Phoenix is an interesting sports town. They like to think of themselves as avid sports fans and quickly point to the fact that they are only one of a handful of cities who have a franchise in all four major sports (stay with me on this and accept the fact that I referred to hockey as a major sport).
Looking closer though you soon realize that none of the four franchises draw particularly well. At the top of the attendance heap is probably the Phoenix Suns. They have the longest tenure in town and extended success suggests that first and foremost Phoenix is a basketball town.
When we first moved to Phoenix in the early 1990’s you would have to agree. The city seemed to close up shop whenever the Suns were playing. There was a waiting list for season tickets and day of game tickets required you to have lightning fast reflexes on the first day tickets were available and hope you could get through to buy two tickets in the last row of the upper deck of then America West Arena to see an inconsequential game. Forget trying to get tickets to a match-up with someone like the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Arizona Cardinals were mired in a decades long losing streak with little hope of making the post season. They played their games in a college stadium that had definitely seen better days. The home games were excruciatingly hot under triple digit temperatures during the early part of the season. When the weather finally cooled down, so did the Cardinals leaving fans little to cheer for.
Moving into the new University of Phoenix Stadium the team’s fortunes changed and people attended the games more comfortable than ever before. And while the Cardinals have announced that every game has been a sell-out you can look around the stadium and see more than a few empty seats even after the team went as far as the Super Bowl.
The Phoenix Coyotes have had the worst luck of any of the major sports franchises. They began playing at US Airways Center with obstructed view seats then later moved to the far west side of town making it difficult for many fans to make the journey to a game. Add to this the ownership turmoil that has plagued the team since arriving in Phoenix and the fans apathy has reached an all-time low. It is sad because a Coyotes game is a lot of fun in person and they are playing a great brand of hockey building what looks like a perennially strong and competitive team.
When the Arizona Diamondbacks arrived in 1998, they were the media darlings of the local sports scene. They played in a state-of-the-art retractable roof stadium that was almost as big a draw as the product on the field.
The Diamondbacks under the management of owner Jerry Colangelo chose to win quickly and built a team that reached the playoffs in just their second season. At that time fans flocked to Bank One Ballpark to watch big name stars such as Randy Johnson, Matt Williams, Todd Stottlemyre, and others lead the team to victory after victory.
By 2001 the Diamondbacks had all the pieces necessary to win a World Championship. They played in front of crowds of 40,000 excited fans who loved to be associated with a winner. Phoenix seemed to be on their way to becoming known as a baseball city.
In 2002, the team faltered in the play-offs to the St. Louis Cardinals and the run of championship baseball seemed to be coming to a close. The team had mortgaged heavily on continued large attendance. The fans began to dissipate looking elsewhere for a winning team to jump on the bandwagon.
When the D-backs began losing, interest waned in the Phoenix market. There were a few diehard fans that supported the team but the core fan base all but disappeared. When new ownership took over they found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy with a shrinking fan base.
Success in 2007 would help the team regain some of the lost fan base but missteps in the front office all but guaranteed that the team would not repeat the success in 2008. Injuries to players such as ace Brandon Webb and more mistakes by the General Manager and player personnel would result in two and a half years of miserable baseball.
The team finally made changes in the summer of 2010 firing the General Manager Josh Byrnes and manager AJ Hinch. Newly named GM Kevin Towers would have his work cut out for him attempting to rebuild a franchise that found itself near the bottom of almost every category on and off the field.
The 2011 season has been a pleasant surprise. Most experts predicted another dismal season for the Diamondbacks and given their play during Spring Training it was hard to argue against that assessment. Once the season started, Arizona began playing with a new level of energy and confidence not seen in a very long time.
Despite predictions of their demise, these Diamondbacks were brimming with confidence and showed a “never say die” attitude that resulted in every game being played with the energy of a post-season playoff. After rolling off a long winning streak the Diamondbacks found themselves in second place behind the World Champion San Francisco Giants.
In a recent road trip to the bay area the Diamondbacks took two of three from the Giants and were closing in first place. While the Diamondbacks have struggled they continued to make up ground finally taking first place this past week.
Fox Sports Arizona has seen a strong surge in television viewership setting all-time records for largest television ratings for baseball. Fans are starting to take notice and seem to be following the team but choosing not to attend games in person.
During the recently concluded home stand against the Houston Astros the Diamondbacks averaged just over 17,000 fans per game; hardly the crowd you would expect for a team in first place.
Last night against the New York Mets the crowd was announced at just over 25,000 which is just over half the capacity of Chase Field. The Diamondbacks have done their part offering deals to entice fans into coming to the ballpark.
Against Houston the Diamondbacks offered six kids tickets for each paid adult yet there were still paltry attendance numbers. There have been similar offers of buy-one-get-one-free that don’t seem to be resonating with the fans either.
After last night’s game Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall offered all seats in the upper deck for $4 each just by mentioning his twitter offer to the box office. It will be curious to see whether this latest plea for fans to attend has any success.
The players are giving their all and the quality of entertainment is second to none. The kind of season the Diamondbacks are having only comes around a few times in a lifetime yet for many they’ll never experience the excitement of a team overcoming adversity and reaching beyond the expectations of everyone.
Hopefully Phoenix can sweep off their apathy in time to wake up and experience the magic. As for me, I’ll be in the same place I have been for the last 14 years – in my seat at Chase Field cheering and thanking the baseball Gods that I am able to experience the joys of baseball.