Early start stifles spring training ticket sales in Surprise, other Cactus League venues

The Texas Rangers’ Doug Fister throws a pitch during a spring training game against the Milwaukee Brewers on March 15 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise. [Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia]

Richard Smith
Independent Newsmedia

The calendar was stacked against Surprise and every spring training host city in 2018 — and will remain so for at least the next three years.

An early start date for the Cactus League contributed to a decline in the city’s attendance and gross revenue. Spring training games began Feb. 22 in the home of the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers, about a week earlier than the traditional start of spring in years not affected by the World Baseball Classic.

A June 19 work session presentation to the Surprise City Council revealed that gross revenue dropped eight percent for Surprise. The total of $6,718,261 was an 8 percent drop from the 2017 gross revenue of $7,292,784. Ticket sales of 190,043 marked a four percent drop from 2017 (197,425).

“I’m not a big fan of the early start and I figured the numbers would be that way because of that,” Councilman Patrick Duffy said.

Kendra Pettis, director of the Sports and Tourism Department, stated in an email interview that the earlier start date is due to the current Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement. The agreement goes through 2021, so the early start will be at least for the next three years (2019, 2020 and 2021).

During her June 19 presentation, Ms. Pettis said night games continue to be better draws at Surprise Stadium. On average, attendance at night is 31 percent greater than at day games.

With that in mind, Mr. Duffy asked if more games can start under the lights.

“It’s something we have discussed. Obviously, MLB put out the schedule but we have a little bit of room on some of the night games. A lot of it is based on the TV coverage. But we are hoping to increase those night games to get a boost,” Ms. Pettis said.

Not all of the numbers are as downbeat as they appear. Surprise Stadium hosted 31 Cactus League games in 2018, two less than 2017.

So average attendance increased 2 percent this season, from 5,982 per game in 2017 to 6,130 per game in 2018.

Similarly, total Cactus League attendance dropped from 1,918,607 in 2017 to 1,774,978 this year. But with 24 less games in Arizona this year, the per-game attendance rose 2 percent to 7,683.

“It’s kind of in line with that trend across the whole Cactus League,” Pettis said.

While ticket sales make up slightly more than half this revenue, Surprise also saw significant declines in money from merchandise (21 percent), sponsorship (9 percent) and program sales (14 percent — though program sales general less than $20,000 of the total even in a good year.

That still was the third best gross revenue number in Surprise Stadium history, behind 2017 and the apex in 2016 ($7,914,780) — the spring after the Royals won the World Series and the Rangers claimed a division title.

Surprise does not receive the majority of this revenue. For example 80 percent of ticket revenue goes to teams and 20 percent to the city.

Then 64 percent of concessions revenue heads to the vendor (Aramark), with 18 percent to the teams and 18 percent to the city. Aramark receives 65 percent of merchandise revenue and the remaining 35 percent is divided evenly between the teams and the city.

Sponsorship and program sales are 50/50 splits.

In all Surprise received $1,950,049 (down 15 percent from 2017), the Royals got $1,379,653 (down 3 percent) and the Rangers got $1,192,742 (down 12 percent).

Breaking down the data further provides hopeful trends. Full season ticket orders jumped 10 percent this year, while half season ticket sales rose 4 percent and concession sales rose 2.5 percent.

Ms. Pettis said the Family Four Pack was the most popular promotion.

“We really pushed that through Facebook. We got a reach of more than 10,000 and it converted into almost 1,500 tickets,” she said.

The Texas Rangers’ Ryan Rua hits a solo home run during a spring training game against the Milwaukee Brewers on March 15 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise. [Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia]


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