In a strange way, baseball bookended the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in Arizona. While the NBA was the first league to act and suspend its season on March 11, 2020, the virus’s ripples were not truly felt in the desert until the remainder of the Cactus League schedule was called off the next day.
A year later, the pandemic a part of our everyday lives, the Cactus League returned. With vaccine rollout off to a promising start, limited numbers of fans were allowed to attend. COVID-19 isn’t over, but we’ve now reached opening day and the end appears to be within sight.
Spring Training baseball sandwiched the worst months of the pandemic. And its return, alongside numerous new orders from Gov. Doug Ducey, signaled the beginning of a return to normalcy for many local businesses that rely on the boost in sales that Cactus League tourists bring.
Booty’s Wings Burgers & Beer has three locations, including two near Spring Training ballparks in Goodyear and Surprise. Business usually sees a boost every March, co-owner Andy LiButti said, but that spike was mitigated this year by limited fan attendance and team restrictions on off-field activities.
“We definitely saw a drop-off in that business,” LiButti said. “Plus, we rely a lot on the people associated with the team coming in. The sports writers, trainers, announcers, a lot of the players, they would all come in. So with them not being allowed to really come out, that’s definitely affected us also.”
LiButti added that his takeout business has done well throughout the pandemic, but initially, he could only afford to keep his restaurants open for three hours per day. Ingredient costs have risen as well. LiButti said chicken wings that used to cost him $1 per pound have tripled in price.
Another local restaurant owner, Erick Geryol, said his business usually sees a 30% increase every spring. Geryol runs Boulders on Broadway, a bar and grill with locations in Tempe and Mesa. He mentioned that sales are down this year compared to last spring, despite the 2020 Cactus League’s premature ending.
According to a study by the L. William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, the shortened 2020 Cactus League season generated an estimated economic impact of $363.6 million. Of that total, $213.7 million contributed to Arizona’s gross domestic product.
While seemingly large, those figures pale in comparison to Seidman’s 2018 estimates of $644.2 million total and $373 million to Arizona’s GDP. The 2021 totals were likely even lower — while a full Cactus League schedule was played this year, the shortened 2020 season averaged 6,568 fans per game. In 2021, no stadium allowed more than 4,000 fans per game, and few allowed more than 2,000.
Additionally, tourism likely decreased significantly. In 2020, 1,446 of the 2,344 fans Seidman surveyed were non-Arizona residents, or just under 62%. These out-of-state fans had a median visit length of five days, excluding single-day visitors. Safety concerns mitigated interstate travel, likely impacting not only local restaurants but the hospitality industry as well.
LiButti has noticed the decrease in travelers, specifically the “snowbirds” who typically come to Arizona in the winter and spring months to escape local climates.
“I think Surprise is a very right-leaning community,” he said. “So you get a lot of people that are, you know, ‘To heck with the masks. I’m not wearing these masks. They’re stupid,’ and everything. And I feel like there’s a lot of snowbirds that are kind of terrified, you know, ‘I don’t want to get sick and die.’ So, we’ve definitely felt it, not just for Spring Training but for all of the snowbird season. People just aren’t traveling.”