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Fall League: No economic home run for Valley, but still a baseball bonus

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SURPRISE – Among several dozen people attending an Arizona Fall League game here recently, Mike Biggs, a snowbird from Victoria, British Columbia, was watching Seattle Mariners prospects playing for the visiting Peoria Javelinas.

“It’s just fun to see the young kids coming up, because generally that’s who you’re getting: top picks,” he said.

His wife, Trudy, estimated that the couple attends about a dozen games during the six-week Fall League season, spending roughly $1,000 on tickets, including those for friends. When they purchased their winter home, they chose Peoria based on its proximity to the Mariners’ training facility.

“We mostly go to Javelinas games, mostly due to the convenience factor because the park is quite close for us,” Trudy said.

Every October, 210 minor league players move to the Phoenix area to play on six teams comprised of talent from every Major Leage Baseball franchise. Their goal: impressing their organizations’ management and perhaps the many scouts from other teams evaluating talent.

Fall League games, played at spring training facilities, are so intimate that it’s possible for those in the stands to hear on-field chatter and vice-versa. Many of the people watching the games are scouts holding radar guns and scribbling notes on clipboards, but there also are die-hard fans, autograph-seekers and families seeking inexpensive fun.

No one is saying the Fall League is a major contributor to the economy, but between hotels, car rentals and other living expenses by teams and players and expenditures by fans it’s another way the Valley benefits from being a year-round baseball venue.

Tom Rex, associate director of the Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said the Fall League provides more publicity for the state and brings in some baseball tourists, even though attendance is much smaller than during spring training.

“You want as broad an economic piece as you can have in any community,” Rex said. “As many little pieces of it as you can have the better, as long as there is a net benefit.”

“In the case of the Fall League there is a net benefit,” he added. “It’s just that it’s not very large.”

Steve Cobb, director of the Arizona Fall League, said there have been small but steady increases in attendance over the past few years even though the league doesn’t have a designated marketing budget. The Fall League competes against the other professional sports teams in the Valley and ASU athletics for ticket sales, he noted.

Special events like a Fall Stars Game and military appreciation game draw bigger crowds, Cobb said.

“Day in, day out, if you come to Fall League games enough, it tends to look like many of the same people coming to a lot of games – that’s not true, but it looks that way,” he said. “It’s a lot of autograph seekers and people who really enjoy baseball.”

Last year, the nonprofit Cactus League Baseball Association released a study by Elliott D. Pollack & Co., a Scottsdale-based consulting firm, that estimated the economic impact of spring training facilities beyond the Cactus League schedule at $210 million annually.

Mark Coronado, community and recreation services director for Surprise and Cactus League Baseball Association president, said that the Fall League’s impact is based primarily on the number of players, coaches and visitors.

“It’s the only time during the 12-month period that all 30 major league baseball teams are in one location,” he said.

Cobb said that in addition to attracting baseball tourists, the Fall League pays to rent and utilites at facilities, contracts buses for away games, hires concessionaires and pays sales taxes on merchandise.

He said that 60 to 70 percent of players in the Fall League make it to the major leagues one or two seasons after playing in Arizona, a figure significantly higher than that of minor league teams.

“This is really a look at the next wave of major league players,” Cobb said. “These are the new players that are coming into the system that will make it.”