Cactus League fans favor east side
March 23, 2014
Ronald J. Hansen
California resident Rob Shafer enjoyed a hot dog and watched his beloved Cincinnati Reds on a pleasant Friday afternoon in Goodyear.
Shafer, an Indiana native who lives an hour from San Diego, makes an annual spring-training pilgrimage to the west side of the Valley, but he's not near the ballpark for long. After the game, Shafer said, he typically stays with friends in Gilbert. During his visit, they occasionally dine in Scottsdale.
"I couldn't tell you what's in Goodyear, except the ballpark and the airport," he said during a game against the Chicago White Sox that attracted fewer than 2,500 fans. Outside Goodyear Ballpark, passing traffic was all that broke the silence around the open fields that surround the stadium.
By contrast, on a recent Monday afternoon, Scottsdale was a hive of activity before the San Francisco Giants hosted the Chicago Cubs. Shuttles moved fans from bars to the stadium, and vendors hawked baseball souvenirs to those heading to the game. The RnR Gastrobar was among the many restaurants along Scottsdale Road that were packed.
"Both bars are full, and we're on a 10-minute wait," said Cassie Bentley, general manager at the RnR, more than an hour before game time. "After the game is even busier."
Cactus League baseball is a major economic boost for the Valley, pumping millions of dollars annually into local coffers from visitors looking for fun, sun and an escape from winter. Last year's attendance set a league record: 1.7 million. This season should be close to that. But the seasonal riches are hardly evenly distributed.
The west side of the Valley has nine teams to the east side's six, but for the fourth season in a row, it will attract fewer fans. Hotel data confirms what a casual trip around the Cactus League suggests: The east side — and especially Scottsdale — is where the action is.
The East Valley and Scottsdale feature marquee teams, such as the Cubs and Giants, as well as Arizona's own Diamondbacks, to boost the area's appeal.
With the notable exception of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the west-side teams have a lower profile, often playing at fields in less-developed areas in younger suburbs.
According to Cactus League figures, East Valley and Scottsdale teams have averaged 50 percent more fans, an extra 3,000 people per game, over the past eight years.
The extra fans translate into extra ticket sales, parking revenue and concession sales at the games, although that is only the most obvious measure of their impact.
The east side also dominates in its offerings forhotels, restaurants and transit in a way that hasn't yet spilled into the West Valley, said Mark Coronado, the Cactus League's president.
"The reality of it is, with respect to the hospitality industry, the hotels and resorts, the East Valley benefits more," he said. "But the prosperity does come across the (Loop) 101."
Coronado, who also serves as community and recreation services director for Surprise, said his city also benefits: Its hotels are full during the 45 days of spring training.
With games packing the calendar in March, the Cactus League is in the middle of a golden age that launched in 2011. Half of baseball's 30 teams now train in the Valley. All the success makes it hard to remember that in the early 1990s, the league was at risk of extinction.
West grows, east profits
Since 2002, the West Valley has added six teams and three ballparks in Goodyear, in Surprise and near Glendale. The Dodgers were an immediate hit when the team joined the Cactus League and began to play at Camelback Ranch in west Phoenix near Glendale in 2009. Yet the impact of hosting the teams and the games remains lower in the west than on the east side of the Valley, which added two teams over the same period.
Scottsdale is known internationally as a resort mecca. In contrast, areas around many of the new west-side parks are not yet developed, and many visitors seem unaware of the West Valley attractions.
Since the Reds moved to Goodyear from Sarasota, Fla., in 2010, the team has been last in the 15-team Cactus League in attendance. Their closest rival, geographically and at the turnstile, is the Cleveland Indians, the club that shares Goodyear Ballpark with the Reds.
But lower attendance is not unique to the Reds and Indians. Between 2011 and 2013, the years the league has had its current lineup of teams in their current markets, the top four teams for attendance have all played on the east side. Eight of the bottom nine teams in attendance are on the west side.
Beyond the games, the West Valley has about a third of the hotel rooms of Scottsdale and the East Valley, and far fewer rooms that fetch premium prices.
In March 2013, hotels in the West Valley brought in $39 million in revenue, according to data collected by Smith Travel Research, which tracks hotel-industry performance trends. East-side hotels pulled in $150 million in the same month.
Their occupancy rates were nearly identical, about 83 percent. But Scottsdale and the East Valley had three times as many rooms filled. Those extra customers often eat, drink and shop where they stay, further skewing the benefits of the Cactus League in favor of Scottsdale and other east-side cities.
Bill and Rosa Richards of Fresno, Calif., are a typical example. Earlier this month, at a Giants game in Scottsdale, they wore the Reds and Indians T-shirts they bought during a visit to Goodyear. They said they had booked their five-day stay in Scottsdale because "the majority of hotels popping up online were in Scottsdale."
Asked about their afternoon in Goodyear, Bill Richards, 51, said, "We had something quick in Goodyear and saved our dining dollars for something later in Scottsdale."
A lower profile
One reason Scottsdale and the East Valley attract more guests and spending is that strangers to the region know almost nothing about the West Valley.
This year, Linda Pederson, a Danville, Calif., resident, took her sons to see the Giants in the spring for the first time. She said she was looking forward to shopping in Scottsdale during her visit but had no idea of her options on the west side. That kind of focus is a blow to the Tanger Outlets, which opened in Glendale two years ago.
The smaller dining, shopping and entertainment impact of spring training in the West Valleyis a part of the Cactus League reality that few are willing to address directly.
Most cities that host spring training lose money to operate the facilities used by the teams, The Arizona Republic has found. But cities have justified the losses, saying the games are part of a broader economic-development plan.
In a 2012 report for the Cactus League, FMR Associates of Tucson estimated spring training directly poured $230 million into the regional economy, based on interviews with 3,000 fans at the games. Indirectly, the league accounted for $422 million, FMR found.
In another report for the Cactus League the same year, Jill Welch, an economist with the Elliott D. Pollack Co., estimated the year-round impact of the baseball facilities at $210 million.
Neither Welch nor Andy Wellik of FMR was willing to discuss the impact in a more localized way.
Welch, who didn't examine figures on a local basis for her report, said, "Anyone who has more (hotel) rooms or resorts would probably benefit more."
Wellik would only allow that "logic would dictate that communities with multiple facilities in them would do better."
The publicly available portion of FMR's report singled out Giants and Colorado Rockies games as drawing the most out-of-town attendees.
The Giants, a team with a long Cactus League history, play in relatively affluent San Francisco and have won two World Series titles in recent years.The Rockies play at Salt River Fields, which they share with the Diamondbacks just outside Scottsdale on the Salt River Reservation.The Rockies doubled their spring attendance when they moved to the Valley from Tucson, which is harder to reach from Denver.
The Dodgers, who play at Camelback Ranch along with the White Sox, were the other notable team, FMR found. Playing close to their California base, the Dodgers brought a national luster mostly lacking in the other west-side teams.
Other west-side teams just can't compete with the drawing power of teams on the east side.
Consider two Midwestern teams: the Cubs, a team that has added to its rich history of futility in recent years, and the Reds, a playoff team entering two of the past three springs. The Cubs averaged 69 wins per regular season entering those Cactus League seasons, while the Reds averaged 89 wins.
Still, the Cubs, a nationally watched team playing in Mesa, drew an average of 154,000 fans per year during spring training the past three years. The Reds, with a relatively small regional fan base, averaged 61,000 in Goodyear.
Attendance during the regular season is more competitive. Last year, the Reds drew 2.5 million fans, while the Cubs drew 2.6 million.
With the Cubs moving into a new and larger stadium in Mesa this season, the disparity has only gotten bigger. The Cubs are on pace to draw more than 208,000 fans this year, which would smash their own Cactus League attendance record. The Reds, meanwhile, are battling the Indians and Milwaukee Brewers — two other west-side teams — for lowest attendance this year.
A future payoff
But it's not all economic gloom out west. Coronado said the west side can point to its own success stories, such as Peoria, which has seen a dining and retail district pop up around the baseball stadium shared by the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres.
It helped establish a model that sports can lead economic development, something other West Valley cities are also in the early stages of mimicking, he said.
Glendale's sports-venue building binge largely coincided with the housing bust and the Great Recession. It contributed to the city's poor finances in recent years, though hockey, not baseball, has been the city's leading source of sports grief.
Glendale officials estimate the city will take in $131,000 per year from the baseball stadium over the next five years. In contrast, they expect to spend between $8.9 million and $13.3 million on stadium debt.
Planned restaurant and retail developments near the Camelback Ranch facility used by the Dodgers and White Sox remain stuck on the drawing board.
Goodyear's spring-training revenue remains disappointing, too. As of March 10, the city's spring-training returns were at 63 percent of projections, records show.
"Unfortunately, the recession three or four years ago really put those people backpedaling, but it's still part of their master plan," Coronado said. "These facilities pay for themselves, but they don't pay back to the operator in green dollars. They pay back to the community in economic activity and in vitality, and unless you buy into that formula, it's very difficult to sell."
Republic reporter Peter Corbett contributed to this article.