Cubs again ‘the toast of the Cactus League’

Sloan Park in Mesa hosted record-breaking Cubs fans in the just-completed spring training season, helping to save the Cactus League from a possible calamity caused by rainy, cold weather when the season started. (Special to AFN)

Famously loyal and ravenous Chicago Cubs fans ignored cooler than normal weather and rain, once again demonstrating their prowess at Sloan Park’s turnstiles.

The Cubs appeared to lead a rally that bolstered the Cactus League’s attendance, which dropped slightly overall with fewer games played in an early, chilly start in late February.

The Cubs drew the five largest crowds in Cactus League history this year, capped by 16,100 on March 25 against the World Champion Boston Red Sox.

A late-season series of sellouts, including the two Boston games, propelled the Cubs to draw 250,893 fans for 2019 during an unusually long 18-game season, or 13,939 per game, an increase of 63 fans per game from last year.

A year ago, the Cubs drew 222,023 during a more typical 16-game season.

“They lead the Cactus League. They have always outdrawn the home team Arizona Diamondbacks,” said Tim Baughman, president of the Mesa HoHoKams, the civic organization that parks cars and performs other duties at Sloan Park and Hohokam Stadium each spring.

“The Cubs are the toast of the party once again,” he said. “All this means is that we can give away more money to charity.”

He said the 50-50 raffle has turned into a lucrative revenue stream at Sloan Park, generating $55,137 in proceeds during a St. Patrick’s Day sellout against the crosstown rival Chicago White Sox.

The raffle vendor told Baughman that exceeded proceeds for any game at Wrigley Field last year.

“We raised more money this year than last year,” he said, when the Hohokams raised $455,000 for charity. “We are certainly on pace to do at least as much as last year, if not more.”

Baughman’s goal was to raise $500,000 for charity this year.

The Cubs average attendance per game is more than double that of most teams and even eclipses a strong year at Camelback Ranch in Glendale – where the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox combined to draw 244,820, the third-highest attendance in Camelback Ranch’s history.

In the West Valley, the Dodgers are the strongest draw, but the White Sox, San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds also posted attendance increases while less fans attended Cleveland Indians games.

“We have had a steady increase in attendance virtually every year in the 11 years they have been out there,” said Paul Jensen, a spokesman for Camelback Ranch.

He said the early start in February creates a challenge for the entire league, necessitated by an earlier start for the regular season and more off days for players.

“You lose what figures to be your best week of weather of the year,” Jensen said.

It took the combination of the Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies to beat out the Cubs in attendance at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. The Diamondbacks and Rockies combined to draw 287,823, with the Diamondbacks drawing 148,793.

The final 2019 statistics demonstrate once again that the impact of Cubs fans on the success of the Cactus League cannot be ignored.

Overall, an early start in February and a series of six rainouts contributed to a slight decrease in attendance, to 1,737,975 from 1,774,978.

But the league also played 11 fewer games this year and Cactus League President Jeff Meyer, a Scottsdale Charro, was pleased to note that the average game drew 7,900 fans, 217 more than last year.

“Despite an early start and unfavorable weather, the numbers show that Arizona’s spring training attendance remains robust,” Meyer said. “We’re grateful to the out-of-state visitors and local residents who flock to Cactus League ballparks to enjoy the best time of year in Arizona.”

After a slow start in February, when most fans are not accustomed to thinking about baseball, the league staged a strong rally in March as the weather improved and balmy conditions eventually returned.

“We really hit it strong those last seven to 10 days,” Meyer said. “We really pushed it out of the park.”

Meyer said he attended the Cubs last two sellouts against the Red Sox at Sloan Park and was impressed by the large crowds. He said the Cubs’ impact on the league is profound.

The Cubs not only pack Sloan Park, but other stadiums in the league where they are the visiting team, he said. One major example was the Diamondbacks recording their largest crowd ever at Salt River Fields for a home game against the Cubs.

“They travel so well,” Meyer said, “they bring very big crowds with them.”

Major League Baseball is divided evenly, with 15 teams each in the Cactus League and Grapefruit League in Florida, which is dominated by East Coast and Midwestern teams.

Arizona has 10 Cactus League stadiums, all in Maricopa County, making it relatively easy for travel between the parks, a major advantage in convenience over Florida.


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