- Greater Phoenix area represents Spring Training home for half of MLB’s 30 teams, many playing in new or renovated facilities
- Cactus League remains a major tourism and attendance driver
- Much like many MLB home ballparks, Spring Training facilities now increasingly contain a mixed-use development component
With less than a week to go before the start of the Major League Baseball spring training Cactus League season in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, construction workers are scurrying to finish an offseason of work on Scottsdale Stadium, the Spring Training home of the San Francisco Giants.
The promise is to have it all done and ready to go when the Giants open at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers February 22.
“As is the case with these projects, the amount of work that gets done in the last three weeks of these projects is sort of mind-blowing,” said Alfonso Felder, the Giants’ executive vice-president of administration, who’s spearheaded the project. “But they’re moving things along.”
The large-scale improvements pegged at about $60m (€56m) include a new state-of the-art clubhouse and fitness space for the Giants in what was one of the first new facilities that opened in 1992. The current stadium near Oldtown Scottsdale replaced a rickety wooden edifice that had been home to spring baseball since 1955, and keeps the club tied to the community for another 25 years.
But the Giants’ work represents just the latest in an accelerating wave of facility upgrades for the Cactus League, which houses the the Spring Training complexes for 15 of MLB’s 30 teams, all within the greater Phoenix metropolitan area.
At the other end of the Valley of the Sun in Surprise, Arizona, a new Kentucky rye natural grass playing field for the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers was installed at Surprise Stadium at the cost to the city of about $600,000. It’s the first field replacement done in the complex since it opened in time for the spring of 2003.
That $600,000 figure includes padding for the walls and painting touchups around the facility. The field work followed by five years a $22m renovation of the separate clubhouses used by the two major league teams, which are bound to the far west valley town through 2030.
In addition, the Rangers this past offseason built across the street from their clubhouse a new dorm for minor league players at their own expense of $12.5m.
“This was a long time coming,” says Joe Bertoletti, the senior associate director of sports and tourism for the city of Surprise.
“We look to always make sure that the maintenance of this place is kept up. The goal is to always have a great fan experience. We’ve replaced the seats. The scoreboard was replaced to upgrade to the video board we currently have. We’re constantly working together with the teams. Our relationship is incredible,” Bertoletti says.
All this follows by a year the $60.7m expansion and renovation of the then Maryvale Baseball Park and the complex around it, funded by the Milwaukee Brewers, the city of Phoenix, and an Arizona tourism fund.
All the construction work around the Valley is just the price of doing business these days in the Cactus League where those 15 clubs train at 10 facilities playing in a series of towns and communities throughout the valley ranging from Phoenix, population 1.6 million, to Surprise, home to 138,161 people.
The entire population of Maricopa County where these facilities reside is 4.2 million, more than half of the 7.2 million population of the entire state of Arizona.
The Cactus League has become big business, a huge economic generator, annually responsible for 6,439 jobs worth $224m a season, plus $31.9m in taxes for the local communities – $24m to the state, $7.9m to the municipalities.
It should be noted that in the early 1990s, before the big facility construction boom first took hold, folks were predicting the outright demise of the Cactus League. Back then after the Cleveland Indians made an ill-fated move to Florida only to eventually return, the league was left with just the Giants in Scottsdale, the Oakland A’s in Phoenix, the Seattle Mariners in Tempe, the then-California Angels in Palm Springs, the Brewers in Chandler, the Chicago Cubs in Mesa, and the San Diego Padres in Yuma.
Over the years, lured in part by the promise of modern new training facilities, eight MLB teams headed west for Arizona, and the league is now evenly split for Spring Training between Arizona and Florida.
“It’s constantly moving,” says Bridget Binsbacher, new executive director of the Cactus League Association. “We have to stay current and competitive. Each model is different. But depending on the structure of each facility that determines how they are able to execute development like this.
“When you look at where we were when we began to where we are today, we’ve just grown in leaps and bounds. A tremendous amount of growth has just happened in the last handful of years. This is a real turning point for the Cactus League. I think we’re going to see some great results in the coming years. All of this is going to pay off,” she says.
Rapid Growth of the Cactus League
The economic impact of the Cactus League on the state of Arizona as of the last study in 2018 was $644.2m and the gross domestic product $373m. A new study is being prepared this year post the current Cactus League season.
The study was conducted by the L. William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business.
“It means so much to the state of Arizona from an economic standpoint, from a tourism standpoint. But we have to work hard to remain competitive because it’s a great opportunity,” Binsbacher said. “We can’t talk about that enough.”
The growth has been spurred mostly by expenses on facilities, that in part drew teams from outside the Phoenix area, or kept them in place.
Among the deals over the past decade-plus that have led a large-scale modernization of Cactus League team facilities:
- A $113m deal in 2009 in which the city of Goodyear, Arizona, built Goodyear Ballpark and two training complexes to lure the Indians and Cincinnati Reds from their prior Spring Training sites in Florida.
- A $100m deal in 2011 from the Salt River-Pima Indian Community to built the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick complex that opened in 2011 and is shared by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.
- A $152.6m deal in 2013 by Glendale, Arizona, to lure the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox to what is now Camelback Ranch.
- A $99m deal in which the City of Mesa kept the Cubs from moving out of town with Sloan Park, which opened in 2014 and is regularly the top attendance draw in the Cactus League.
- A subsequent $20m deal in which Mesa also led renovations of the out-of-date HoHoKam Stadium to lure the A’s from Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
- A recent $42m upgrade by the city of Peoria, Arizona, to Peoria Stadium and training facilities for the Mariners and San Diego Padres.
- The city of Phoenix and the Brewers last year renovated what used to be called the Maryvale Baseball Park. Phoenix contributed $10m over a five-year span. The Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority chipped in $5.7m. And the Brewers themselves spent in excess of $45m for the stadium and the practice facilities. Naming rights to the ballpark were then sold to American Family Insurance in concert with the stadium in Milwaukee.
So after all those public and private outlays, the question is if you build it, will they come, to echo the classic baseball movie Field of Dreams?
The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Overall Cactus League attendance has been down slightly the last two springs, mostly because of inclement weather and various shifts in the schedule. Last year’s figure of 1.74 million represented, a 2.1-per-cent decrease from 2018.
But overall, Cactus League attendance remains at historically high levels, and the per-game average of 7,900 across the league was a jump of 2.8 per cent – the highest such figure since 2016. Four teams last year – the Cubs, Angels, Rockies, and Diamondbacks – each set new club records for Spring Training attendance. And the Brewers in their revamped facility enjoyed an attendance of 31 per cent to 7,434 a game.
Cactus League executives are also still working getting themselves, and fans, adjusted to a new schedule that because of an earlier-than-ever start to MLB’s regular season requires the Spring Training games to also move earlier on the calendar.
“[The attendance is] pretty remarkable especially because we had six rainouts last season,” Binsbacher says. “And the early start is a new norm for spring training, so we have a big job ahead of ourselves, promoting the early starts and getting fans in the seats.
“That’s so significant when you think about what that means to the surrounding communities and businesses that really rely on the tourism. Truly the Cactus League has become a driver of tourism with the visitors and the exposure from people all over the world coming to see and experience Spring Training. It’s become an industry all its own,” she says.
The Giants in particular have spent the winter working on two massive construction projects, the one in Scottsdale and the other across McCovey Cove from Oracle Park in San Francisco called Mission Rock.
In September, the Port of San Francisco gave permission to the Giants to break ground on the $2.5bn multi-phased commercial and residential project early this year. The first shovel was slated to be turned in January, but has been delayed until sometime in March.
The Giants have been working on the project with the Port and the City of San Francisco since 2005, only five years after the ballpark itself opened following numerous failed attempts at building the facility around the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We’re doing a lot of site work now to get ready for the construction in the next few months,” says Felder of the Giants. “It’s a very different deal.”
At the same time, the massive rebuild of their spring training facility in Scottsdale and minor-league facilities nearby across the Phoenix border beneath the shadow of red-faced Papago Mountain also has been ongoing.
“We’ve got a bunch of things going on at Scottsdale Stadium that’s oriented at improving the baseball facilities for our major leaguers, while at the same time delivering a multi-use facility for the city of Scottsdale to really jumpstart activity on a year-round basis,” Felder says.
There has also been a refurbishing of the press box, the club and city offices, party suites, and sprucing up of the seating area down the right field line in the main bowl.
As Giants pitchers and catchers recently took the field for their first workout, workers were still finishing the final touches of green paint on the metal façade to the left of home plate.
Cyclone fencing could still be seen on Osborn Avenue where the main gate of the stadium is also being revamped.
And the clubhouse, training facility, and huge open multi-use space for meetings is now located in a new building that was constructed on what was once the player parking lot outside the first-base gate.
“They city will use that as a venue throughout the year,” Felder says. “During the spring it will be used for a whole range of purposes from an event point of view. It’s essentially a banquet-sized facility.”
Parking for fans, always at a premium – especially on weekends – is now even harder to get.
“We’ve continued to shrink parking and we’re using adjacent facilities to a certain degree,” Felder says. “There are larger parking facilities either at the Scottsdale Library or within walking distance of the ballpark.”
At Papago, the Giants are building a new minor-league complex that won’t be ready until next year. That facility was once used by the A’s prior to their move from Phoenix to Mesa and was antiquated to say the least.
It was also time for the Giants to replace their long-used minor league facility at Indian School Park only about a mile from Scottsdale Stadium. Papago is only about three miles away.
“It will be completely new minor league facility for us there,” Felder said.
The complex will have six fields, a new clubhouse and training facility, and a climatized batting cage to accommodate the rough and tumble heat of the Phoenix summers. It will be a year-round rehab complex used by Giants major leaguers and minor leaguers alike.
The two facility rebuilds combined will cost about $120m, split evenly between the Giants and the city of Scottsdale, Felder says.
“I would say approximately,” Felder says. “Because at this point we’re still in the middle of construction.”
But given the ongoing facility buildup of the Cactus League, it’s hardly expected this will be the last such development the Valley sees.