MLB Salvaged Spring Training in Arizona, But Some Say the Economic Damage Is Already Done

The Chicago Cubs have trained in the East Valley for 70 consecutive seasons. Since 2014, they have hosted spring training games at Sloan Park in Mesa.
The Chicago Cubs have trained in the East Valley for 70 consecutive seasons. Since 2014, they have hosted spring training games at Sloan Park in Mesa. Elias Weiss

For decades, Arizona has been a magnet for baseball fans nationwide who soak in the sun's rays watching their favorite players show off their talents before the regular season begins.

But in recent years, the strain of the coronavirus pandemic paired with a labor dispute threatened the viability of the tourism machine, a key economic driver for Phoenix-area businesses and jobs for residents.

Drawn by months of stunning weather, especially during the winter and spring, residents have relocated to Arizona for generations to enjoy the longer outdoor season.

That's what the family of Mesa sports fan Steven Stonecipher, now 50 years old, did during his childhood.

The Stonecipher clan moved from oft chilly and windy St. Louis area to the Phoenix metro area decades ago.

Owners of the St. Louis Cardinals, a National Football League team, made that same move and rebranded the team to become the Phoenix Cardinals in 1988. Avid fans recognize them now as the Arizona Cardinals football team.

Stonecipher left his familiar Busch Stadium seats when he moved west.

But the ardent fan of America’s favorite pastime had something he considers even better awaiting in the East Valley.

That is baseball's spring training, known worldwide. 

There are 15 Major League Baseball clubs that migrate to Arizona for spring training every year, often attracting fans from the Midwest, the West Coast, and the Southwest to workouts and Cactus League games.

The other 15 teams in the league train as part of Florida’s Grapefruit League as the springtime sun thaws the turf at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.

Many fans have come to associate mid-March with a balmy vacation, cold beer, ballpark fare, and “bleacher coaching” as eager players compete on the diamond for roster spots.

Ten stadiums that make up the Cactus League, a moniker for the Arizona circuit, dot the Phoenix suburbs and host exhibition games ahead of the MLB’s 162-game marathon regular season.

Stonecipher previously loved attending spring training. For years, he has watched the spectacle unfold from his own backyard near two active stadiums. 

In 1977, the Oakland Athletics opened Hohokam Stadium on Center Street near downtown Mesa. Since 2014, Sloan Park on Rio Salado Parkway has been home to the Chicago Cubs, earning the stadium the colloquial title of “Wrigley West.”

The Cubs, who snapped a 71-year National League pennant drought in 2016 en route to their first World Series title since 1908, have trained in the East Valley since 1952.

“This time of year you got more people in Mesa spending more dollars,” Stonecipher told Phoenix New Times. “Hotels and restaurants are full.”

But he's not so keen to attend the events as much anymore.

Instead, he decided to forgo the hometown fun this year, citing a big uptick in cost and what he sees as an organization with owners and players who are neglecting the fan experience.

“When they start squabbling over money, the average everyday fan can’t see a game comfortably anymore,” Stonecipher said.

It was animosity between owners and players that nearly nixed spring training this year altogether.

The MLB and the MLB Players Association ended an owner-imposed lockout on March 10, when they agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement after more than three months. 

This 99-day lockout is the second-longest work stoppage in MLB history, trailing only the players' strike in 1994, which lasted 232 days stretching into 1995.

“I know that the last few months have been difficult,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said during a news conference the day the lockout ended. “There was a lot of uncertainty, at a point in time when there's a lot of uncertainty in the world.”

Manfred and numerous team owners touted “saving” spring training, albeit a delayed and abridged campaign.

After all, the Cactus League has a $644 million impact on the Valley of the Sun, according to a study by Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute.

"The Cactus League is a key annual driver for tourism and hospitality," said Anthony Evans, a senior researcher at the ASU institute. 

But not everyone agrees that the economic impact of baseball's spring training is so much money. 

Many of the Cactus League’s 2 million out-of-state fans treat exhibition games as a secondary activity, not the primary reason for travel to Arizona in the early spring.

At least that's what is forecast by Victor Matheson, a sports economist, and professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. 

“The only way you really make money from this is people traveling down from places like Chicago,” Matheson told New Times. “Even then, the money you make from spring training is often overstated.”

MLB ticket prices have climbed steadily each year since 2006. Fans can expect to spend about $35 plus taxes and fees for each ticket this season.

To catch a glimpse of spring training in a Phoenix suburb, most fans are willing to spend $1,620 or more, according to the ASU study.

“A lot of these people are tourists who would have visited Arizona anyway,” Matheson said.

Perhaps the biggest winners of the economic trickle-down effect could be restaurants, bars, and grocery retailers who feed hungry fans looking for a break from a steady diet of corn dogs and french fries. 

Dollars spent near the ballpark should not necessarily be attributed to the economic impact of spring training, the sports economist argued.

click to enlarge Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona. - ELIAS WEISS
Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona.
Elias Weiss

Once upon a time, Stonecipher remembers paying $25 for a day at Hohokam Stadium.

“What it costs to see a regular game today is astronomical, let alone spring training,” he said.

It was the evening of December 1, 2021, when the previous collective bargaining agreement between MLB owners and players expired. The owners called for a lockout immediately, barring players from setting foot in stadiums and training facilities.

The new five-year agreement features the biggest base salary hike ever, new bonuses for top young players, and a slew of other considerations. 

The minimum player salary has grown from $570,500 to $700,000, a 22.7 percent increase that's the highest in a single season since 2003. By 2026, the minimum salary will increase to $780,000.

The luxury tax threshold, which determines how much a team will be taxed if its payroll exceeds the limit, also was increased by a historic margin to $230 million, $20 million more than last season. Teams carrying a payroll above $230 million are taxed on every dollar above the threshold.

By 2026, the threshold will be $244 million to address inflation and higher player salaries.

“They’re pricing themselves out of the game,” Stonecipher said. “It’s not a smart entertainment value.”

At a press conference last week, Manfred said the clock was ticking if teams want to sell out ballparks for spring training and even the upcoming regular season that starts April 7.

But Matheson said it’s too late — the damage is already done.

click to enlarge The Chicago Clubs have trained in Mesa, Arizona for years. - ELIAS WEISS
The Chicago Clubs have trained in Mesa, Arizona for years.
Elias Weiss

Putting exhibition games back on the schedule won’t salvage much because people planned their spring vacations months ago, according to the economics expert.

“Getting these games back won’t help the Cactus League much,” he said. “I would have crossed Arizona off my list three months ago.”

Nevertheless, the spring training schedule begins Thursday in the Valley for the hometown baseball team. The Arizona Diamondbacks — along with their local fans — don’t have to travel far to the spring training facility in Scottsdale. The Diamondbacks are scheduled to face the Colorado Rockies at 1:10 p.m.

“We look forward to getting out to Salt River Fields immediately and seeing our loyal fans in spring training and for the regular season at Chase Field,” Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall said in a statement last week.

The other Cactus League stadiums are spread across Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix, Glendale, Peoria, Surprise, and Goodyear.

Despite the delay, Goodyear Mayor Joe Pizzillo said he’s confident that businesses in his corner of the Valley will help pack stadiums full of fans who are coming from all over the country to see baseball this month.

"We can’t wait to see the stands at the ballpark," Pizzillo said.

With some luck, spring training could still inject the usual $214 million out of a total of $3.2 billion of the state's gross domestic product, which refers to the total value of goods, services, and salaries in a community. 

As Cactus League President Chris Calcaterra put it, “We can't take spring training for granted.”

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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss