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The Cactus League and the business of spring

The sound of construction on the Chicago Cubs’ new baseball spring training facility at the former Riverview Park in Mesa is music to the ears of some of the most enthusiastic of Cactus League fans. Tab Baker, who is overseeing the project for Hunt Construction, gave me a tour of the site last week.

“We’ve incorporated many of the elements, signature elements that you’d see in Wrigley [Field], in terms of some of the architectural features on the structure, the light towers will be kind of signature and they’re trying to create this, this Wrigley environment,” Baker said of the Cubs' home field in Chicago.

The Cubs were the Cactus League attendance leaders for years, until the Diamondbacks and Rockies moved to the Valley.  Last year the two teams which share the diamond at Talking Stick, finished first and second, with the San Francisco Giants also finishing ahead of the Cubs.

This facility, with its 9,000 fixed seats and capacity of 15,000, will be the largest in the league. A new ballpark and a relocation has been money in the bank for some Major League teams, according to Cactus League President Mark Coronado.

“The Rockies historically were in the bottom third of the Cactus League in attendance and now they’re in the, the top, the top five or six teams,” Coronado said.

He says the Diamondbacks and Rockies will likely account for almost a quarter of Cactus League attendance.

Still, new parks cost big bucks. The Cubs’ new facility will cost more than $100 million, up to $84 million of which will come from a voter-approved Mesa bond issue. It’s the cost of these new parks and park renovation projects that have Coronado and other Cactus League leaders concerned. Their main funding source, a rental car tax that came from the voter-approved Proposition 302, expires in 2030, and there is nothing so far to replace it.

“We have a great story to tell. And, the Cactus League has not been aggressive enough to tell that story and to say we’re important,” Coronado said.

Recent studies done for the League tell the story of a $632 million annual impact, with $422 million added to the state’s economy in-season, during February and March. The teams add another $210 million to the economy the rest of the year. Coronado wants the league to operate more like a multi-million dollar business, with a strong lobbying effort to get its story out at the state capitol.

 “If you want to keep it and you want to improve it and you want to improve economic impact and you want to improve tourism, investments need to be identified and funding sources need to be identified, so we can move forward,” Coronado said.

But, Barry Bloom, who writes for mlb.com, says one problem for the Cactus League is that it operates more like 15 separate businesses, sometimes making it difficult to speak with a united voice.

“It’s like anything where you have the superstructure of Major League Baseball and 30 teams that are individual businesses in every area,” Bloom said. “Each one of them is taken seriously in its own right, in its own community.”                                    

Bloom says that makes it tough for the Cactus League to win a consensus. And the odd number of teams creates another issue: the need for split-squad games, which attract fewer fans. Coronado believes that will eventually lead to the addition of another team and thinks there may be a way to finance the move, without turning to taxpayers.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of public financing of these facilities but I do believe that the message that we send is that there’s a economic bonus and an economic plus to building these facilities,” Coronado said.

With spring training visitors spending an average of $120 to $190 a day during their Arizona visits, Coronado believes a funding mechanism can be found to keep the Cactus League operational for years to come.

“We have a fan base that is predominantly out-of-state,” Coronado said. “I don’t think they would be offended by saying, hey, we have our Disneyland, it’s called baseball and we want to pay for it because we want to keep on coming.”

That should mean the investment being made here in Mesa will pay dividends. Baker says they’ll be substantially finished with the project Nov. 1.

“One of the driving things of our schedule is actually being able to grow the playing fields in,” Baker said. “So, it’s important that we hit that window in time, which is kind of that May to early-July time frame to get that grass in place and get it grown-in in time for it to be utilized by the team.”

Baker says things are moving well, which should mean everything is ready for opening day in 2015.