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Swinging out of a slump

Peoria Sports Complex (Photo by Paul Dagostino)

As Californians Rob Owens and Ian Au-Yeung took in an early April spring training game between the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers at Peoria Sports Complex, they may have felt a bit more crowded by the fans this year at the ballpark.

Owens, 38, a picture of true spring training fandom with his glove on his left hand and a beer in the other, was waiting for a foul ball to sail over the first base line. “It’s all about baseball,” he says.

For visitors — estimated to constitute at least half of the attendance at any given spring training game — and Arizona residents alike, 2012 was “all about baseball,” according to Cactus League attendance figures.

With a few games still to be played, the Cactus League told the Arizona Capitol Times that it had already set a record for attendance with 1.6 million fans coming out to the league’s 10 ballparks in 2012.

That represents an increase of more than 100,000 fans beyond the 1.5 million fans that came out in 2011, says Brad Curtis, president of the Cactus League Baseball Association.

“We set a record over the (final) weekend,” Curtis says.

Owens and Au-Yeung, who have traveled from San Diego and San Francisco, respectively, to Arizona for spring training each of the past four years, are just the type of fans the Cactus League and Arizona economy needs. They have traveled around the Valley of the Sun to see all 15 Cactus League teams play. They spend money on hotels, restaurants and rental cars. They also purchase tickets to other sporting events, like Phoenix Coyotes games.

“During the days we go to baseball games and we go to hockey games at night,” Au-Yeung says.

Curtis attributes the increased attendance to three main things, including the recovering economy, which he says the league both contributes to and benefits from.

He also says spring training benefitted from starting four days later this year, so it didn’t have to compete with other big events. The first few days drew a larger than usual number of fans. “Typically those first few games in February don’t have a lot of attendance,”

Curtis says.

Thirdly, marquee players like Albert Pujols, first baseman and slugger now with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, always bring out fans.

“They are big ticket draws and they have a good following,” Curtis

says.

Tom Sadler, president and chief executive officer for the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, says the Cactus League is a major contributor to the state’s economy and a big part of Arizona’s overall

tourism strategy to bring in as many out-of-state dollars as possible.

Sadler says the league, which brought in $352 million in March 2011 alone, has the same economic impact as one of the biggest sporting events the state has ever hosted. “If you compare that (figure) to other types of tourism events, you will find that number almost equates to the value of a Super Bowl,” he says. “I think it’s a big shot in the arm.”

Although exact numbers for 2012 won’t be known until the league releases a report in May, Curtis estimates that the economic impact for this year will be greater than 2011 because of increased attendance.

The fact that there was an increase at all has tourism promoters breathing a sigh of relief and hoping that the tourism slump Arizona has been suffering is finally over.

Kristen Jarnagin, spokeswoman for the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association (AZLTA), says the Cactus League could be viewed as a barometer for the state’s tourism industry, which has been making a comeback since 2009, the worst year for tourism in recent history.

“This season there is strong attendance and there is strong visitation to our state and that means strong hotel occupancy,” Jarnagin says.

Jarnagin contrasts that with the low point of the slump in 2009 when employers laid off workers in record numbers, some hotels fell into foreclosure and executives didn’t want to be seen at conventions at Arizona resorts while their employees were losing their homes and jobs.

So they cancelled conventions, which hurt tax revenues that pay for many public services. Tourism, she says, is one of the most heavily taxed industries in the state.

“It’s so important to remember that tourism revenues pay for those other services that we rely on so heavily,” she says.

AZLTA reports that visitors spend $17.7 billion annually in the state, which helps support more than 152,000 tourism-related jobs.

“Of the 28,000 new jobs recently added to Arizona’s economy, over half of them were in tourism,” Jarnagin says.

Of course, one of the biggest natural tourist attractions Arizona has to offer is the mild weather in the winter and spring, which is an important ingredient for many who enjoy spring training baseball.

Lynn and John Kopp of Milwaukee were also watching the Brewers and Padres at the Peoria Sports Complex. While they were enjoying clear weather with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, temperatures in Wisconsin were in the mid-40s and mid-50s.

“Obviously, we like baseball and we enjoy the weather. It’s refreshing to get away for spring training,” Lynn, 53, says.

John, 58, says the couple is here primarily for baseball. “That’s what we were thinking when we got here, that we were primarily going to focus on going to see some Brewers games.”

Just as state tourism officials hope, however, the couple also visited some non-baseball attractions, including Old Tucson and they planned to see Sedona.

“There is a lot to do and there is a lot to see,” Lynn adds.

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