For more than 70 years, the Cactus League has been a powerful symbol of Arizona, turning into a big business and a major draw for the tourism industry.
But when Major League Baseball suddenly cancelled this season’s final week of games to help stop the spread of COVID-19, it became a symbol of Arizona’s community and economic losses in the virus’ wake.
That cost will be steep in several ways.
Scottsdale Charros Executive Director Dennis Robbins said the organization is still trying to figure out how severely the cancellation will affect its fundraising, but he is expecting at least a 40 percent loss of net revenue.
The Charros organization, which hosts San Francisco Giants Spring Training games at Scottsdale Stadium, uses proceeds from its efforts to provide annual grants to local non-profits, students and schools, including Scottsdale Unified School District, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Scottsdale and Family Promise of Greater Phoenix.
“You’re just cruising along with your season and things are going well, and then all of a sudden the abrupt end, and so at that point, we just knew it wasn’t going to be good for our fundraising efforts, and we’re going to have to make some adjustments,” Robbins said.
Robbins said the loss of revenue was compounded by the fact that the Charros spent a significant amount of money this year to expand the Charro Lodge as part of the Scottsdale Stadium renovation.
“We had spent some extra money that we normally hadn’t in anticipation of getting ready for that,” Robbins said.
According to the Charros’ contract with the city, the organization is obligated to pay $2.7 million towards the $50.6-million renovation over the course of 20 years.
Now, the organization has to issue refunds to individuals and businesses that preordered ticket packages at the Lodge for cancelled games.
Other charitable organizations around the Valley are feeling similar hits.
The Mesa Hohokams, one of the league’s most venerable charities, reported it will have at least $200,000 less to award in grants to charitable organizations after raising a record $501,000 a season ago.
The HoHoKams serve as baseball ambassadors at Mesa’s two spring ball stadiums – Sloan Park, spring home of the Chicago Cubs and at Hohokam Park, spring home of the Oakland Athletics.
The Cubs drew 250,893 in 2019 – an average of 13,939 fans – once again serving as the league’s most popular team and clear meal ticket.
The Tempe Diablos, also a longstanding civic group, performs similar duties at Tempe Diablo Stadium during Los Angeles Angels home games.
The heads of the organizations said the shorter season will impact contributions to local charities.
Robbins said the Charros, which provided 47 grants last year, will have to cut back on its donations after the Giants completed only 10 of 16 games in 2020.
“We’ll definitely be giving out less money,” Robbins said. “I don’t know if that’s going to be a reduction by number of entities we give to or dollars.”
But Robbins said the Charros will still be able to draw from some reserves to help out charities in need through The Charro Foundation, their nonprofit arm.
“We have our Charro Foundation that we’ve putting money in like sort of a rainy day fund…and this is definitely a rainy day,” Robbins said. “So we want to make sure that people can still count on us, and that’s why we’re here.”
According to its tax forms, The Charro Foundation had total assets of nearly $4.7 million as of June 2018.
The HoHoKams contributed $501,000 to charities after the 2019 season.
Diablos President Bill Ottinger said his group landed in a similar position. The Diablos also lost one of their additional fundraisers, the annual Ignite the Night spring party scheduled for April 25 at Rawhide.
“I know it will have a significant impact, a deep impact,’’ Ottinger said about the league’s cancellation. “Baseball is a big driver for Tempe Diablos Charities.’’
Bridget Binsbacher, executive director of the Cactus League and Peoria’s vice mayor, said Baughman and Ottinger’s disappointment is shared throughout the league.
“Our attendance to date was right on track with 2019, but when it happened, that’s when our season peaks with spring break,’’ she said.
The league was hoping for a late season rally like last year, when the weather warmed up.
“Obviously, there is going to be an impact,’’ Binsbacher said. “The top priority for us is the safety of the public.
A study based on the 2018 season estimated the league’s overall economic impact at more than $644 million, with the average out-of-town fan spending $405 per day. The league recorded slightly lower attendance last season when it drew more than 1.7 million fans, but the per game average was slightly higher.
“How disappointing for the players, the fans and everyone who came for this,’’ Binsbacher said. “Some probably followed through with their trips and experienced Arizona.’’
A less discussed portion of that study estimated charitable contributions by non-profit civic organizations such as the HoHoKams, the Tempe Diablos and the Scottsdale Charros at $2.6 million per year.
If anything, that seems a bit low, with the Diablos estimating they raise about $1 million a year and tax forms showing the Charros bring in a similar amount.
Beyond the effect on charitable giving, the impact of the Cactus League cancellation on the City of Scottsdale is difficult to overstate.
Scottsdale brought in $21,773,055 in sales tax revenue in March 2019, the largest single-month total that year. The city also brought in $4,014,668 in bed tax revenue in that month, which is $1.5 million more than any other month in that fiscal year.
It is too early to tell exactly what impact the current downturn will have on city revenues, but Scottsdale has already seen its tourism industry – which accounts for about one-third of its economy – stagnate and the associated cancellation of events like Spring Training, which was scheduled to run through the end of March.
Experience Scottsdale, the city’s tourism arm, reported that the occupancy rate at area hotels had slumped to 10.5 percent on March 21, down 89 percent from last year.