Word of the Cactus League is getting out.
Spring training in Arizona posted its highest attendance in history at 1.89 million, topping the previous record of 1.73 million set in 2013. Spring training across Major League Baseball topped 4 million, setting a record by more than 200,000 fans.
It’s one thing to recognize a bump in attendance; it’s another to explain it. Those in the know have several theories regarding why 2015 outdrew 2013 despite holding games on 33 days compared to 37.
“The schedule is really important to us,” said Mark Coronado, league president and Surprise director of community and recreation services. “The season starting this year on March 4, that really gave us the opportunity to move further into March and really draw on three spring breaks with Easter (the final) weekend.”
The 2013 season started Feb. 22, more than a week before this spring training.
Coronado estimated 65 to 70 percent of attendance comes from out-of-state fans, lending more credibility to his point about spring break. Fans in Midwestern cities may enjoy a week in the Arizona sun watching their ballclub and other teams, a welcome change from the cold and snow.
Chicago native Brad Zibung comes to the Valley every year to watch his Cubs, but he doesn’t come alone. The founder of The Heckler, a parody sports newspaper, organizes an annual trip and said this year’s core group was 25 to 30, swelling to 50 with other friends from Chicago in town to watch the Cubs.
“We have friends who go with us who aren’t even baseball fans. They just like to go out there and drink beer,” Zibung said, adding the casual nature of spring training made it “almost like a better environment than regular-season baseball, and that’s coming from someone who has season tickets to Wrigley Field.”
Zibung, who has attended spring training for 10 years, said he has added to the trip’s amenities over the years. He recently added a party bus and mixed in some stadium seats with the traditional lawn seats.
“I take care of everything and at the end of the trip, I just divvy it up and kind of ask everyone for a bill,” he said.
Zibung said he knew he had found a special tradition after the first year even though the weather in Arizona was poor. That’s a point Coronado emphasized as well — even if weather drives fans to the Valley, it can also cancel games. But this year, Coronado said, there was only one rainout.
Pamela Yamamoto, an A’s fan from the Bay Area, came out for the second time with her family and said the switch to Hohokam Stadium from Phoenix Municipal was not too difficult.
“We were very pleased from the minute we came through the gate,” she said. “The people were very accommodating, telling us where to go, what to do.”
The Arizona Office of Tourism will perform a study on the economic impact of the 2015 season, according to deputy director Mark Stanton. A 2012 study conducted by Elliott D. Pollack & Co. credited spring training with $632 million in economic impact for the state.
Stanton identified team’s winter fan fests in their home cities as well as efforts on digital platforms and social media as effective marketing tools for spring training.
“Collectively, we’re seeing a lot more outbound marketing, a lot more creativity, and I think that’s telling the story about spring training for the idea of experiencing the games but also experiencing Arizona in a broader sense,” he said. “If you’re going to come out for spring training and see some games, why don’t you see Arizona at the same time?”
The Cubs were the biggest contributors to the record-setting season, drawing 222,415, a single-team high, including March 27, when 15,342 streamed through the gates at Sloan Park for a single-game high. It’s no surprise that game was against the team from across town in Chicago, the White Sox.
The Kansas City Royals also set a team record for spring attendance at 105,271 in the year following their run to the World Series.
Jerry Hall, manager of the Angels’ Tempe Diablo Stadium, said player recognition helped the Angels reach their second-highest attendance total in his nine years at the stadium.
“It’s where people want to come to get autographs so the stars make a big difference,” Hall said. “We had our American League MVP Mike Trout on the team, which makes a big difference. People want to come get his autograph, see him up in person.”
The Milwaukee Brewers saw their highest attendance figures since 2008. Maryvale Stadium Operations Manager Blake Schilly attributed the bump to increased star power, singling out Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy as breakout stars last season.
The Brewers turned their attendance boost into a positive for others. Maryvale Stadium hosted Hank the Ballpark Pup, who the Brewers adopted last spring training, on March 28 as the team and the Arizona Humane Society hosted a pet adoption day.
“We try to do things in the community and help out where we can,” Schilly said. “With Hank being here, we just didn’t anticipate that taking off the way it did last year and we wanted to make sure that others were benefiting from the exposure that Hank was getting.”
Cactus League consultant Robert Johnson said this increase in attendance came because more fans are realizing Arizona is a better spring training experience than Florida’s Grapefruit League.
“It’s more convenient for the spring training fan to see more games even in a single day, and it’s just a great place to do things when you’re not at a game,” he said. “In Florida, you drive for hours to see a game that gets rained out. You stay in tiny towns with no really good hotels. There’s a fast food place to eat. The shopping and dining in a lot of these places is not really what a tourist would like to see.”
Coronado said about 30 percent of out-of-town visitors make it to two games in one day. He wants to increase the number of night games toward the end of the season to increase that proportion.
Looking forward, Coronado identified two California teams as keys to continued success for the league.
“I think the Dodgers are on the cutting edge,” he said. “I think the West Valley has a lot of catching up to do. If the Oakland A’s maintain their first year attendance numbers, we can continue to hit that 1.7 number.”