Spring Training Is a Home Run for Phoenix Economy But Fans Face Sticker Shock

Spring Training Is a Home Run for Phoenix Economy But Fans Face Sticker Shock

White knuckles clutched the chain-link fence surrounding a baseball field at Sloan Park in Mesa on February 20. The field was dotted with players in royal blue jerseys and ball caps as fans watched during an unseasonably warm February afternoon.

Chicago Cubs fans from near and far toted buckets of baseballs and binders brimming with collectible baseball cards with the hope of snagging an autograph from their favorite players. Other spectators sat on picnic blankets in the grass, munching on hot dogs as they enjoyed one of the first batting practices of the 2023 Major League Baseball season.

Since 1929, Arizona has been a magnet for baseball fans nationwide who want to soak in the sun’s rays while watching players show off their talents before the regular season begins. But in recent years, concerns over the coronavirus pandemic paired with a labor dispute threatened the viability of the tourism machine, a key economic driver for Phoenix-area businesses and jobs for residents.

In 2020 and 2021, there was no spring training in Arizona. And last year, the event was nearly nixed again amid a lockout, causing a multimillion-dollar hit to the event’s usual economic impact.

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Sloan Park CEO Justin Piper sees “clear skies” for spring training 2023.

Elias Weiss

Cactus League’s ‘First Normal Season’

This year, spring training is back to normal in metro Phoenix, according to MLB executives. That has fans buzzing at the ballparks.

“We are anticipating the first normal Cactus League season in four years,” Cactus League Executive Director Bridget Binsbacher told Phoenix New Times. “We expect that it will deliver massive economic impact for Arizona.”

The return of the Cactus League is another moment in a year of unprecedented sports mega-events in the Valley. It started earlier in February with the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the most-attended stop on the PGA Tour, followed by the Super Bowl, and the World Baseball Classic. The international baseball tournament will take place at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix from March 7 to March 23 — right in the middle of the Cactus League schedule.

Then it’s the NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix Raceway in November and the NCAA men’s Final Four in 2024.

Arizona’s sports tourism sector contributed $24.1 billion to the state’s gross domestic product and hundreds of thousands of jobs in 2022, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Common Sense Institute.

There are 15 MLB clubs that do spring training in Arizona, often attracting fans from the Midwest, the West Coast, and the Southwest to workouts and games. Cactus League stadiums are spread across the Valley — in Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix, Glendale, Peoria, Surprise, and Goodyear.

Sloan Park is one of the most popular. It hosts the Cubs, who have trained in the East Valley since 1952. For years — from 1985 to 2002 — the Cubs led all major league teams in spring training attendance. In 2022, some 99,219 fans attended the team’s spring training in Mesa, the third-best attendance of 30 venues in Arizona and Florida. This year, with the Cactus League returning to normal, Cubs executives predict that attendance will be even higher.

“It feels like clear skies. We haven’t had a normal spring training since 2019,” Sloan Park CEO Justin Piper told New Times. “We can really see it with the fans. That excitement is starting to build in the Valley.”

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Young Chicago Cubs fans at Sloan Park in Mesa.

Elias Weiss

Brats, Burgers, and Higher Prices

Scottsdale resident Kelly McCullough, a native of Wilmette, Illinois, has been coming to see the Cubs play in Mesa every year since the early 1980s — back when the Cubs played at Hohokam Stadium on Center Street near downtown Mesa. He remembers seeing the team play the Cleveland Indians during spring training in 1985 when, he said, there were more than 200 people in the stands.

“Back in those days, it was a whole lot cheaper and a lot homier,” McCollough said. “They used to grill brats and burgers. The smoky smell would waft, and it was a whole different down-home experience.”

Since 2014, Sloan Park on Rio Salado Parkway has been the club’s spring training home, earning the stadium the colloquial title of “Wrigley West.”

“This facility is a mini Wrigley Field. It’s gorgeous,” he said. Hohokam Stadium, he recalled, “was a hell of a lot cheaper, but there were a lot fewer amenities. It wasn’t as nice.”

McCullough said that ticket prices “have gotten a hell of a lot more expensive” over the years.

Scottsdale resident Jim Watson is putting down more than $300 to bring a friend from his Illinois hometown to watch a spring training game in March.

“I’m paying $100 for each ticket and $72 to park, geez,” Watson said. “Not to mention the prices for a hot dog these days.”

A party of three out-of-town visitors will pay, on average, about $1,600 per day to catch spring training in the Phoenix suburbs, according to a 2018 study by Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute.

In 2022, the Cubs charged $6.50 per hot dog, according to Statista. In 1960, a hot dog cost 35 cents on average, or $3.46 after adjusting for inflation.

Watson remembers living in an apartment in Chicago back in the ’60s that was so close to Wrigley Field, he could hear the crowd cheer during games. At the time, locals could show up during the seventh-inning stretch and get free admission to the rest of the game.

But even since 2008, when Watson and his son, Mesa resident Andrew Watson, became perennial spring training attendees, prices have ballooned.

“I remember paying 20 bucks for a ticket not too long ago,” the younger Watson said. “If you wanted to sit in the outfield or in the grass, it was even cheaper.”

A new collective bargaining agreement signed after last year’s lockout that included a player salary hike likely didn’t help keep costs down. The new five-year agreement features the biggest base salary hike ever, new bonuses for top young players, and a slew of other considerations. MLB also boosted team payrolls to $230 million, which is $20 million more than the 2021 season.

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Cubs center fielder Christopher Morel.

Elias Weiss

Money Talks: Baseball Is Not a Dying Sport

Last year, the New York Times said what many fans of America’s favorite pastime have been thinking for years: “Baseball is a dying sport.” But the numbers say otherwise — at least in Arizona.

“They say baseball is dying? That’s bullshit,” McCullough said. The Cubs’ kick-off celebration on February 20 drew a bigger crowd than some minor league baseball games. Cubs spokesperson Ariana Moaveni said the team didn’t record an exact head count, but she “would be comfortable saying several hundred” people attended the event.

Mesa Mayor John Giles said spring training is like another holiday season. “Our sales tax, it literally spikes to Christmastime levels,” he told KTAR.

The Cactus League attracts 2 million out-of-state fans to Arizona every year and has a $644 million impact in the Valley, according to the ASU study.

“The Cactus League is a key annual driver for tourism and hospitality,” Anthony Evans, a senior researcher at the ASU institute, told New Times ahead of spring training in 2022.

The World Baseball Classic could push that economic impact to nearly $700 million, greater than the 2023 Super Bowl, according to some top MLB operators. The tournament has not been played since 2017.

“It’s been a real big success, with an economic impact where you can lift $30 million to $35 million and place it into the city of Phoenix when it comes to lodging, food, cars, and dining,” said Derrick Hall, CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But some sports economists argue that the economic impact is exaggerated. A chunk of spring training attendees are tourists who would have visited Arizona anyway, while others who came here to watch the Phoenix Open or the Super Bowl are sticking around.

“The money you make from spring training is often overstated,” Victor Matheson, a sports economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, told us last year.

But Piper, Sloan Park’s CEO, said fans focus on the baseball and not the economics of the Cactus League. Games started on February 24 and continue until March 28.

“I’m hearing from fans this week, and they’re really excited to see the teams take the field all across the Valley,” Piper said. “We certainly see the impact in the city of Mesa. It’ll be a big draw this year.”

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