My Turn – Arizona Republic, March 30th
By Robert Johnson
The first time I attended a spring-training game in Arizona I had no idea how important the Cactus League was to the Tucson economy, let alone the state. It was 1984, I was 19 years old and the Cleveland Indians were on the field. It was great.
It was also naive because the topsy-turvy history of spring-training baseball was about to repeat itself with a threat from Florida in the late 1980s to lure teams from Arizona to the promise of new facilities on the East Coast. I had no idea how vulnerable this industry was at the time.
The Cactus League remains fragile today. History has repeated often since the 1940s, with teams coming and going, the league shrinking and expanding. Every time the crisis was in some way related to the condition of training facilities, and each time the community had to quickly respond with lobbying efforts, a task force or even funding to build or retrofit stadiums. But as another spring-training season draws to a close, we have to wonder what’s next.
Mesa voters saved the Chicago Cubs in November, however more leases are set to expire in the next few years, including deals with the Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland A’s, Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. Will some or all of these local efforts to renew stadium leases spiral into a crisis? History makes it likely.
With all 15 teams in the Cactus League now training in Maricopa County, this is the time to stabilize spring training for good with a strategy that brings certainty and growth to a vital tourism sector.
What we need is a 50-year plan that includes a long-range assessment of spring-training facilities and anticipated costs of upgrades, examines current and new funding options to meet existing and anticipated stadium obligations, coordinates and funds a broader promotions effort aimed at selling almost 2.5 million available tickets each March, and better engages the private sector in a full-time effort to lure more baseball fans here in the spring.
The opportunities for ticket sales, fan-player interaction, media coverage and other promotions would be unlimited if we had a strategy based on greater leaguewide cooperation. For example, a unified marketing approach could make possible an annual Cactus League festival over several days marking the start of the season and involving all 15 teams and all 10 host communities.
An organized effort would result in more resources to stage high-profile events, push leaguewide multigame packages and create more fan opportunities at games across the Valley. This effort also would have the credibility to work with Major League Baseball and its teams to ensure the greatest results for everyone involved.
We know spring training generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year in fan spending. That fact alone should be reason enough to work together before the next crisis to strengthen the Cactus League with development of a long-range strategy that guarantees the health and well-being of this valuable industry.