Thursday, January 15, 2009


One of the best things about living in my adopted home area of Phoenix, Arizona, is the ease of attending Major League baseball games. Just about any evening in season my wife and I can drive downtown to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field home and buy two tickets in the behind-home-plate section of the upper deck we prefer. Their cost-- $20 per at current rates-- is reasonable as those things go. Parking is easy if we arrive at least 30 minutes early, as we always do.

We’re able to do this because Phoenix doesn’t support the D’backs the way other cities support their baseball teams. Chase Field holds about 49,000 bodies but recent-year attendance has averaged only about 60% of that, despite some pretty good clubs. Fact is, people here don’t support most of their teams especially well. It’s a bad sports town all around.

Is it the nation’s worst? That’s hard to say. Certainly, the metropoli of South Florida—Miami and Tampa-St. Pete— are perennially strong contenders for that title; I’m sure that many of the locals who attended last fall’s Tampa Bay Rays’ World Series home games needed directions to the ball park. I lived in Pittsburgh for several years and can testify to that city’s ho-hum fan attitude, even towards the Steelers in rare down periods. Seattle lost a basketball team and doesn’t do well by the baseball Mariners despite a very nice, new stadium. Ditto in the latter regard for Baltimore and Denver after new-stadium honeymoons.

Folks in Minneapolis-St. Paul are cheap as well as apathetic. I recall standing in front of the Humphrey Dome on game night trying to sell-- for face value!-- a couple of tickets for the seventh game of the 1991 World Series (it’s a long story how I got them), and meeting considerable sales resistance. In any other town, I’d have been mobbed.

But Phoenix can hold its own in that crowd, and then some. The NBA Suns, who have fielded consistently excellent and interesting teams of late, sell out regularly, but they’re the exception. That there’s a hockey team in town called the Coyotes might come as news to many. It’s annually among the bottom few NHL teams in attendance, reportedly has been losing money at the rate of $30 million a year and is in search of new ownership suckers. That’s despite the presence behind the bench of Wayne Gretzky. If “The Great One” can’t sell hockey, who can?

The football Cardinals brought up the NFL’s attendance rear almost from the time they moved to Phoenix in 1988 until 2006, when they opened a retractable-roofed stadium in nearby Glendale. They’ve sold out since but, this season, just barely a few times. The current Cards made the playoffs for only the second time in their local history, but with an 9-7 record, and interest in their first home playoff game two weeks ago was so scant they didn’t achieve sellout status (and lift a threatened local TV blackout) until 2:30 p.m. the day before the game. The locals are excited now that the team is in the Super Bowl Semis, but it owes its sudden ascent mostly to NFL parity, and a return to form would bring a return of fan apathy, it says here.

Exhibit A in my indictment is Phoenicians’ treatment of the D’backs. Baseballwise this town has been treated royally, with a World Series championship (in 2001) and four divisional titles in the team’s 11 years of existence, but it hasn’t reciprocated with much loyalty. The team’s best year at the home gate was its first, in 1998, when it drew about 3.6 million people, but it’s never come close to that level since. In 2007 it finished with the best record in the National League yet was 20th in MLB attendance. Last year it was in the playoff race until the season’s final week but was playing to half-empty houses in September.

Once inside the park, D’back fans are the quietest, sweetest individuals extant. The vile oaths that foul the air in other stadia never are heard here; Phoenix folks rarely even cheer unless urged to do so by the electronic scoreboard. Sometimes large humanoids will arrive in the second inning and plunk themselves down in the row in front of my wife and me, causing us to have to crane to view the action. When wife Susie says let’s move I tell her to be patient. Sure enough, by the fourth inning they’re usually gone, off to forage in the food courts. They could have saved the price of admission by spending the evening at Pizza Hut.

What’s up? Several things. Phoenix has the reputation of being a golden desert oasis but it’s really mostly a low-wage Sunbelt burg with lots of families just scraping by. Corporate headquarters are few and so are takers for the “luxury” boxes that fuel the modern sports engine. Just about everybody comes from somewhere else and most (like me) root for teams from their former homes. The weather is so nice from October through April that people would rather be outdoors playing than indoors watching, and so beastly hot the rest of the year that just going from house to car and back is more than many can bear.

I mentioned those factors a few years ago to Jerry Colangelo, the transplanted Chicagoan whose ownership of the Suns and D’backs made him Phoenix’s foremost businessman. He agreed that the city wasn’t an immediate sports bonanza but said it inevitably would become one when (not if) area population hit 6 million in 2020 or so (it’s about 3.5 million now).

I’ll buy that but I’m in no hurry to see it. For now I’m grateful for the way things are, especially during baseball season. It’s like the way I feel about vegetarians: they leave more meat for me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fred...great column! Couldn't agree with you more. I think that long ingrained, original hometown team loyalties take precident over new or recently located to, town teams. I'll be watching the game today and will root for the Eagles.