SURPRISE – Empty stands, lost revenue and a lot of unknowns.
The Cactus League, with 10 ballparks hosting 15 teams spread throughout the Valley, has been forced to pivot the last three years with the global pandemic and MLB lockout changing the way the league brought in its revenue.
Ever since the COVID-19 shutdowns, the league has been trying to rebound, but hopes for a normal spring training season in 2022 came crashing down when the MLBPA and MLB could not agree to a new collective bargaining agreement. The dispute ended on March 10, 2022, but the impact was detrimental to tourism efforts in the state.
“In the last few years, our attendance has been very low,” said Elliott Sweitzer, venue operations coordinator for the city of Peoria. “The reason that a lot of these businesses are here (in the P83 shopping district) is for the people that come to our spring training games and come to our events. So to have people come back this season is just great for the city of Peoria, our businesses.”
Businesses such as restaurants, lodging and shops were forced to think of new ways to lure fans, with many coming from out of state to see their favorite teams in action. For the city of Surprise in the west Valley, spring training is the biggest income driver.
In 2017, the Cactus League drew a record 1,941,347 fans to ballparks and would typically welcome more than 1.7 million fans annually. However, with the season cut short in 2020 and only 25% capacity allowed inside ballparks in 2021 as the pandemic raged, attendance dipped drastically.
Signs are now pointing upward to a promising turnout for the 2023 season.
“I think a lot of fans are excited to come back. Our tickets are on sale now and we’ve seen a really positive response, so hopefully that continues,” said Kendra Pettis, Director of Sports and Tourism for the city of Surprise. “In both situations, with the pandemic and the lockout, it’s all about being able to adapt and to adjust strategies and continue to look for solutions.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, the Cactus League created a task force with all the stadiums and city and state officials in order to put forth a unified plan to bring fans back to the ballparks.
Although the Cactus League generated $644.2 million in impact from the 2018 season, according to a report conducted by the W.P. Carey School of Business, the league lost over half of those gains in 2020, generating only $363 million in total impact.
“Jobs were cut nearly in half, when you break down that total impact number that is lodging, transportation, restaurants, social experiences, tourism activities and attractions across the state, we know that six out of 10 fans traveling to spring training, they’re coming from somewhere else in the country,” said Bridget Binsbacher, Executive Director of the Cactus League.
“And not only do they come for spring training, in fact, spring training is the primary reason they come here. So it’s not just the spring training cities and the surrounding areas, but it’s other cities and attractions throughout the state of Arizona that are affected.”
The W.P. Carey School of Business reported that 60% of total fans who attended spring training matchups in 2018 in Arizona had hailed from out of state. The Cactus League reports that $168.3 million was generated by out-of-state visitors in 2020.
Now the hustle and bustle can be seen and felt from Goodyear to Mesa to Fountain Hills. Autograph seekers and busloads of kids circle the ballfields, shoppers in T-shirts fill the stores and good luck getting a 7 p.m. dinner reservation in Scottsdale.
“The energy is fantastic, and so we’re gonna do what we’re doing every season (by) preparing, and that’s doing everything we can to welcome fans safely into our facilities and create the best possible experience,” Binsbacher said. “I think really just based on feedback that we’re getting and what fans were talking about last year, we know that they’re ready to pile into our facilities and enjoy this great weather and come from all different parts of the country to experience baseball like they just can’t anywhere else.”
While fans are excited to make the return to the Grand Canyon state for the first full-capacity spring training since 2019, preparations have begun to bring employees back to work after many were furloughed from their positions when the pandemic struck.
In 2018, the Cactus League created more than 6,000 jobs, either in a seasonal, part-time or full-time capacity, paying more than $224.6 million. In 2020, those positions were cut in half with 3,202 jobs paying $128.3 million.
In Surprise and Peoria, the majority of the ballpark employees are hired on a seasonal or part-time basis. However, both stadiums are run by their respective governments, and that number may differ to a stadium such as Sloan Park, which is owned and operated by the Chicago Cubs.
“They’re all individually operated and so they manage all of their individual employees,” Binsbacher said. “Each structure is unique to that partnership. The impact might vary from facility to facility depending on their individual teams, what they draw and all of the different experiences and social opportunities that exist in the surrounding area. But for the most part, I think the opportunities are consistent from one area to the other.”
With pitchers and catchers participating in the World Baseball Classic reporting to spring training sites in both Arizona and Florida on Feb. 13, MLB continues to focus on one thing: getting the fan experience back to where it was four years ago, while welcoming fans back with open arms.
“The positive side is just to see baseball and seize the spring training opportunity,” Sweitzer said. “The aura of spring training to come here (Peoria) and other facilities really gets you in the mood knowing that ‘baseball is coming.’ I think that’s what really keeps bringing people back here.”