A more robust Spring Baseball season beckons this year

There were times in the past three years when Huss Brewing Company considered getting out of the Spring Training business.

“We did have some hearts-to-hearts about it,” said Chip Mulala, the director of operations for the company, which sells its local craft beers at seven of the 10 Cactus League stadiums.

The past three years have hurt businesses and frustrated baseball fans who like to visit Arizona in March for the nice weather and Spring Training games.

First, the COVID pandemic forced an end to nearly all sports in mid-March 2020, abruptly ending a strong Cactus League season. In 2021, stadiums had to deploy social distancing, limiting capacity to 50%. Plus, they started late and had fewer games.

COVID was not a problem last year, but Major League Baseball’s labor dispute was. The owners locked players out until they reached a new collective bargaining agreement, forcing a late start and fewer Spring Training games.

In 2019, there were 220 Spring Training games played in Arizona, drawing 7,900 fans per game. The number of games dropped to 143 in 2020, hit 208 with the limited capacity in 2021 and bottomed out at 135 last year.

The impact those three years had on the state’s tourism and the industries that support it is still being felt.

“It made something abundantly clear,” said Steve Chucri, the president/CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association. “Spring training is crucial to a lot of restaurants.”

The Cactus League schedule begins on Feb. 24, and for the first time since 2019, a full slate of games awaits with no capacity restrictions.

“In 2023, we are looking forward to a ‘normal’ season,” said Bridget Binsbacher, executive director of the Cactus League. “Combine that with an upswing in tourism and I’m optimistic we will see much higher attendance. Everywhere I go, people tell me how excited they are to get back out to the ballpark.”

There are 15 Major League Baseball teams that train in the Valley, playing their games at 10 stadiums. Five ballparks are home to two teams.

Most of the stadiums are supported by local charity groups, such as the Thunderbirds in Scottsdale and the HoHoKams in Mesa, that raise money and then spread it around to local charities.

The charities’ ability to do that has been hurt during the past three seasons.

Binsbacher said before 2020, the Cactus League generated $644 million annually for the local economy. In 2020, that dropped to $363.3 million. The league does not have the numbers for the past two years yet.

One Scottsdale based-business, Bella Palazzo Collections, rents out private homes. Owner-operator Margie Van Zee said MLB’s labor issue last year was the hardest on her business.

Many of the people renting some of the 80 homes in her collection are ballplayers.

“We had to have a cancellation clause in our contract so that if MLB continued to obstruct the ballplayers, then they could get out of it,” Van Zee said, adding that it forced her to be more flexible.

Ironically, the pandemic’s onset in 2020 led to an increase in business.

“2020 was the best year we’ve ever had, even during the pandemic,” she said. “What happened was nobody wanted to go back to their hometown. They were already here for spring training, COVID happened. A lot of them would have to go back to their cold weather climates and areas that were still shut down.

“So, a lot of the ballplayers just said we’re extending, many of them extended and stayed till the beginning of the year.”

Mulala said Huss Brewing Company decided to stay in the Spring Training business. In fact, they just opened a new location – Papago Brewing Company, close to Sloan Park in Mesa where the Chicago Cubs play.

“We actually have it set up that we’re going to have a shuttle that is going to be taking people to the games on game day for most games that start at one o’clock,” he said.

While the past three years have been difficult, right now is a great time to be in the restaurant business. In addition to Spring Training, the Super Bowl and Waste Management Phoenix Open were also in town. All those events brought a lot of tourists.

Chucri expects to see between a 20-to-25% increase in sales just because of the Super Bowl.

“The restaurant economy, for all of our hopes and desires this February and March, is going to be very, very much needed,” Chucri said. “[We’ll] really get a huge boost when it comes to these these big events coming to the state, especially Spring Training.”