Despite unemployment brought on by the economic slump, Amy Lutchen isn’t about to miss skipping out on Chicago’s snow for Arizona’s warmth and the opportunity to watch her beloved Cubs.
But in a nod to fiscal reality, this annual trip to the Cactus League is somewhat frill-free: Lutchen, her mother and her stepfather rented a smaller car than before, and instead of hotel rooms, housing now is in a Tempe condominium, with kitchen-cooked meals instead of dining at restaurants.
“It was definitely worth looking for that condo online,” the 32-year-old Lutchen said while watching workouts at Mesa’s Fitch Park.
Although Lutchen made the trip, many fans whose teams train in the Valley and Tucson are not coming due to tight budgets.
Although league officials still expect record attendance, thanks to two teams moving here and a generous quirk in baseball’s schedule, fewer out-of-town visitors in 2009 may carry an impact felt for years to come.
“The good news is, the Cactus League is bigger and better than it’s ever been, even in a down cycle” said league president Robert Brinton, who also leads the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Are there some things of concern? Absolutely.”
A big concern is has to do with how people are coaxed to the Cactus League in the first place, via a funding mechanism that is a circle either virtuous or vicious.
Since the early 1990s, improvements to spring training facilities have been paid for by taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars. And in 2000, Maricopa County voters approved a second tax measure, primarily aimed at financing the construction of University of Phoenix Stadium for football, that gives more money to Cactus League facilities, tourism promotion and youth sports.
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In good times, baseball fans coming to the Valley rent cars and hotel rooms, which helps pay for better spring training facilities, which helps draw more fans ad infinitum.
It was these taxes that built the new stadiums in Glendale (the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox moved their spring operations from, respectively, Vero Beach, Fla., and Tucson) and Goodyear (the Cleveland Indians will begin play there this season and will be joined next year by the Cincinnati Reds).
But what happens when the economy forces the fans to stay home?
“I get bed tax collections reports for Mesa every month — we’re off, and we’re off at a pretty good percent,” Brinton said.
The Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, which administers that tax money, missed its revenue projections for fiscal year 2007-08 by nearly $2.4 million, or 5.9 percent. And the forecast for the current fiscal year calls for even worse results.
In fact, the authority is predicting deficits for at least the next five years.
AZSTA spokeswoman Jennifer Copeland said the authority is still determining how the revenue shortfall will affect the intended recipients: “We just want to make sure we’re taking the right steps to provide what we can for the community.”
Brinton, though, took a long-term approach.
“There have been windfalls the last few years, and now there’s a downturn,” Brinton said. “The averaging out will come out where we thought it would be.”
Even more optimistic is Ray Artigue, executive director of the MBA sports business specialization at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business.
Artigue believes the Cactus League has reached the status of a regional institution due to its length of time in Arizona (teams first began training in the state in 1946). Also, he added, it benefits from its short duration and time of year, when fans in cold climes are looking for any excuse to escape to warmer weather.
“That makes it bit more recession-proof than other traditional sports,” Artigue said.
Between the league’s first pitch on Wednesday and the final out on April 2, Brinton expects fans to come out in numbers topping 2008’s record mark of 1.3 million. That’s because 245 games are scheduled, compared to 177 last year.
“I call it the spring training stimulus package,” Brinton joked, although he acknowledged that per-game turnout most likely will fall.
To credit are the arrival of teams Nos. 13 and 14: the Dodgers and Indians, who left Florida’s Grapefruit League for better facilities in Arizona.
Both teams come with fan bases already in place.
The Indians trained in Tucson for 46 years before leaving after the 1992 season, and the Dodgers not only are now located only a five-hour drive away from their home city, rather than a five-hour flight, but for years, the Valley was part of the team’s radio network.
“This was a Dodgers town for many, many years — that’s huge,” Artigue noted.
That the Dodgers may be a top draw was evident last March, when they played six games in Arizona. The average attendance for those games was 9,478, which would’ve placed third behind the Cubs (12,085) and San Francisco Giants (9,929).
In addition, spring training will be interrupted by the World Baseball Classic tournament. That not only added an extra week to the exhibition schedule, but international teams will play a dozen games against the major leaguers.
“You just couldn’t ask for this to happen at a better time,” Brinton said.