Cactus League hits grand slam with Dodgers, White Sox, Indians and Reds
Not long ago, spring training in Arizona had two strikes against it.
In 2000, the state had 10 teams to Florida’s 20, and franchises talked about leaving the Arizona desert for locales such as Las Vegas.
A bid for money to prop up the league stalled in the Legislature. After some intense arm-twisting, a proposal got enough votes at the Capitol to be placed on the fall ballot for voters.Even then, prospects didn’t look good. Spring-training money was lumped together with a new stadium for the then-woeful Arizona Cardinals. Then a funny thing happened.
The frugal Cardinals opened their wallets for a sophisticated advertising blitz, which emphasized the proposal’s benefits to youth sports. Cardinals players went door to door asking for votes, and two days before the November election, the team pulled off an upset of the Washington Redskins.
Maricopa County said yes to Proposition 302 with 51 percent of voters’ support, creating a sports and tourism authority that would levy taxes to build youth fields, a football facility and baseball stadiums.
In an economic sense, Arizona had gotten something right.
This year, as the recession hammers the economy, 1.5 million fans are expected to attend Cactus League games, the numbers to be swelled by the addition of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians. The Chicago White Sox moving from Tucson to join the Dodgers is also expected to boost attendance.
Games start Wednesday and run through April 2, and they are projected to pump more than $300 million into Arizona’s economy.
The league is a far cry from what it was in 2000. By next year, when the Cincinnati Reds move in from Florida, the Cactus League will be up to 15 spring-training teams, the same as the Grapefruit League. In addition to five Florida teams lured to the Valley, the White Sox this year moved from Tucson, where two teams – the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies – still play but are considering moving to metro Phoenix.
Cactus League President Robert Brinton said Prop. 302, which helped facilities only in Maricopa County, gave a vision not just for saving the league but expanding.
“It allowed us to move from defense to offense,” he said.
Brinton expects this year’s additional teams, along with a longer season because of the World Baseball Classic, to boost attendance more than 15 percent from last year’s record-setting total of 1.3 million visitors.
Not fully recession-proof, Brinton said the average per-game attendance may drop to about 6,900 from last year’s record 7,436.
One lawmaker’s impact
The recent West Valley boom can be credited to a former state lawmaker, ambitious leaders in Glendale and Goodyear, and some good old-fashioned networking on a golf course.
The architect of the sports funding measure was ex-state Sen. Scott Bundgaard, a fiscal conservative who shepherded the bill through the Legislature in spring 2000. Bundgaard was forced to use a procedural move to keep the bill alive after it initially failed in the Senate. It eventually passed that chamber and was approved in the 60-member House after six representatives changed their votes to “yes” after intense lobbying. The deciding 31st “yes” vote came when former Rep. Dan Schottel, R-Tucson, changed his vote.
“I was studying it and getting notes from everyone on the (House) floor,” said Schottel, who also was encouraged to change his vote by former Gov. Fife Symington. “I think it has been good for the state, and that is what we were concerned about.”
Bundgaard, who now lives in Peoria and works for an Internet startup, said he took plenty of heat in getting the measure passed.
“It was an election year, these were tax increases, and there was uncertainty to the economic impact,” Bundgaard said. “In hindsight, it’s wonderful to see how our community came together with a long-term vision to push something through that has been very positive.”
The public vote established the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, which uses hotel and car-rental taxes and taxes generated at University of Phoenix Stadium to fund the construction of Cactus League facilities in Maricopa County, the Cardinals’ new home and youth sports.
Through 2031, the authority has roughly $400 million allocated for the construction and renovation of Maricopa County spring-training stadiums. While new stadiums have lured five teams from Florida, renovations are equally as important. Upgrades are done to existing stadiums in return for teams signing long-term leases to stay in Arizona. Authority money is not used for maintenance.
Slightly more than half of the money comes from Prop 302 funds. The rest comes from the Maricopa County Stadium District, which the board of supervisors created in 1991 to help fund the Cactus League with a $2.50 surcharge on rental cars. With those funds, the county’s ballparks got upgrades, and facilities were built in Peoria and the Maryvale area of Phoenix.
Some of the surcharge has been folded into the sports and tourism authority, after the two entities agreed in 2003 to have the stadium district transfer money that wasn’t needed. Cities also contribute to the construction and renovation of stadiums.
Shortly after voters created the sports and tourism authority, work began on a new two-team stadium in Surprise. The ballpark opened in 2003 with two Grapefruit League refugees, the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals.
Two years later, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano formed the Arizona Baseball and Softball Commission to build on the momentum and expand the then-dozen-team Cactus League.
Glendale got into the spring-training business after turning an alfalfa field off Loop 101 into Jobing.com Arena, a hockey facility for the Phoenix Coyotes, in 2003, and University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006.
For years, the city had wanted to add spring training to its sports portfolio, but City Manager Ed Beasley said officials waited until they saw the right teams. With the White Sox and Dodgers, he said, Glendale assured itself of drawing big crowds.
Dealings began in 2005, when the Dodgers, who had held spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., since 1948, authorized the White Sox to shop around for an Arizona city interested in building a ballpark for the teams to share.
The White Sox had moved from Florida to Tucson in 1998 to share a facility with the then- expansion Diamondbacks. But White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf lives part time in Paradise Valley and made it known he found metro Phoenix more appealing.
Glendale, riding its other sporting successes, entered negotiations, which remained under wraps until 2006. White Sox representative John Kaites said the team considered other cities but believed Glendale had the expertise to craft a deal. Representatives also liked the proximity of the football and hockey venues about three miles north.
“They had gotten it done with the Cardinals stadium. They had gotten it done with the Coyotes arena,” Kaites said.
But by the time Glendale and the teams announced in November 2006 they had a deal, Goodyear was ahead of the curve. The fast-growing southwest Valley city already had submitted a proposal for funding from the sports and tourism authority.
Both proposals hinged on getting money from a limited pot, and it appeared the battle might pit the two West Valley communities against each other.
The authority, however, decided to dip into money from the county stadium district, and both projects were funded.
The emerging community of Goodyear had tried to host spring training since the 1990s but couldn’t finance a stadium.
In 2003, it appeared the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, owned by Valley millionaire Arte Moreno, would move spring-training operations from Tempe. But the plan fell through a year later.
The possibilities of spring training had city officials hooked, and they held on to voter-approved bonding authority in hopes of enticing another team.
With that funding and money from the sports authority, Goodyear attracted two Ohio teams. But the ball only got rolling thanks to a fortuitous encounter.
On May 5, 2006, Mayor Jim Cavanaugh, who was in a charity golf tournament, started talking about baseball with an attorney in his foursome. The lawyer had previously represented Goodyear and offered to put in a call to an Ohio-based colleague who had worked for the Indians.
Within weeks, Goodyear was making a presentation to the Indians, and in September the city signed a deal with the team. The Reds followed after a connection with the Indians got Goodyear a chance to make a presentation, Cavanaugh said.
“Both teams wanted to stay in Florida. They made that clear to me,” he said. “If their cities (in Florida) had treated them differently, they wouldn’t be here.”
At a ballpark groundbreaking for the Reds in November, Chief Executive Bob Castellini said Goodyear had gone above and beyond in attracting baseball’s oldest professional team.
“Nobody cares about being treated like a big shot, but everybody wants to feel like they’re wanted,” Castellini said. “And we truly feel like we’re wanted out here.”
Arizona communities continue to seek ways to land spring-training tenants, although future growth remains uncertain.
The only team in Florida on a year-to-year lease is Baltimore, and Florida has invested $150 million in matching funds since 2001 to keep teams from leaving.
If other Grapefruit League teams migrate west, they won’t be able to rely on the sports authority for a new stadium.
Charles Foley, the authority’s chief financial officer, said all but $3.8 million of the roughly $400 million for Cactus League projects in Maricopa County is earmarked through 2031, when the funding ends.
Yet other options remain.
The Gila River Indian Community has considered building a ballpark, as has Casa Grande in Pinal County. Pima County is seeking approval from the Legislature to ask voters to build a new stadium in southern Arizona and to renovate ballparks in Tucson that are home to the Diamondbacks and Rockies.
“In 2000, we risked losing the Cactus League. Now Arizona is the dominant force in spring training,” said Joe Yuhas, a political consultant who ran the Prop. 302 campaign. “I don’t think the growth of the Cactus League is over. I think we can continue to grow if we have the resources available.”
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