Arizona’s ‘super season’ gives state financial shot of adrenaline

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, spring training returned to normal attendance across Arizona’s ballparks. (Photo courtesy of Camelback Ranch-Glendale)

PHOENIX – In the first months of 2023, Arizona was a hot spot for the collision between sports and tourism, creating a “super season” that gave the state a financial blast from the combined efforts of Super Bowl 57, spring training and the WM Phoenix Open.

According to a February report from the Common Sense Institute of Arizona, a non-partisan research organization promoting the state’s economy, 6.4% of Arizona’s total economy comes from the sports and tourism sector.

This means anything tied to travel and observing or participating in sporting events factors into Arizona’s rapidly growing sports and tourism sector. CSI only expects that number to grow.

A sign for the Super Bowl Experience stands in Hance Park in downtown Phoenix.

Football fans had the opportunity to participate in unique family-friendly experiences leading up to Super Bowl 57 in Phoenix, Glendale and Scottsdale. (File photo by Susan Wong/Cronkite News)

The same May report found that in 2022, the sector contributed $24.2 billion to the state’s economy. Of that figure, $13.7 billion directly resulted from sales in Arizona’s hotels, casinos and performance venues.

“This part of the year is absolutely Arizona’s super season,” said Garrick Taylor, a spokesperson for Arizona’s Lodging and Tourism Association. “From the Super Bowl to the WM Phoenix Open to the first full spring training season in a few years, Arizona’s tourism industry received a real shot of adrenaline in the first quarter of 2023.”

Businesses around the Valley felt that rush, especially in the restaurant industry. Steve Churci, president of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said many restaurants he works with reported sales up by about 25 to 35% and, in some cases, they improved by 40% from January to March of this year.

“It was a phenomenal success for Arizona’s restaurant industry,” he said of the last couple of months. “Having this trifecta (of sporting events) lifted up restaurants in a very positive way.”

Not only did restaurants benefit, but so did many hotels, casinos and tourist attractions, according to Katie Ratlief, the Common Sense Institute executive director.

“We have such a strong sports and tourism sector,” she said. “When we have major events like the Super Bowl, it gives us an opportunity to sell the state. People come for the sporting event, but stay for other tourism opportunities.”

Those other opportunities were plentiful over the winter, with many concerts and pop events coming to Arizona, including the Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest, the W Scottsdale Super Weekend and Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour. However, these major sporting events can also benefit Arizona’s other tourist destinations, like the Grand Canyon.

“Any type of business that tends to serve tourists will do better business,” said Dan Marburger, a clinical professor of economics at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School.

Spectators watch from the stands at Waste Management Phoenix Open.

The WM Phoenix Open not only kicked off the PGA Tour in early February but also a trio of marquee sporting events in the Valley. (File photo by Brooklyn Hall/Cronkite News)

Marburger did warn, though, that Arizona might have had a couple of adverse effects in hosting the Super Bowl and the WM Phoenix Open simultaneously. He said the traffic was the most obvious, but beyond that, hotels might have lost out on business that they would usually get from conventions.

Taylor disagreed, saying that events like the Super Bowl and spring training work as a doormat for future events in Arizona.

“If you’re a business leader who is coming out for spring training and you like what you see in Arizona,” he said, “you might want to learn more about what the business environment has to offer.”

These mass sporting events have also created jobs, according to the CSI report. In 2022, 347,500 people were directly and indirectly employed by the sports and tourism sector, accounting for 11% of the state’s workforce.

Experts like Ratlief said there are a handful of reasons why Arizona is a hot spot for major sporting events.

“We have a lot of amazing hotels and resorts,” she said. “We have great infrastructure, great weather, excellent quality of life. All those things draw those events and tourists to our state every year.”

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Marburger agreed, adding that Arizona’s weather matters, especially for spring training.

“The economic impact of spring training would not be nearly as good if spring training was in say, Wisconsin,” he said. “We have that advantage here, you can escape winter for a few days and enjoy major sporting events.”

Another advantage Arizona has, according to Taylor, is a long history of experience hosting major sporting events. In the last 15 years, Arizona has held three Super Bowls, 15 WM Phoenix Opens and two World Baseball Classic rounds.

“Arizona has found a way to market itself in a unique and exciting way that’s different than anywhere else in the country,” Ratlief said.

In 2024, Arizona is set to hold the Final Four at State Farm Stadium, spring training and the WM Phoenix Open.

“We are excited to be able to have these types of major events in the state,” Churci said.

Haley Smilow HAIL-ee SMI-low (she/her/hers)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Haley Smilow expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Smilow, who is currently covering sports in Phoenix, is also interning with the Diamondbacks and has previously interned at the Phoenix Magazine, AZTV and Phoenix Rising.