Spring training fueled boom in Arizona’s Cactus League. Owners’ lockout puts it in jeopardy.
The COVID-19 pandemic cut short spring training in 2020. It compelled Cactus League teams to keep about three out of four seats empty in 2021. A pandemic is no one’s fault.
A lockout is different. It is not an act of God. It is an act of Major League Baseball owners.
This is the week players were scheduled to report to spring training. That is not happening. Cactus League games are scheduled to start next week. That is not happening, either.
In Arizona, that does not sit well. Cactus League cities built ballparks for major league owners who currently refuse to play.
“I’m very upset,” Glendale, Ariz., city manager Kevin Phelps said.
The Dodgers hold spring training in Glendale. That city’s costs in constructing, financing and maintaining Camelback Ranch add up to about $300 million. The Dodgers pay $1 per year in rent. So do their co-tenants, the Chicago White Sox.
The economic justification for Glendale, and for the other Cactus League cities that lured teams with taxpayer-funded ballparks: Fans descend upon Arizona every spring, showering the desert with dollars spent on hotels, restaurants, shopping and entertainment.
Kevin Malone, once Dodgers GM, now leads the NFL’s anti-tracking initiative at the Super Bowl.
In 2020, the last year the Cactus League commissioned a study, the average Dodgers fan spent $439 per day during a spring training visit.
Rob Manfred, the commissioner, said last week he hoped for a minimum of four weeks of spring training, which traditionally lasts six weeks. MLB could delay the start of spring training, but that does not mean fans could simply delay trips scheduled for spring break or spring vacation.
“People want to plan ahead,” Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher said. “I get a lot of inquiries about timing and schedule and refunds and all of that. People are definitely concerned. It will have an impact.”
The Cactus League studies do not take into account spending by Arizona residents, who could support the local economy by spending the same dollar at the ballpark or at a brewery. Six of 10 Cactus League fans come from out of state, according to the studies, conducted by Arizona State University.
The economic impact, according to the most recent studies: $644 million in 2018, when a full spring season was played; and $364 million in 2020, when the season was cut in half because of the pandemic.
Amid the uncertainty of 2022, Phelps senses a financial disaster brewing.
“We don’t think, even if they get started in two or three weeks, that we’re going to see many fans in the seats other than people who live here locally,” he said. “You have to look at the economic model for local fans through an entirely different glass than looking at the out-of-state traveler, which really provides the only opportunity to capture any kind of economic benefit.”
A shortened spring could put teams into legal jeopardy. Cactus League leases commonly require teams to play a minimum number of home games each spring — 10 each for the Dodgers and White Sox, for example, and 14 for the Angels, the only team at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
The Angels and Dodgers each are scheduled for 15 home games this spring.
Under the legal clause force majeure, a party that does not live up to a contract can be excused because of events beyond the party’s control. The force majeure events cited in the Angels’ lease, signed last year, include war, civil unrest, fire and “any Act of God.” The events listed also include “lock out or labor troubles.”
The force majeure events cited in the Dodgers’ lease, signed in 2007, include similar natural and man-made calamities and the words “labor dispute,” but there is no specific reference to a lockout.
Bryan Hull, who teaches contract law at Loyola Law School, said the specific lockout language in the Angels’ lease should cover the team, but the ambiguity in the Dodgers’ lease could work in Glendale’s favor if the team cannot schedule at least 10 games there.
He said a court could side with the Dodgers by saying MLB instituted the lockout and Glendale’s lease is with the Dodgers, not with the league. On the other hand, he said, a court could hold the Dodgers responsible by saying owners of MLB teams approved the lockout, and the Dodgers are one of those teams.
“Normally, someone is not excused under a contract if the reason for the problem is of their own doing,” Hull said. “If it’s a labor dispute, and if it’s under the control of management whether players are able to play, you can argue that, because the owners are responsible, they are not excused because of this particular labor dispute.”
Said Phelps: “The teams have locked out the players. Nothing would really preclude them from continuing on while they work to settle the labor agreement.”
MLB would not say whether the league believes force majeure language should absolve teams of any potential breach of contract. Since the league neither negotiates nor administers team leases, MLB would not attempt to interpret various provisions of individual leases, according to a person familiar with the league’s thinking.
A lockout is a legal tactic, and there is no mystery about why the owners did it: In the absence of a new collective bargaining agreement, the owners did not wish to play on now and risk the players going on strike later, interrupting the season before the bulk of national television revenues roll in.
That nonetheless leaves the Cactus League as collateral damage. For now, Binsbacher said, the league executives are not involved, leaving it to each city to communicate with its respective team or teams.
In Tempe, where the Angels just extended their lease through 2035, city manager Andrew Ching said that is exactly what he plans to do, assuming the spring training delay becomes official.
“We would want to meet with Angels management,” Ching said, “and talk about what their take is on how long, and the extent and the nature of the lockout, and what they would be willing to do, and what the contract says.
Group claims decision was made with ‘a pretense of public participation’ and ‘sham public hearings’ to ratify the decision.
“We would talk like longstanding partners would talk to each other.”
Phelps would like to talk too — not so much with the Dodgers or White Sox, but with MLB.
“For all intents and purposes, we’re going to be three years in a row where our hospitality industry has gotten a very small amount of economic activity because of spring training,” he said.
“It’s been crickets from Major League Baseball, in terms of even recognizing the harm that happened to cities like ours that have invested very heavily in supporting spring training. It certainly has made us question: Can we really look at Major League Baseball as being a partner in spring training? Based on what I have seen the last three years, I would say no.”
MLB declined to say whether the league would consider financial assistance to Cactus League cities that might not get the benefit of their investment because of the lockout. MLB remains committed to reaching a labor agreement that would include a full spring training, a league official said Tuesday.
This season marks the 75th anniversary of the Cactus League, but the mood in Arizona is not celebratory.
Said Binsbacher: “We might have to have a 75th anniversary party in our 76th year.”
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