Spring training attendance down at Arizona sites
By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Derrick Hall, CEO and president of the Arizona Diamondbacks, couldn't believe what he was hearing or seeing last week.
He was at HoHoKam Park, spring training home of the Chicago Cubs, and instead of the sound of Cubs fans, there were loud roars for the Diamondbacks.
"We're beating the Cubs, and the place is erupting," Hall says. "It was so strange. I know we're in our home state, but during spring training, you usually can't get a ticket in Mesa, and they're all Cubs fans. This time, the place wasn't sold out, and the majority were Diamondback fans.
"That just showed me how the economy is keeping people from traveling here from Chicago."
The San Francisco Giants had a similar experience in their spring opener in Scottsdale. They were anticipating a sellout crowd for their Feb. 26 game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but instead, the place was half-empty, with an announced crowd of 5,803.
"I couldn't believe all of the empty seats," Giants third-base coach Tim Flannery says. "I mean, Giants-Dodgers, after all of those years being in Vero Beach? Wow.
"I used to have friends call me and say, 'Can you help us out?" because there were no tickets available. Now, I tell them, 'You can buy your own ticket now.' "
The recession has hit hard in the Phoenix area, and exhibition games in Arizona haven't been immune. Through the first 11 days of exhibitions, average attendance was 4,472, down from 5,719 at a similar point in 2008.
The restaurant business is down about 20%, says Don Carson, owner of the popular Don and Charlie's in Scottsdale. Golf and baseball packages have dropped substantially in price.
"You see it everywhere," Baltimore Orioles scout Gary Roenicke says. "I used to have to keep my hotel window closed because it was so noisy from the bars across the street. But it's so quiet now, it doesn't matter."
Russell Brooks, president of the Meridian CondoResorts in Scottsdale, says business has plummeted by nearly 50% this spring. There have been far fewer golf packages sold, and none involving spring training.
He says tee times are far easier to come by, and some that once went for $300 can be had for $99.
The players have noticed the attendance drop-off, too. The Cubs still lead the Cactus League in attendance, but they're averaging about 3,000 fewer fans than a year ago when they drew a total of 12,805 a game, and they're down more than 1,500 from this time last spring.
"It's a packed house here usually," Cubs second baseman Mike Fontenot says. "A couple of days you saw a lot of empty seats. You were like, 'Well, maybe it's just early.' But it's getting to the point where with the economy, tickets sales are taking a little bit of a hit. We (will) try to do our part, get out there and sign autographs and stuff."
If nothing else, says Los Angeles Angels vice president Tim Mead, catching a few hours of baseball can ease some pain.
"People are not going to be without entertainment," Mead says. "We all need a relief or a release from what's going on in the world."
Contributing: Mike Dodd in Mesa, Ariz.