NASCAR fans, teams and sponsors are pouring into the Valley. Triathletes are on the way.
Baseball aficionados - those who came to watch their favorite team warm up during spring training and those who came to play in Triple Crown youth championships - barely vacated enough East Valley hotel rooms to make room for the next wave of sports lovers.
Economists can argue about whether there is a recession, but home prices and consumer confidence have been slipping for more than a year, while gas prices and anxiety levels have been rising. And that doesn't bode well for the U.S. tourism industry, which is dependent on companies and individuals feeling optimistic enough to spend money on travel.
It's huge worry for local hoteliers and other businesses dependent on visitors, said Tom Silverman, general manager of the Chaparral Suites Resort in Scottsdale.
But Silverman, like other local hoteliers, fared much better than his peers around the country for the first few months of the year, largely because of sporting events.
Sports-focused tourism won't save the bottom line if there is a prolonged economic downturn, said Steve Eberhart, general manager of The Buttes Marriott Resort in Tempe. But it helps a lot, especially since many of the sporting events are on weekends, when business travelers empty out of hotels, he said.
Super Bowl XLII, Cactus League spring training and P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon packed his hotel, Eberhart said, and Ford Ironman Arizona participants and NASCAR fans are expected to do the same this week.
Dozens of sporting events, from the massive spectator extravaganza Super Bowl XLII, which enticed an estimated 125,000 out-of-towners to the Valley in February, to the Dragon Boat Festival, which brought a few thousand racers and watchers to the shores of Tempe Town Lake last week, have kept hotels humming during the winter season, when room rates are highest.
Fiesta Bowl, the Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon, the FBR Open, Super Bowl XLII, the Safeway International LPGA, Cactus League, Ironman and NASCAR races are the most visible Valley sporting events.
Cactus League, which filled hotels in the Valley during March, set new attendance records despite the sagging economy.
While there was no official economic impact study of spring training this year, fans - at least Chicago Cubs fans - were not pinching pennies, said Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"The fans came, and they spent money," Brinton said. "(Cactus League) attracts an extremely high-value visitor. They stay for five, six, seven nights. They spend at the stadium. They dine out. It's great for our economy."
And they seem oblivious to economic woes.
"Sports travel is recession-resistant," Brinton said. "If the economy softens, businesses and individuals make cuts. But with sports, there is a passion there. You plan (sports-focused travel) further in advance, you commit to it, and you get there."
And that's true whether it's a spectator sporting event or a participatory one, he said.
"If you are in a baseball tournament, you find a way to go," Brinton said.
That proved out when more than 250 teams of 20 to 30 people each from nearly 20 states and Canada showed up in recent weeks for two sessions of Triple Crown Baseball championships, said Brian Belkin of the Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau. Together they used up 700 weekend hotel room nights, he said.
Or when 53 teams of 20 to 25 people each showed up for the Dragon Boat rowing races, said Stephanie Nowack, Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau president. Of the rowing teams, 35 of them were from out of state, Nowack said.
In fact, the Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau has made a huge, and hugely successful, effort at attracting amateur athletic events like the youth baseball tourneys and the boat races.
"We found, even after 9/11, sports travel, especially for amateur sports events, was to a large extent immune (from budget cutbacks)," Nowack said. "They provide an opportunity for families to be together."
After some serious research, the bureau decided that with ASU's facilities and Tempe Town Lake to take advantage of, amateur sports is a perfect target market for Tempe, Nowack said.
"Ironman triathletes, for example, are completely committed to their sport," she said.
Since focusing marketing efforts, Tempe has attracted a number of events, including men's senior baseball tourneys and pro volleyball tour stops.
There are Ironman competitions now and in November, and Nowack estimates they each account for as many as 6,000 hotel room nights.
The Ford Arizona Ironman is in Tempe on Saturday. All 2,500 entries have been long sold out, said Paul Huddle, the race's co-director.
The triathletes come from 30 countries and all 50 states, he said. Most come to town at least two or three days early, and they bring three or four friends or family members to support them, Huddle said.
And they probably already have taken a trip or two to the Valley during the last few months to check out the course and familiarize themselves with the obstacles, he said.
NASCAR, also a twice-yearly event for the Valley, revs up at Phoenix International Raceway this week.
The main events don't start till the weekend, but by last Thursday more than 100 recreational vehicles had parked at the gate, hoping to snag a choice camping spot, said PIR President Bryan Sperber.
Ticket sales are booming, and half of the purchasers are from out of state, he said. And despite the anxious campers, more visitors will stay off-site, he said.
"Clearly everyone is seeing a slowdown in the economy, but race fans are still coming, including the large corporate groups," Sperber said. "A large contingent of the racing industry - teams, drivers, fans, sponsors, organizers, media - several thousand of them will be filling up hotels, putting on big dinners."
Silverman said he gets a lot of race regulars.
"NASCAR is big for us," he said. "We have our usual groups, and they come no matter what."
He's not alone in attracting NASCAR visitors to the East Valley, despite the event's far west Valley venue.
"Scottsdale gets a big chunk of (NASCAR) business," said Brent DeRaad, executive vice president of the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "People are surprised to hear that NASCAR is huge for us."
For Scottsdale, the Super Bowl, another West Valley happening, was the most lucrative single attraction of the year so far, DeRaad said.
The crowd was only here for an average four nights, but Scottsdale and Paradise Valley hotels and resorts filled a combined 94 percent of their available hotel rooms and snagged an average nightly rate topping $400, DeRaad said.
"No other event could spur that type of activity," he said.
The Super Bowl Host Committee is aggressively fighting for another shot at the gridiron extravaganza. The bid is in for 2012 now. If the NFL passes, the local team is expected to try for 2013.
"It's really important we get in that rotation," DeRaad said.