Cactus League is still uniquely intimate, affordable
February 25, 2014
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack. How about a luxury suite and preferred parking, too?
Spring training begins Wednesday with three games, including the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in the northeast Valley.
Attending a Cactus League game is still a bargain in the costly world of sports entertainment, but as popularity continues to swell, ballclubs must find a way to reconcile growth with fan intimacy and affordability.
“We think about that all the time,” Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall said.
Spring training, during which teams evaluate rosters through workouts and exhibition games, is as popular as ever.
The 15-team Cactus League set an attendance record last year of 1.73 million, and although the number was helped by additional games from the World Baseball Classic tournament, it still reflected fan passion for a sport Walt Whitman once suggested was just as important “as our Constitution’s laws.”
The six weeks of training is no longer merely manna for the faithful.
Families from cold-weather climates book weeklong vacations. College students make it a spring-break destination. Locals have been known to play hooky from school or work.
Meanwhile, Cactus League teams are seeking ways to keep things affordable for fans while capitalizing on business opportunities.
Cactus League President Mark Coronado sees spring training as a unique opportunity for fans to “rub shoulders with the players” but acknowledges that “the industry is also teaching us about supply and demand.”
Translation: A high-profile game will trigger higher ticket prices.
Most of the 10 Cactus League parks offer seating in the outfield grass berm for $10 or less. Single-game tickets typically range from $20 to $30 while suites, such as the ones at Goodyear Park, home of the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds, are available for approximately $750.
As ticket prices increase, teams are looking at alternate ways to keep the spring-training experience affordable.
Opening up morning workouts to fans for free is one way that has been successful.
It is not unusual to see baseball aficionados at Salt River Fields during February watching players work out on practice fields. Autograph-seekers know where to stand to secure much-coveted signatures.
“Gibby (Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson) has stressed the importance of interaction and autograph-signing, and we agree with it,” pitcher Daniel Hudson said.
“It’s a good opportunity because spring training is not as serious” as the rest of the year.
The Diamondbacks have done well at keeping accessibility in mind.
Before each day game, players will sign autographs for free from 11:45 a.m. to noon (5:45- 6 p.m. for night games). Gibson always has been in the ear of players about making fans a priority.
“There’s a lot of new ways this generation occupies their time,” Gibson said. “But there’s also an old-fashioned way, a good alternative you want to make sure they understand.”
Many teams are trying to personalize the spring-training experience.
At Camelback Ranch, where the Dodgers and White Sox play, fans can watch pitchers warm up in the All-You-Can-Eat Bullpen Patio and dine on hot dogs, nachos, popcorn, peanuts and soda. And after Wednesday games, seniors are invited to walk the bases.
At Maryvale, a three-game flex pack of tickets is available for $30, and on March 27, a Ryan Braun bobblehead will be given away.
Fans will find the new Cubs Park in Mesa has a Wrigley Field-like vibe. It seats 15,000, cost $99 million to build and offers a party deck, plenty of shade and a play area for kids.
The Cubs are regularly one of the top draws, and the hunch here, even with the premium game price of $38 for an infield box seat, is that fans will continue to come.
They’re a passionate, loyal bunch.
Demand isn’t the only factor in determining price.
Teams feel the impact, too, from municipalities, or their partners in financing, like the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community for the Diamondbacks and Rockies.
A worthy tradeoff
Dave Watts of Gilbert, who grew up in the Los Angeles area a diehard Dodgers fan, attends spring-training games every year with his twin brother and a close friend from San Francisco who is a Giants fan.
He finds ticket costs “a little bit high from a pure baseball standpoint,” but he believes the entertainment value is a worthy tradeoff.
“Last year, I took my kids to a game, and we left with three baseballs and several autographs from the players,” said Watts, 40. “The opportunity for my kids to meet the players and be so close to the action makes up for the other drawbacks.”
The Cactus League delivers a unique experience.
Its equal in Florida, the 15-team Grapefruit League, features ballparks all over the state. Going from one park to another can take several hours.
Here, some are just 15 minutes apart, and the longest commute would be about a one-hour drive.
“The beauty of spring training is the intimacy and affordability,” Hall said. “That’s something we can’t forget.”
Reach Boivin at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/Paola Boivin. Listen to her streaming live on “The Brad Cesmat Show” on sports360az.com every Monday at 10:30 a.m.
Don’t miss our Cactus League special section in Wednesday’s Arizona Republic. Go to az.azcentral.com to download our iPad edition, which is full of interactive features and a video of the upgraded facilities at Peoria Sports Complex.