Another year of the historic Cactus League play is underway, the first under the watch of Peoria City Councilwoman Bridget Binsbacher. In July, she was named the Cactus League’s first executive director.
Binsbacher is no stranger to spring ball. She has been involved with the Cactus League for more than a decade and became its first female executive board member in 2012. Last season, she was the Cactus League’s director of operations.
She is well aware that, though the games technically don’t count in the year-end standings, they make a huge impact on local economies. Arizona State University’s Daniel Marburger has studies to show how much of an economic impact Spring Training makes.
The research done by Marburger and his colleagues at the W.P. Carey School of Business backs in 2018 study found that the Cactus League brought in $315.7 million in economic impact, with $122.6 million being spent on bars and restaurants, while $89.8 million was spent on lodging and accommodations.
What stands out for Binsbacher is the impact that the exhibition has on the communities that host the league’s 10 stadiums.
“I’ve been focusing on really trying to understand the different models that exist in all of our spring training cities,” Binsbacher says. “They’re all different and their impact on the community, their relationship with the community, with the team, they’re all unique to one another.”
The league, which was founded in 1947, has entrenched itself in Grand Canyon State sporting lore, with generations of fans flocking to the venues each year.
ASU’s economic impact study found that the league drew 1,737,975 fans for the 2019 season, across 220 games, averaging out at 7,900 people per contest.
Leading the way in 2019, in terms of attendance, were the Chicago Cubs, who drew 13,939 fans per game, a .4% increase over 2018.
The Arizona Diamondbacks (10,628) and Los Angeles Dodgers (10,326) were the other franchises to draw more than 10,000 fans per game in 2019.
The San Diego Padres saw the largest year-over-year increase, in terms of per-game attendance, gaining 12%, to 6,704 fans per contest.
The Dodgers and Padres play home games at Glendale’s Camelback Ranch.
The league’s ability to draw in fans from across the country year after year is important for a number of reasons, according to Binsbacher.
Mainly, attendance is vital, as the league itself is a nonprofit organization that uses its proceeds to fund a number of causes, such as scholarships for local teenagers.
Binsbacher believes the league can gain on its altruistic roots, serving the region off the field while entertaining the masses with top-notch action on the diamond.
“As a result of that volunteer work and the various relationships we’ve built, we generate more than $2.6 million in funding,” Binsbacher says. “Whether it’s scholarships or grants or different funding for various programs, mostly youth-based in various communities.
“So, it’s just another impact that we weren’t talking about before that we’re really starting to look at how we can measure that and really continue to focus and grow on that.”
Marburger said the league has a unique impact that’s unlike any other sporting event in the region.
“It’s a little bit different than trying to estimate the economic impact of, let’s say, the Super Bowl, which is people coming in from the outside to go to the game, they spend some money here for the weekend and then they go back, because with the Cactus League, you have people who are retirees, snowbirds, who have chosen Arizona, chosen Phoenix, because that’s where the Cubs play,” Marburger says. “Maybe they would have retired in Florida, or maybe they’d be snowbirds in Florida if the Cubs were playing in Florida.
“So, it’s not just visitors who came up for an event and then went home, or even a better example would be let’s say the Arizona Cardinals. Well most people that go to a Cardinals game, live in Phoenix, Phoenix area, and therefore you really don’t count them, because they’re not coming in from the outside. But when you have permanent residents or semi-permanent residents who have actually chosen Phoenix because of Cactus League baseball.”
Above all, the Cactus League serves as a month-long advertisement for the state and its way of life, according to Marburger.
“You’ve got a bunch of teams, and if you’re loyal to one of those teams and you’re from someplace else and you come here for a vacation or come here as a snowbird or a retiree,” Marburger says. “Now these are people who are permanent or semi-permanent residents who were influenced by the Cactus League.”
That draw isn’t lost on Binsbacher, who cited the state’s unique position as one of two states, along with Florida, that host Spring Training games, as an economic tour de force.
“We’re so fortunate to have this league here,” Binsbacher says. “There are two states in the entire country that host these types of games and Arizona is one of them. And we do an amazing job at it and it has a tremendous impact on the state as a whole.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity and we really have to take care of it and understand what it means to our economy, to our communities, to our local businesses.”
Marburger has seen that impact first-hand, watching the league bloom from its more austere roots to an economic powerhouse that grows with each passing year.
The ASU economic professor remembers when he was a Ph.D. student in Tempe during the late-1980s, when he could walk to see the Cubs play at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa.
Now, the Cubs have their own palatial complex, Sloan Park, which was built in 2014 for $99 million, with a league-high capacity of 15,000.
Such a move highlights the exponential growth in popularity of Cactus League games and the continued draw of flocking to the ballparks within the Valley each spring, Marburger believes.
“Back then, it was close enough to where I lived, I could actually just walk to the games, and sometimes I did,” Marburger says. “And now they’ve got that entire complex at Mesa. So, there was a recognition that the Cubs in particular have such a big following, and a lot of Chicagoans like coming to Arizona to escape winter, so they put the two together.”
Others, like Binsbacher, have baseball in their blood. She comes from a long line of baseball players. In the early 1930s, her grandfather played for a Mexican league farm team. He passed on his love to baseball to her uncle, who played in farm leagues and Spring Training for the Padres, before they were an official franchise.
Binsbacher’s brothers played college ball, as did her sons. Her two older sons were on the Liberty High School baseball team when it won its first state championship.
“Baseball’s been in my family for generations,” she told the Peoria Times, when her Cactus League leadership position was announced. “I definitely consider myself a baseball mom, more than anything.”