Cactus Prices, Success Soaring

March 21, 2012
The Arizona Republic
Dan Bickley

Sticker shock has invaded the Cactus League.

Or maybe you haven’t purchased an $11 bottle of beer at Salt River Fields.

Or recoil in horror attempting to buy a spot in the grass at Scottsdale Stadium.

“A lawn seat for 33 dollars?” a Giants’ fan wrote in astonishment. “Does that come with the lawn as well?”

Bounce around the Cactus League in 2012, you’ll notice a change in tone. It feels more mercenary and less Mayberry, USA. Four of the 10 stadiums have been constructed in the past 10 years, with blueprints being drafted for another in Mesa. These are shiny, beautiful engines of commerce. The Diamondbacks’ new facility is the best in the business, seducing blissful patrons into states of reckless spending.

The other day, my daughter wondered why the small bag of cheese popcorn ($5) was in a much smaller container than the small bag of kettle corn ($4). Seizing a chance to teach her the fine art of price gouging, we approached the woman in charge.

“It costs a lot of money to make the cheese popcorn,” she snapped.

Oh, right.

In the evolution of the Cactus League, we have seen both the end of Tucson and the end of quaintness. The ballparks are still small parks. The players are still within arm’s reach, and generally friendlier this time of year. But the prices have soared dramatically.

The good seats are hard to find for under $20, especially at the newer venues. Home-plate box seats at Camelback Ranch can cost $44. The Giants are so hawkish that rates fluctuate on demand, where you can pay $33 for that lawn seat if you pick the wrong day.

For decades, attending Cactus League games ranked among the best values in sports. The tickets were wonderfully underpriced. Of the 1.6 million fans who attend games every season, some 57 percent are tourists. For the rest of us, these sun-kissed games were once a perk of residency.

“Now, I think we’ve gone too far in the other direction,” Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall said. “But like most teams, we don’t have total control over pricing. That relies with the municipality or the owner of the building.”

Not that many are complaining. Record crowds continue to support exhibition baseball, propping up our economy by ignoring the mark-up. The Diamondbacks are actually trending ahead of last year’s inaugural season in Scottsdale.

In 2011, the Cactus League’s economic impact was estimated at $357 million, and if the weather holds, this season could be off the charts.

“Are you sitting down?” said Cactus League President Brad Curtis. “I just saw the numbers, and through 17 dates, we’re about 200,000 (people) ahead of last year’s total, which was a record. I saw that and thought, ‘Oh my God.’

“As for the pricing, if you’re sitting 40 feet from the grass in a Cactus League ballpark, it’s still going to be 50 percent less than going to a Major League park. So everyone is happy. I just got an e-mail from a couple in Oklahoma who just loved their experience. This is a win-win for everyone.”

Still, it’s starting to feel like winter rates on local golf courses, where only the visitors can justify the cost of high-end inventory. And for the Diamondbacks, this can be a tricky proposition.

Their highest-priced ticket is $26. The team recently fought the capitalistic urge of their partners to increase parking fees from $5 to $7. After all, they can’t beat up their fans too badly, lest they be held in contempt once the regular season begins.

“Teams know the out-of-town fan is captured,” Hall said. “We’re in a different situation. Our fans live here. This isn’t vacation money they’re spending.”

Besides, spring training is supposed to be about romance, not revenue. It’s an idea, not a business. It’s a time when baseball gives back, not extorts. And maybe the solution is simple: Give us residents 40 percent-off cards on all tickets, grub and gear. The snowbirds and tourists can make up the difference.