Surprise hurt by early spring start: Change may be permanent as attendance falls to last

Most spring training games at Surprise Stadium remained only half-full during the 2019 season. Surprise is hampered by its far distance from central Phoenix, hosting two teams with low fan bases and an earlier start to the season that is cutting into some spring break tourism tme. [Jason Stone/Independent Newsmedia]

By Jason Stone, INDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA

When Cactus League baseball fans plot out their stadium choices, Surprise Stadium, 15930 N. Bullard Ave., still doesn’t appear to be on many fans’ priority list.

In final Cactus League figures for the 2019 season, the home to the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals finished with an average of 5,547 fans for 30 games this spring — dead last among 10 Cactus League stadiums.

That’s nothing new, as Surprise normally hovers near the bottom each year because of three distinct disadvantages. It’s the furthest site from Sky Harbor Airport, the fan bases of its two home teams aren’t exactly huge, and the early start to the spring training season has cut into crucial tourism time for Rangers and Royals fans who like to travel here during spring break.

Still, city officials say they’re up to the challenge of getting more fannies in the seats (or bodies on the lawn) next year — even if it looks like the early start is here to stay.

“Although attendance was not where we hoped it would be this year, we did see some great trends that we are excited about, especially with some of our most dedicated fans,” said Surprise Sports and Tourism Director Kendra Pettis.

Ms. Pettis’ department is in charge of sports events at the stadium. She said among the good news, season ticket packages and group sales were up this spring. The city also saw some success with promotions like “Family Four Packs” and Military Appreciation Days.

SURPRISE STADIUM AVERAGE ATTENDANCE LAST 10 YEARS

  • 2010: 5,854
  • 2011: 5,880
  • 2012: 6,230
  • 2013: 5,457
  • 2014: 6,756
  • 2015: 6,953
  • 2016: 7,329*
  • 2017: 5,982**
  • 2018: 6,130**
  • 2019: 5,547**

* year after Royals won World Series

** Early February Start

Surprise is still benefiting economically from the crowds, even if it’s at the bottom.

In 2018, fans spent an average of $3,400 per trip to Surprise and had a median stay of three nights. But Ms. Pettis said those numbers could be better with bigger crowds.

“An increase in attendance would also provide an increase in collected sales tax, which would continue to help support city services such as police, fire and parks,” Ms. Pettis said.

Early to rise

The early spring start appears to be a new reality for the department.

Ms. Pettis told the Surprise City Council last month the Major League Baseball Collective Bargaining Agreement that runs through 2021 calls for more off days during the regular season and no World Series games in November, meaning the spring season had to move forward a week or so.

“I don’t see them ever saying, ‘No, take back days off from us,’” Ms. Pettis told the council.

An earlier start to the season affects Surprise’s attendance in a few ways.

For starters, the weather can sometimes be cooler and wetter in late February, meaning crowds could be chased away by bad weather or games could be canceled altogether because of rain.

“We have seen rain over the past two years, which impacts the walk-up crowd,” Ms. Pettis said.

The schedule featured one rain out this year, which happened March 12 for the Royals game against the Chicago White Sox.

The early start also cuts into some of the spring break crowd, which typically draws families from out of state.

“Most schools have their spring break toward the middle or end of March, so we are missing out on some of the dates that used to be heavily attended,” Ms. Pettis said.

This year’s final date of March 24 barely cut into the final week of the month.

The earlier schedule is a challenge Ms. Pettis said she already recognizes.

“Fans have associated March with spring training for years, Ms. Pettis said. “We are still working on educating them about the early start to increase attendance during the February weeks.”

College crossover

One good thing about the early start is it has indirectly benefited a two-weekend college baseball tournament the stadium hosts most years. It used to be the lead-in to the spring training season, but not anymore.

With Royals and Rangers’ first game beginning Feb. 23, the second weekend of this year’s Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic was played along with the opening of the big league games.

It made for a busy day for staff working all the games, but it also had one big benefit, Ms. Pettis said.

“We do get some crossover from the college tournament to spring training and vice versa,” Ms. Pettis said.

Thanks to the appearance of defending national champion Oregon State, Ms. Pettis said this year’s tournament drew more than 20,000 fans over the 12 games and saw a jump in revenue from last year by 60%.

Positive changes

While the attendance numbers didn’t show it for the spring training games, Ms. Pettis said a number of fun changes added to the fan experience this spring.

It included a Jimmy John’s fireworks show after one game and the introduction of Chick-fil-A Resident Days, which provided ticket discounts for local residents and neighboring cities.

Huss Brewing Company Container Bar and Backyard was a new addition to the food choices. The Tempe-based brewer featured local craft beer and domestic favorites, yard games and views to enjoy the game.

Ms. Pettis said one of the most talked about featured menu item was the “Double Dog Dare You,” which consisted of two 11-inch monster hot dogs, bacon, chili, nacho cheese, cheddar cheese, onions, jalapenos and tortilla strips.

And for the second straight year, the city held a Spring Training 5K, drawing runners from all across the country, while seeing a 60% increase in participation.

“Our plans for the future are to continue to engage and support the Surprise community with special promotions and packages,” Ms. Pettis said. “We also look forward to expanding our partnerships with the business community to enhance the fan experience.”

Leaguewide appeal

Despite the Surprise figures, Cactus League attendance was up in average fans just a tad in 2019.

The early start and below average-temperatures caused a drop in overall attendance, but the league drew an average of 7,900 fans for 220 total games, and more than half of the teams saw rises in attendance.

2019 CACTUS LEAGUE AVERAGES

  1. Sloan Park (Mesa): 13,939
  2. Salt River Fields (near Scottsdale): 9,925
  3. Scottsdale Stadium: 9,353
  4. Camelback Ranch-Glendale: 8,442
  5. American Family Fields of Phoenix: 7,434
  6. Tempe Diablo Stadium: 6,952
  7. Peoria Sports Complex: 6,674
  8. Hohokam Stadium (Mesa): 6,272
  9. Goodyear Ballpark: 5,740
  10. Surprise Stadium: 5,547

The Milwaukee Brewers saw the biggest increase (31%) thanks to renovations and rebranding of American Family Fields of Phoenix in the Maryvale area. They ended up setting their all-time record for spring attendance.

Other teams that saw increases were the Cincinnati Reds (15%), San Diego Padres (12%), Chicago White Sox (10%), Arizona Diamondbacks, Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Dodgers (all 2%) and the Chicago Cubs (0.4%).

The Cubs also set the all-time Cactus League attendance record on March 25 when they drew 16,100 fans to Mesa’s Sloan Park for a special game against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, a team that normally trains in Florida.

The Cubs attracted the four other largest crowds ever this season alone.

The Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Angels and Diamondbacks all set single-game attendance records this season in their home stadiums.

“Despite an early start and unfavorable weather, the numbers show that Arizona’s spring training attendance remains robust,” Cactus League President Jeff Meyer said in a statement. “We’re grateful to the out-of-state visitors and local residents who flock to Cactus League ballparks to enjoy the best time of year in Arizona.”

In 2018, the economic impact of the Cactus League was estimated at more than $644 million.

And its $373 million contribution to the state’s GDP accounts for more than 1 percent of Arizona’s total GDP, which was $326.4 billion in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Ms. Pettis recently told the City Council that the spring training season nets the city about $3.8 million annually.

“We will continue to strategically market to Kansas City, Texas and other target markets as well as work with our Cactus League partners to promote the early start and get more fans to come to Arizona and Surprise,” Ms. Pettis said. “We are excited to build on the great foundation here in Surprise and will continue to focus on creating the best fan experience for our expanding fan base with more group options, season ticket offerings, family-friendly activities and more.”

CACTUS LEAGUE BY THE NUMBERS

  • Teams: 15
  • Stadiums: 10
  • Royals Average: 5,732 (third-lowest)
  • Rangers Average: 5,386 (lowest)
  • Top team: Chicago Cubs-13,939 per game
  • Total Attendance: 1.74 million
  • Compared to 2018: Down about 300,000
  • Average Attendance: 7,900
  • Compared to 2018: Up 217 per game
Editor’s note: Jason Stone can be reached at 623-445-2805, on email at jstone@newszap.com or on Twitter at @thestonecave.


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