MESA, Ariz — It’s a moment Brandon Bajema relishes each year — receiving the email notification that Chicago Cubs tickets for spring training games in Arizona are about to go on sale.
The 2022 version came a couple weeks ago. It popped up on his computer screen and he stared at it for a moment.
“For the first time, I dismissed it,” Bajema said. “That hurt. I love baseball.”
The mood for Major League Baseball fans like Bajema is a little glum these days as the players’ union and owners continue to bicker over finances. The owners locked out the players on Dec. 2 and unless an agreement between the two sides is reached soon, the spring training schedule is in trouble. The first games are slated for Feb. 26.
There is a glimmer of hope that the spring might be saved because of incremental progress in negotiations earlier this week, but time is running out fast. The labor uncertainty means it’s not just MLB’s players and owners who are concerned about finances.
Spring training games might not count in the official standings, but they certainly count for the pocketbooks of business owners in Arizona and Florida. They’re also a much-anticipated destination for fans like Bajema, who come for the warm sunshine and the laid-back atmosphere.
Fans don’t just buy baseball tickets when they come to Arizona. They stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, play golf in nearly perfect weather and hang out at the bars and shops in Old Town Scottsdale. Thanks to baseball and spring break for students, March is usually a big time of year for tourism in both Arizona and Florida.
But for the third straight year, at least some of that revenue is threatened.
“It’s a big deal for Arizona on so many levels,” Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher said. “We’re obviously not part of (MLB’s) discussions, so we’re just focusing on what we can control. But after the last three years with all the circumstances we’ve been dealing with, the Cactus League, our stakeholders and partners and everyone is ready to have a regular season again.
“We worry about the impact.”
There’s never a good time for a sport to have a labor stoppage, but 2022 would be particularly brutal for a baseball world that’s still in the midst of a COVID-19-induced slowdown. There were no fans allowed at parks during the regular season in 2020 and many parks had limited attendance limits for sizable chunks of the 2021 season.
Spring training sites were similarly affected. The sport shut down because of COVID-19 on March 12, 2020, which was a little more than halfway through that year’s spring schedule and cancelled more than two weeks of games. The 2021 schedule was played in full, but attendance was limited.
Now that it’s 2022, fans are hungry for normalcy.
Lisa Goularte — who is the vice president for marketing and sales at Sports Marketing USA — helps organize trips for San Francisco Giants fans each spring to Scottsdale, which is where the Giants train.
If the games are played, she said fans are ready.
“We’re seeing a huge pent-up demand,” Goularte said. “2020 was obviously cut short and last year was limited, so sales for this season have been really, really strong. We’ve been really pleased.”
The numbers aren’t completely clear yet, but there’s no doubt COVID-19 hit the spring training industry hard in 2020 and 2021.
A study from Arizona State University found that the Cactus League’s season generated an estimated economic impact of $363.6 million in 2020 before the shutdown in mid-March, which was down nearly $300 million from the estimated $644.2 million generated in 2018. There was no data for 2021 because the study is done every other year.
In Grapefruit League territory, Bert Parsley opened a 72,000-square foot restaurant and event space, the Twisted Fork, steps from Florida’s Charlotte County Sports Complex in September 2020 hoping to generate big business off Tampa Bay Rays spring training games and the Charlotte Stone Crabs’ Class A minor league games.
He’s yet to see what kind of business the space can do on a normal game day. The 2021 spring training slate was held with restricted capacities due to COVID-19, and the Stone Crabs were contracted and folded before the season started.
“It would be brutal,” Parsley said about missing 2022 spring training. “March is our best month of the year.
“It’s big for us. The park is directly behind us. We actually have balls fly into our parking lot, we’re that close. Last year, it was still our busiest month, and they had some pretty rigid COVID restrictions for baseball game attendees. So their attendances were way down for the games, but we still killed it.”
Bajema — the Cubs fan — lives in Northern California, about 60 miles south of Sacramento and makes the 11-hour drive to Arizona with his wife and two daughters. They have a third child on the way. One reason he recently bought a van is it would make the 700-mile trek more comfortable for his family each March.
But this year’s trip is very much in jeopardy, even if he hasn’t given up hope.
Like many fans, Bajema understands there’s a business aspect to MLB and that the union vs. owners dynamic is part of that landscape. It’s just hard to be overly sympathetic after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m not rich, I spend my hard-earned money to go to these games,” Bajema said. “Let’s pull it together, let’s figure it out. It’s all about the money and there’s so much greed.”