Charles Fountain teaches journalism at Northeastern University. His newest book, Under The March Sun: The Story of Spring Training chronicles the history of baseball’s annual six-week ritual and how it grew from a shoestring-budget road trip into a billion-dollar-a-year business. This week and next Fountain will be blogging about his adventures at Spring Training for Powell’s. With their kind permission we will be reprinting them here. Check out the third post below.
I saw spring training’s two newest complexes last Friday and they are spectacular. They are places of beauty as well as function, and the cities that built them—the west Phoenix suburbs of Glendale and Goodyear—are confident that they will be a boon to their community, growing their national profiles and their economies as well.
These new facilities—the Dodgers and White Sox share Glendale and the Indians are down in Goodyear—are the very symbol of what I have been writing about these last three years, the symbol of what the new spring training has become—state-of-the-art conditioning and rehab facilities for the players, and theme-park-like destination resorts for the fans.
When Goodyear is done building its new downtown city center around the ballpark in a few years, the concourse around the grandstand will become a city street; pedestrians on non-game days will be able to use the grandstand as park benches. There is land inside the gates of the park that city officials expect will one day house hotels.
The one dark cloud in the blue skies over these complexes is the fact that they have been financed in part by state taxes to be collected from tourists who won’t visit until years in the future, and in part by local bonds to be paid off with tax revenues from the anticipated private development surrounding the new complexes.
But if the economy continues to bat .091, as it has been these last few months, will any of that ever happen?
Attendance is off notably in spring training this year, and local officials point to a variety of factors. The World Baseball Classic—a bore to most American fans, a nuisance to major league managers and coaches, but a boon to Major League Baseball’s international marketing—has extended spring training by a week, and filled the schedules with a lot of exhibitions against WBC teams. Spring training games started this year on February 25 and won’t end until April 3. Each team plays upwards of 40 exhibitions this year, up from 30 most years. When all is said and done, total spring training attendance might be level with the recent record-setting springs, but per-game attendance is certain to be way down. In the Cactus League, three new teams in the Greater Phoenix area give vacationing baseball fans three new options; some local officials in places like Scottsdale and Mesa worry that fans in Glendale and Goodyear might account for some of the empty seats in their parks.
But it is impossible to ignore the economy in all of this. Chambers of commerce across Florida and Arizona report that hotel reservations are down anywhere from five to 20 percent this year. In Phoenix, the upscale Arizona Biltmore Hotel is selling rooms for $199 a night, about half off their regular March rate. The collateral development planned for the areas around the new ballparks—hotels, restaurants, retail, golf courses, and in Goodyear’s case, a new city hall and office and residential space as well—has all been put on indefinite hold.