For Cactus League Future Will Depend on Local Commitment to a Homegrown Industry

February 20, 2013
Cactus League Association
Mark Coronado, President

Every few years, a crisis over how to pay for upgrades to a local spring training baseball facility draws attention to the way cities pay for ballparks that host Major League Baseball teams.

In 2010, it was Mesa’s turn to figure out how to fund improvements needed to keep the Chicago Cubs from leaving for Florida.

Today, the Oakland A’s seem poised to move from Phoenix to Mesa, while the Milwaukee Brewers contemplate the team’s future at the city’s Maryvale baseball complex.

It seems the story of spring training baseball is always a little unsettled. But why does it need to be forever on edge, constantly in jeopardy of coming apart at the seams?

We probably wouldn’t take the Cactus League for granted if we could all start thinking about it as an industry. And a homegrown one at that!

Annually, spring training baseball facilities generate more than $632 million in economic activity for the area. That number is certainly fitting of “industry” status.

Yet when we are faced with questions about how to fund maintenance and upgrades of baseball facilities, there is always a fight. It is as if the community doesn’t really understand how many thousands of jobs or how many millions of dollars in revenue each year are the result of these ballparks.

Rest assured everyone would notice the Cactus League if it were gone. Hotels would be empty in some parts of the year and people would be out of work. Restaurants that make their yearly numbers each season off our baseball tourists would close down. Tax revenues would fall. The Valley would feel the loss.

Would we be battling each other if Arizona’s aerospace industry decided to pull up stakes and leave town? How do we think we will be impacted if US Airways moves to Dallas as part of the proposed merger with American Airlines?

Those are industries that can change Arizona’s economic history. And so is the Cactus League.

Over the next few years, the future of the Cactus League will begin to face a challenge that will test our commitment to the jobs and revenues it brings twelve months each year.

We will have to decide what to do with the current funding mechanism that provides the bulk of dollars for ballpark improvements but is already over-extended in its promises of funding for facilities now open for games and other activities.

We should begin soon to come together as a community to begin exploring solutions and mapping a strategy to make sure we never again reach the edge of the cliff like we did in the late 1980’s. That’s when the League and all its teams almost moved entirely to Florida.

Based on the schedule of work committed to keep ballparks modern and baseball teams in place, a new storm is brewing even if the sun is shining on the situation today.

A sunset on ballpark funding managed by the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority would leave host cities with almost no hope of retaining teams once current leases expire.

Mesa was able to float ballpark bonds by selling water properties in Pinal County. That’s a great idea, but likely a one-time fix. Few if any other Cactus League cities have land to sell as a way to finance ballpark upgrades.

The good news is we have a few years to figure this out. The bad news is we have historically waited until the mob was at the door to fix the problem.

The Cactus League industry is a vital piece of the Arizona economy. It is an original industry, as much as cotton farming and cattle ranching. It is worth too much to leave to chance or a late-inning solution forged in the middle of a crisis. It is an industry that we know needs a permanent solution. What we don’t know yet is who will step up to help us lead the conversation that will solve this problem once and for all.