Sports Mitigated

Written by Niki D’Andrea Category: Hot Topics Issue: March 2015
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Phoenix has world-class sports facilities, teams in every major pro sport and a large media market. So why don’t we have the championships?

It was a joke that hit too close to home. Near the top of a list of “10 Things No One from Phoenix Ever Says” on the Phoenix New Times website last August, was “Did you watch that (Diamondbacks/Coyotes/Suns/Cardinals) playoff game last night?”

 Ironically, just four months later, the Arizona Cardinals did make the NFL playoffs – but for just the fourth time since the team moved to Phoenix in 1988. And if you’re going to take shots at sports teams for perennial futility, the Phoenix Suns probably aren’t the best candidate – they’ve had 29 playoff appearances in 43 years. Still, you can count the number of major sports championships Arizona teams have won on one finger. (Thank you, 2001 World Series Champions Arizona Diamondbacks.)

Despite a large population, teams in all four major pro sports, a couple lesser-known dynasties in arena football and women’s basketball, and a booming sports tourism industry, Phoenix doesn’t have a reputation as a prolific sports town. The city may be known as the best, balmiest host for national big-ticket events like Super Bowl XLIX and MLB Cactus League spring training, but on the homegrown front, Arizona teams don’t win big national titles, don’t sell out their venues, and frequently make media’s top five lists of “worst” and “most miserable” sports cities everywhere from Bleacher Report to Forbes. Compared to other cities of similar size, we’re like the mid-level kid who’s among the last chosen for the kickball team in P.E. class, just before the captains resign themselves to getting stuck with Atlanta or Cleveland. But we should be a successful sports town. So why aren’t we?

Turns out, there are almost as many factors involved in building and being a “sports city” as there are players on an NFL team roster. And local sports authorities have a few different game plans for how to boost our sports fandom and fortitude.

Ballpark Figures
Elementary school students in Phoenix in the mid-1980s may have heard this joke: A kid’s parents are getting divorced, and the judge asks him if he wants to live with his father. The boy says “No, because my father beats me.” The judge asks if he’d rather live with his mother. The boy says his mother beats him, too. “Well then, who do you want to live with?” the judge asked. “I want to live with the Phoenix Suns,” the kid said. “Because they never beat anybody.”

But then, on the heels of a drug scandal in 1987 in which three active Suns players were indicted, Jerry Colangelo bought the Suns. The former owner (he sold the team to Robert Sarver in 2004) is largely credited with turning the franchise around. Starting with the acquisition of key players Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers in 1988, and then Charles Barkley in 1992, the team advanced to the playoffs 13 consecutive years, including the NBA Finals in 1993 (where they lost to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls).

Barkley wasn’t just a great player on a good team – he was a transformative, headline-grabbing player, the kind of marquee baller that fans nationwide wanted to see. Attendance at Phoenix Suns games was significantly higher when Barkley – and later, fellow brand-name players Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire – were on the roster; those teams averaged around 18,000 fans per game, compared to the 15,436 fan average per game for the 2013-2014 team, which was also a competitive squad. The difference: Today’s Suns lack a true superstar player, which sports pundits agree is integral to draw fans in a relatively young sports market like Phoenix. Teams need a LeBron James or a Peyton Manning to reach beyond the die-hard fans and attract the general public.

Tom Van Riper, former sports business reporter for Forbes who included Phoenix in the publication’s 2011 list of “most miserable sports cities,” says a team’s success in drawing fans isn’t just about wins and losses. “It’s also about star power... to have that compelling player, that star player that people want to come see,” Van Riper says. “Because to sell out the arena, it’s easy to get the hardcore fans, the people who really know the sport. But what about those people who are casual fans? They’re willing to go to a game, but they could also just as easily spend their discretionary money doing something else. It’s hard to lure those people unless you have kind of a star to feature.”

Naturally, those kinds of talents rarely come cheap. Coaching and chemistry are a big part of sports success, but the owner’s grip on the purse strings is just as important. MLB pitcher Randy Johnson was already a huge star when Colangelo shelled out $52.4 million for his four-year contract in 1998; it paid off with per-game attendance figures around 36,000 and a World Series title three years later. (Not coincidentally, the last-place D-Backs’ 2014 per-game attendance average was 25,602).

Today’s post-Colangelo-era Phoenix sports teams are clearly more miserly than previous generations. With the exception of Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, superstars are lacking, and owners spend well below league averages (see sidebar on page 32). The Phoenix Suns team budget, in particular, is meager: a little over $32 million for the 2014-2015 season, compared to the league average of $56 million.

Are the teams simply less cash-rich than other markets? Unlikely. In Arizona, it’s not a matter of whether team owners can afford massive salaries for top-level players; it’s a matter of whether or not they want to gamble on making a profit, according to Jody Oehler, afternoon host at Fox Sports 910 AM. “Every professional sports team now is owned by a billionaire. It’s no longer a question, in my opinion, of whether the ownership of a Phoenix sports team can afford to compete at the highest level for athletes, because every sports team is now a billion-dollar organization, or close to it,” he says. “So it’s almost a reflection of: Are they willing to make the investment – is the team willing to spend that money? And they’ll usually only do it if they feel there’s going to be a return from the fan base. And so it’s sort of this vicious cycle, where teams or ownership are not willing to invest as heavily as some other teams are, because they’re not convinced it’s ultimately going to be supported.”

The Arizona Diamondbacks are a prime example, Oehler says. “They’ve been through this a couple times, where they will invest a significant amount of capital into their team, they’ll have some short-term success from it, but then ultimately, at the first sign of it not working great or not winning at a high level, they’re back to struggling to get people through the gates and buy their product, and now they’re left with these huge price tags for their players and they’re not generating the revenue streams to support it. So it’s a vicious cycle in Phoenix.”

All the same, attendance revenues and TV contracts do play a role in a team’s spending habits. And in that regard, Phoenix’s perpetual sunny weather is another factor that may affect the on-field performance of its teams – ironically, by driving away fans. While the year-round sun enhances the Valley’s appeal as a sports destination for out-of-towners and a venue for marquee events like the Super Bowl, it may play a deleterious role at the turnstiles. And fewer fans generally means less revenue, and tighter payrolls. “In general, in sports, the Southern and sun-splashed markets do have a harder time [drawing fans], because frankly, it’s a better place to live,” Van Riper says. “There’s a lot more to do than there is in some of the cold cities. People in Cleveland – what’s there to do, especially in the winter, other than go to the games? Phoenix, Miami – you always have beautiful weather, you can always go do something. The lifestyle is just more active. There are just more things to do, given the year-round nice weather.”

Case in point: The playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals pulled an average of around 61,000 fans per game in 2014, compared to the league average of 66,848. The top two teams in the NBA, in terms of per-game attendance so far in 2015, are Chicago (21,893) and Cleveland (20,562), both cold-weather cities (the Suns have been drawing an average of 16,371 fans per game).

Another factor: Phoenix is a transplant town. “I do think Arizona suffers from the same thing that Florida does,” Van Riper says. “Sun Belt areas have a lot of transplanted people. A lot of people who live in Arizona come from the north; they already have their sports allegiances elsewhere. And the same thing is true in Florida.”

A lack of corporate season ticket buyers may also be a factor. “We are not a rich city... we don’t have the big corporate culture, we don’t have the Fortune 500 companies, things like that – that’s part of the audience,” says journalist Al Bravo, who’s covered Arizona sports for the Associated Press for 15 years. “The other part is, you’re not looking at a city that has great average salaries, either. So it’s not like you have a lot of disposable income to go to these games. Season tickets is probably the hardest sell in town, even if you have the population like we do.”

Phoenix isn’t the only market where fans are getting squeezed. “Professional sports have really gone corporate,” Van Riper says. “It’s geared toward businesses buying tickets for games. Compared to say, the 1980s, the prices cost multiple of what they used to. I have three children. We have a family of five. I’m not going to even consider taking all of us to a baseball game, to an NHL game or anything like that. For the five of us to go, it would be thousands of dollars. I think that’s kind of the case everywhere.”

Oehler agrees ticket prices are part of the equation, but puts the onus on the teams. “I don’t think it’s up to fans to create Phoenix as a sports city, because financially, it’s very difficult to support live sporting events. The Diamondbacks are one of the most affordable teams in baseball – it’s still a lot of money you’re asking families to spend on a Tuesday night to watch a baseball game,” he says. “All of these professional sports teams have done great things to reach out to the community, but it is cost-prohibitive to a lot of people to spend as much time and money to make Phoenix sort of a grassroots great sports city. I put the onus on the teams – to win, to have success, to make the right decisions.”

“I think sports is very simple: You win, people follow. You win a lot, people follow for even longer,” Oehler continues. “And there just hasn’t been a history. It’s like any other consumer-driven business: If you go into a restaurant, and the food’s not very good, you’re probably not going back there. Phoenix, for the most part, its greater history has been, you’re always finding a curly hair in your food in the Phoenix sports market.”

Team, Work
“What’s the difference between the Arizona Diamondbacks and a mosquito? A mosquito stops sucking.”

Arizona has acquired its share of marquee players over the years – Shaquille O’Neal, Johnson, Barkley, Fitzgerald – but typically through trade or draft. When it comes to luring big-time free agents, the LeBron Jameses and Albert Pujols of the world, the superstars who can transform a franchise overnight, Phoenix is rarely in the conversation. Even when owners are willing to spend the big bucks – say, the way the Bidwill family was willing to spend for free agent Peyton Manning before the quarterback opted for the Denver Broncos two seasons ago – Arizona often comes up short. Our appeal for such players is uncertain.

Bravo says for the athletes, it’s not all about the money; there are other reasons superstar players might not want to play here. “You don’t necessarily see the big stars, sport by sport, who want to come to Arizona or say Arizona’s a destination,” Bravo says. “You don’t have people saying, ‘Oh, you really want to play in Phoenix, because Phoenix is a great place.’ Yeah, it’s got great weather. It’s even got great food. But that’s as far as it gets. You don’t hear about Phoenix nightlife the way you hear about Los Angeles or Chicago or some place like that.”

Nightlife is one issue; our cultural and political climate is another. The state lost Super Bowl XXVII in 1993 over its refusal to observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Arizona garnered national headlines again – and the threat of having this year’s Super Bowl XLIX moved – last year when state legislators passed a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBT people on religious grounds. “It definitely affects the athlete who wants to come here,” Bravo says. “Why would you play in what’s considered to be a racist state, or what’s considered to be a less tolerant state for any number of underrepresented groups? That reputation does not help you. And if you haven’t spent any time in Arizona, then you don’t know. You’re just going by whatever you’re told.”

Bravo believes that perception has been partially reversed by recent big-ticket events. “Having a Super Bowl and a Pro Bowl out here, you’re gonna bring in a lot of folks who are going to see, ‘Hey, maybe Arizona’s not as bad a place as we thought.’”

Arizona sports writers and fans are hopeful that maybe hosting high-profile national sporting events like Super Bowl XLIX will improve the state’s sporting image and draw more fans and athletes in the long-term. “Super Bowl can boost our image, and then you have a couple other things. You have the national [college football] championship next year, and you have the Final Four the following year,” Bravo says. “So for the next three years, there’s a major event in Arizona, in Phoenix, sports-wise, that all give an opportunity to show off the city and the state again, and remind everybody that it’s a cool place to be.”

Keeping Score
“What do the Arizona Cardinals and possums have in common? Both play dead at home and get killed on the road!”

That old joke became played out in the Cardinals’ largely successful 2014 season, one that Oehler thinks bodes well for the team and the city’s sports fans. “I think the Arizona Cardinals right now emerged as a truly foundationally successful franchise with their leadership. The success they had this year despite their challenges, to me, is a great sign for the future,” Oehler says. “I really do think the pieces are in place in Phoenix, specifically with the Cardinals, to really emerge as a team that, if you moved here five years ago and you were a Green Bay Packers fan, well – the Cardinals are on the path of having success to where, yeah, you probably still pay attention to your old Packers team, but man, the Cardinals are exciting and it’s a packed house every weekend, and their success, and I think that’s what it takes.”

Bravo says some strategic salary negotiations and savvy roster-building must happen. “You can be competitive like [the 2014 Cardinals] were, but all it took was a couple injuries and they fell apart... that’s the drawback. You can do it, but will it be the same next year? I don’t know. Because you’re going to have to pay for a quarterback, or a running back, or wide receiver,” Bravo says. “They can’t keep [wide receiver Larry] Fitzgerald. They can’t afford him. They can’t. Not for what he does. They’re either going to have to let him go, or they’re going to have to pay him less, if he’d even be willing to take less, so you can have other players.”

Oehler is also bullish on the Suns (“... they’ve got a smart general manager, a very good head coach, some good pieces in place...”) and even the Diamondbacks, who fired manager Kirk Gibson near the end of a horrendous 64-98 season that saw the team finish last in the league. There’s hope the team will improve under new general manager Dave Stewart, who – in uncharacteristic D-backs fashion – spent lavishly on a pair of Cuban free agents in the offseason: right-hander Yoan López ($8.25 million) and potential superstar outfielder Yasmany Tomas ($68.5 million).
 For Oehler, the bottom line to being a true “sports city” isn’t up to the people, but team owners. “There’s probably better overall leadership... in place in Phoenix right now than there’s ever been collectively. Jerry Colangelo was the godfather of sports; he built championship teams. And... in his absence, they’ve struggled for that leadership,” he says. “But I would say right now, the leadership’s in place to make the right decisions. Because it’s very simple: You have success, and over time, you’ll be a great sports city.”