They) haven’t been very successful since they’ve been here and that’s affected the number of fans they have.”

Winnipeg had a strong representation of fans at Gila River Arena recently. The Coyotes hope that as their franchise wins more games, their fan base will grow stronger. (Photo by Jamie Nish/Cronkite News)

Success or lack thereof

Over the past generation, the Valley ranks near the bottom of the nation’s four-sport markets in terms of championship success.

The Coyotes first arrived on the scene in Arizona prior to the 1996-1997 season and since then, the Phoenix metropolitan area has had four opportunities annually to bring home a championship.

During that time span, only two markets have failed to win a title (Minneapolis/St. Paul and Washington D.C.), while Phoenix and Philadelphia are right behind them with just one championship won over the past two decades.

The lone Phoenix title came in 2001 when the Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series.

“So much of the loyalty comes back to whether a team is winning or not,” said Jim McLean, an expert and professor of sports marketing in the sports management program at the University of Arizona. “In that aspect, fans can be really fickle. Particularly in those markets where there isn’t necessarily a strong fan base.”

Following its World Series victory in 2001, the Diamondbacks enjoyed improved attendance numbers, ranking in the top half of baseball in average attendance from 2002-2004. Since that time, the franchise has ranked in the bottom half on a consistent basis, hovering between 25,000 to 30,000 people on average.

That includes the recent 2017 season in which the Diamondbacks advanced to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

“I’d say the Diamondbacks community is not particularly strong,” Laura Matera said. “Going to Mets games growing up, it would be 90 percent Mets fans in the crowd. It’s a bummer that at times there can be 30 to 40 percent fans of the away team at Chase Field.”

Akin to many transplants in Arizona, Matera grew up watching her hometown team. A native of New York, the Mets attracted her attention but once she moved to the Valley, it didn’t take long for the focus of her loyalty to fade.

But for Matera, the decision was much more of a natural one than anything else.

“When the Diamondbacks were a mess the past few years, I watched more Mets games than I did this year,” she said. “The hometown team is the most important part of it. If I moved again to another baseball city, I’d probably slowly become a fan of that team.”

Even though success on the field isn’t paramount to her sense of loyalty, Matera recognizes that fans are often driven by their internal desires to follow a winning product. And if the product on the field lacks, they’re otherwise driven away from attending games.

“Having a good team this year definitely made going to games more appealing,” she said. “It’s not even that I have to see a win every time, I really enjoy going to games and that helps me get to know the team better.”

For the last five seasons, average attendance numbers have ranked in the bottom half of their respective leagues for the Coyotes and Suns.

The Coyotes have not made a postseason appearance since the 2011-2012 season and have struggled mightily with attracting a loyal fan base. The Suns have failed to advance to the postseason since the 2009-2010 season but aren’t short of wins since their NBA inception in 1968. As of 2017, the Suns are the fourth-winningest franchise in NBA history.

Also residing in Glendale, the Cardinals have had their fair share of struggles over the years since relocating to Phoenix in 1988. They’ve advanced to the postseason just five times but did so most recently in 2015.

Attracting fans has been the least of the Cardinals’ problems since moving to University of Phoenix Stadium, selling out every home game to date.

“I think a loyal fan base for the Cardinals has always been here,” Pete Zolkiewski said, referring to attendance struggles when the Cardinals played at Sun Devil Stadium.

Known as “Cardinal Pete” and “The AZ Cards GM” on Twitter, Zolkiewski has been a Cardinals season-ticket holder since moving to the Phoenix area in 1988 and playing at Sun Devil Stadium.

“Fans were less prone to attend games then because of how hot it was during football season,” he said. “Since (we’ve) had University of Phoenix Stadium, you don’t have that concern anymore even if we aren’t winning.”

Emotional and monetary investment

For sports fans, the simple act of attending a sporting event requires both time and money. The latter essentially affects whether fans are going to watch an event from the stands or from the confines of their homes.

“There’s a large portion of (our) fan base that economically don’t have the heaviest disposable income,” Battillo said. “For a lot of the dedicated fans that I meet in the community, that’s it.”

According to, Phoenix had a median household income of $52,062 in 2016 — 14th out of 25 major U.S. markets.

It is fans like Battillo who want to alter the perception of the fan base in the Phoenix metropolitan area away from one that strays towards a lack of loyalty.

“That’s what gets me so passionate about the Suns and the other teams (here),” he said. “There are fans out there who just can’t be there and that factors into how others perceive our fan bases. If I can help them out or offer them a chance to attend a game, I want to be able to do that for them.”

On the other side, season-ticket holders for teams like the Cardinals can be known to invest their time elsewhere and will depend on individuals to purchase tickets on the secondary market. While this is far from an anomaly and is a problem shared by all pro sports teams, Zolkiewski views it as a cause to question the true loyalty of fans.

“If that’s where your loyalty lies as a fan, you might as well sell the seat or seats to someone who will attend every home game,” Zolkiewski said. “There’s just something about it that doesn’t seem genuine to me.”

A Chicago Bears fan growing up in Illinois, Zolkiewski has long been a fixture at Cardinals games with his face makeup resembling that of a cardinal and a suit portraying the look of a general manager.

“People spend a lot of their time and hard-earned money on sports teams, so why not do that in the cities you’re centralized in?” he said.

Not to be overlooked by the monetary investment, emotions can run high at sporting events for both players and fans. Battillo feels the emotional support provided by fans can have a great effect on the way players perform and how a fan base is perceived.

“There’s nothing more embarrassing than a team playing at home and the home fans getting out-cheered by opposing fans,” he said. “It’s embarrassing for me. I can only imagine how it is for the players.”

The solution to “The Problem”

Finding a way to alter the perception of a fan base bereft of loyalty is no small task. In a world where television packages and phone applications are making it easier for fans to watch the teams they’re bonded to, attracting a strong fan base has become that much tougher.

“Those loyalties run deep because blood is thicker than water and that’s essentially how people view teams,” McLean said. “There’s not a real easy solution to building loyalty and it’s that much harder when you don’t have a winning team.”

Now focusing the majority of his time at the University of Arizona on sports marketing, McLean signals the need for teams to place more of an emphasis and need on improving the game experience for fans.

In today’s landscape, where the experience plays a factor into a fan’s sense of loyalty, McLean feels that more can be done to attract them to a professional sports product.

“It’s important to make the game-day experience special, to make it into something that you can’t get while viewing it at home,” he said. “You can’t duplicate that experience and that’s why it comes back to: What can you do to make the experience in the stands even better?”

For Battillo, he recognizes that the Suns could do more to appeal to their true fan base rather than targeting the fans of out-of-town teams who live in the Phoenix area. But at the same time, addressing new fans such as millennials must be a requirement.

“How do you market specifically to your true fan base and make those tickets or packages affordable?” Battillo said. “For millennials, it’s all about understanding the importance of service and time. For us, everything is about time, so the more focus there is on convenience, the more sustainable things will be.”

But as the four pro sports teams continue to chase championships, loyalties remain widespread and the Valley endures as a hotbed for transplants, the problem will persist over the Phoenix sports market.

“I think it will continue to be a constant struggle for this state,” Battillo said.

“But it’s something that we have to embrace.”