Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 07.22.2007
When he served as the UA’s athletic director, Cedric Dempsey had a nickname for Tucson.
“We used to call it the biggest college town in America,” he said.
Some would say he’s still correct.
Pima County has passed 1 million residents — more than enough to support a minor-league sports team — yet the area is littered with gravestones of franchises that have failed to turn a profit, or survive, in Tucson.
For many reasons — our demographics, our transient nature and the business market, to name a few — minor-league sports franchises have failed to find a foothold here.
The unsuccessful past impacts the future of pro sports in Tucson.
“It’s a proven statistic that it’s not working,” Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll said.
Does the area need a pro sports franchise? Some say it improves the quality of life and instills community pride, while others believe the University of Arizona serves as the town’s main point of interest.
At least 18 franchises or sporting events have folded or left Tucson in the last three decades.
That number will grow in the next two years. The Triple-A Sidewinders are being sold to a group that will likely move them to Reno, Nev., for the 2009 season. The Chicago White Sox want to move their spring training operations to Glendale in 2009, but first need to find a replacement team to move to Tucson Electric Park or pay a buyout.
With the Sidewinders’ departure, Tucson will become the second-largest city in America without a big-league team in one of the four major sports or a Triple-A baseball team. On that list, only El Paso is bigger.
According to 2006 U.S. Census figures, Tucson is the 32nd-largest city and the sixth-largest without a major pro sports team. Louisville, Ky., Las Vegas, Oklahoma City and the Austin area all have Triple-A baseball.
On paper, Pima County seems ripe for a minor-league team.
It is home to world-class events during temperate months in the fall, winter and spring — the WGC-Accenture World Match Play Championships, spring training, UA football and basketball and La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, to name a few.
But those are events, and easier to support than a 40- or 72-game season. Sidewinders owner Jay Zucker calls it his “season handicap.”
“Different people have attempted to crack this animal,” said Todd Woodford, the Sidewinders’ general manager in 2001 and assistant GM from 1997-2000. “And I don’t see the dynamic of the infrastructure, demographic mix and weather pattern changing drastically enough to offset this.”
Despite the 1 million label, some involved in minor-league sports in Tucson believe the marketplace is deceiving. Beside factors like summer heat and monsoons, many feel the very nature of the market — our demographic — makes us different:
● Pima County is isolated. Despite being the 32nd-largest city in terms of population, metropolitan Tucson — defined as Pima County — is the 52nd largest in the country, according to 2005 U.S. Census figures.
While Tucson has a larger metro area than Albuquerque or El Paso, it is smaller than 10 other metro areas in the 16-team Pacific Coast League.
“It’s not been a good site for pro ventures,” Dempsey said. “The isolation of Tucson always had an impact on its ability to draw. Minor league teams have to depend pretty much on that community for support.”
● Pima County’s population is transient, and people leave for the summers. For every three people who move to Pima County, two leave, the city of Tucson says. The average Tucsonan moves every 3 1/2 years, be it within the area or out of town.
Because of that, there’s little allegiance to minor-league sports teams. Fans of out-of-market teams can watch their favorite teams on pay cable packages or drive to Phoenix when they come to town.
● UA alums and employees — the university is the second-largest employer in the area — save their loyalty for the Wildcats.
● The area’s population peaks in mid-February and mid-March because of good golf weather, spring training and the gem show, said David Taylor, a Tucson city planner for 30 years who now works for the Pima Association of Governments.
City planner Anna Sanchez estimates the area has 10,000 fewer people in the summer, depending on how you define a visitor; Taylor guesses 40,000. He said summer visitors are “a small-budget movie” compared to winter residents.
“The people that could afford the luxury of spending a lot of money (in) or investing in a pro sports team don’t spend the entire year here,” Carroll said.
Corporate support might not be large enough here to support a pro sports team.
While in Albuquerque last week for the Triple-A all-star game, Zucker was amazed by the 32 luxury boxes at Isotopes Park.
Tucson Electric Park has eight.
“There is not that corporate structure. Tucson lacks that corporate base,” Zucker said.
Only four publicly traded companies are headquartered in metro Tucson.
Southern Arizona’s eight leading full-time employers are Raytheon Missile Systems, the UA, the state, Fort Huachuca, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Tucson Unified School District, Pima County and the city itself.
WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship Executive Director Michael Garten said his tournament’s corporate support “was fantastic” in its first year in Tucson.
“But the dollars that we’re talking about (for a pro sports team) — a stadium naming-rights deal — that’s a whole different animal,” he said. “There’s a complete lack of Fortune 500 companies. You look at Tucson, and even the regional headquarters offices for Fortune 500 companies land somewhere in Phoenix.”
Garten has said the Match Play tournament moved here — instead of Orange County, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas or Phoenix — in part because Tucson was not oversaturated with sports.
Two cities — Albuquerque and El Paso — have responded to their baseball teams’ leaving in different ways.
After the 2000 baseball season, the Triple-A Albuquerque Dukes departed for Portland, Ore., leaving New Mexico’s largest city without a baseball team for the first time since 1959.
Albuquerque, with about 14,000 fewer city residents than Tucson, lured a team back.
In May 2001, voters approved a $15 million bond issue for the $25 million renovation of Albuquerque Sports Stadium. Rebranded as the Isotopes, the Calgary Cannons moved to Albuquerque in 2003.
“It made the city look at, ‘What direction are we going here?’ ” said Brian O’Neill, deputy director of the New Mexico Sports Authority. “We’re not a major-league city yet, we understand that. But we definitely are a minor-league city. There was a wakeup call that put a little sense of urgency in it.”
El Paso, with about 90,000 more city residents than Tucson — but, like Tucson and Albuquerque, a Southwestern college town — has taken a different tack.
At the end of the 2004 season, the city’s Double-A Diablos were sold and moved to Springfield, Mo. Instead of finding a new affiliated team, the city kept the Diablos name and placed them in the independent American Association.
El Paso’s sports community does not center around baseball, but rather the Sun Bowl, first played in 1935.
“There’s a lot that feeds off the success of the Sun Bowl,” said Bill Lee, operations director of the El Paso Sports Commission. “We’re looking at duplicating success through sports tourism.”
That means recruiting youth tournaments — “moms and dads and kids traveling to hotels and putting heads in beds,” he said — in addition to trying to land annual tour stop events.
The city has a junior-league hockey team, but not many other franchises compete for financial support against University of Texas-El Paso sports.
“The pie can only be sliced so many ways,” he said.
Supervisor Carroll wants to see Tucson market itself as a destination for amateur sporting events. He said he doubts the county would pay for another ballpark, as Albuquerque did.
“The government made an attempt to subsidize the industry, and that’s TEP,” he said.
Some owners are not scared off by Tucson’s history.
The Sidewinders’ Zucker says he would like to keep baseball in Tucson in some form, though he would not elaborate.
The Tucson Flame will begin play in the minor-league American Basketball Association this fall.
Mike Feder, general manager of the Toros/Sidewinders from 1989 to 2001, wants to bring an Arena Football League 2 team to the proposed Downtown arena. AF2 is a 30-team league that plays games indoors and serves as the feeder for the Arena Football League.
Feder was the executive director of AFL’s New Orleans VooDoo and later the league’s Austin Wranglers. The arena at Tucson Convention Center has a ceiling that’s too low for the sport, Feder said. McKale Center is big enough, but would not allow a team to sell beer.
“It’s eight home games in an air-conditioned building in the summer,” Feder said. “We have to draw 6-10,000 people eight times. Arena football is more than just a football game; it’s a party.”
Carroll is skeptical. He imagines a potential owner doing his homework on the teams that have failed here.
“I would say, ‘What makes this next opportunity different?’ ” he said. “How could it succeed when the last 20 years have not?
“I don’t know how many times you can sit through a presentation geared toward expansion of a professional league and ignore the fact all these other hopefuls fell by the wayside.”
The future of minor-league sports in Tucson is cloudy at best. But given Tucson’s size — and despite its demographic, weather and college-town quirks — owners figure to keep trying to make it work.
“I believe Tucson has a lot of potential,” Zucker said. “It’s a matter of learning how to motivate the market.”
● Contact reporter Patrick Finley at 573-4658 or at email@example.com.