The last remnants of Tucson’s on-and-off love affair with baseball vanished in 2013 when the minor league Tucson Padres departed for a new stadium in Texas. Not long before, a longstanding major league tradition — spring training — ended when three teams left for fancier facilities in the Phoenix area.
So rather than look back dejectedly, Tucson is looking ahead with efforts to bring in amateur and youth sports competitions from across the country as well as to make Tucson a spring training home for international sports clubs. This approach, officials said, will spur tourism, invigorate the local economy and could ultimately bring in more money than the major league teams once did.
“If they wanted to come back, we’d be open to it, but the reality is they don’t seem to want to come back, and we’ve moved on,” said Mike Holmes, the operations program manager at Pima County’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism.
The recovery strategy seems to be working. Hotel occupancy took a significant dip in 2011, the first year without spring training in Tucson, but it is now starting to rebound.
The first four months of this year, for example, Tucson saw a 68.5 percent occupancy rate in metro area hotels, up 4 percentage points from the same period last year, according to Smith Travel Research, a Tennessee-based firm. Brent DeRaad, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, also made a point to mention a collegiate baseball invitational at Hi Corbett Field that brought about 12,000 booked hotel nights this year.
DeRaad said the hotel industry’s gradual recovery can be attributed in part to efforts to bring in not only youth sports competitions but also trade shows, concerts and other community events.
“We took a little different approach, and we really feel that it has paid off,” DeRaad said.
DeRaad and local officials said that professional sports are far from extinction in Tucson. In fact, major league soccer teams have come here for spring training as well as Korean and Mexican baseball teams. And a “Vamos a Tucson Mexican Baseball Fiesta” brings several Mexican baseball teams and their fans to Tucson in October.
All those teams play at the Kino Sports Complex, whose stadium once hosted minor league games and spring training games for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox. After years of recovering, revenues at Kino were just about the same as when the Diamondbacks and White Sox played spring training games here, Chris Bartos, director of the Kino Stadium, said. A third team, the Colorado Rockies, played at Hi Corbett Field, which is now the home to University of Arizona’s baseball team.
Kino does have one year-round tenant, the semi-professional soccer team FC Tucson, which plays in the soccer stadium on the north side of the Kino complex. But that stadium seats only 2,000. The larger 11,000-seat stadium, Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium, is without a permanent tenant.
It’s unlikely that the tenant would be a minor league baseball team, said Mike Feder, the former general manager of all three triple-A teams that have played in Tucson.
The two lower minor league tiers, A and double-A, have their closest leagues in California and Texas, which Feder said is likely too far away for teams there to travel from.
The likelihood that teams in triple-A — the minor league level just below the majors — would relocate to Tucson is remote, Feder said, given the attendance struggles faced by the two most recent Tucson triple-A clubs, the Tucson Sidewinders and the Tucson Padres.
“Nowadays, you’ve got triple-A clubs being sold in the $20 million dollar range,” Feder said. “Most likely, there’s not an ownership group that would spend that much money for a triple-A team to play at Kino Stadium. It just wouldn’t be a good financial investment.”
On a breezy Thursday evening at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium, some of the best high school players in southern Arizona faced off against each other in an all-star game. Attendance seemed sparse and the picnics just beyond center field, a ritual of spring training, were absent.
Ryan Romero, 27, whose brother Jacob was playing third base, lamented the loss of minor league ball and spring training, and he recalled watching some of baseball’s greats here, such as pitcher Randy Johnson, who will be inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer. Romero said that Tucson will not be seeing big league players anytime soon, but if it did, Romero and his brothers would be back.
“We’d be out here again like we were every summer back in the day,” Romero said.