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In a Valley of transplants, Arizona's professional sports teams struggle to find their fan base

By Ron Dungan
Published: Wednesday, February 8, 2023 - 4:05am
Updated: Friday, February 10, 2023 - 6:48am

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Phoenix is a city of transplants. Most of us come from somewhere else, yet our stories are pretty much the same.

We pack our stuff and drive to the desert. We learn about things like snowbirds, monsoons and jumping cholla. We share our neighborhoods with javelinas and coyotes. We forget about snow.

Over the years that story repeated itself over and over, until Phoenix grew from a mid-sized agricultural community to a big city, with freeways, nightlife and sports teams.

But a lot of people who move here never really let go of the place they came from.

Although we have four major-league sports teams and frequently host major sports events such as the Super Bowl, college playoff games and the Phoenix Open, the Valley’s relationship with its own teams is complicated.

“In the Arizona Republic, they had a page that was News from Home. So Phoenix wasn’t home necessarily. These are migrants that had come in and they wanted to know what was going on back in, home, where they had come from,” said Phil Vandermeer, an emeritus history professor at Arizona State University.

 Chase Field
Ron Dungan/KJZZ
Arizona Diamondbacks' fans arrive for a game at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix.

He said that other American cities have grown rapidly, but they drew people from the surrounding area. Chicago took in people from Illinois farm country, for example. Phoenix draws them from all over.

“It draws from California, always has. It also drew heavily from the Midwest, drew some from New York, some from the Pacific Northwest, so there are a lot of different areas that people are coming from.”

As Phoenix grew, it replaced communities with suburban homes and strip malls.

“Of course what happens in Phoenix, or the Phoenix area, because it hit Tempe, and Mesa and everywhere, is a common problem that goes across the country. Downtowns hollow out, and so there isn’t a central core,” Vandermeer said.

While community leaders tried to revive downtown Phoenix, they noted that the city only had one professional sports team: the Suns. They wanted more.

“You know If you are a city that has four major league, you know all four major league sports then you seem to be, yourself, more major league,” Vandermeer said.

aerial view of phoenix
Getty Images
Footprint Center and Chase Field seen in an aerial view of downtown Phoenix.

Much of America is obsessed with sports. Klein said that games are a fundamental part of human existence.

“Once you get enough people living together, you start to see these features develop. Art, and sport, and philosophy and religion. These things start to develop. They’re answering human needs that we have,” Klein said.

Strip away the hype, the big salaries and the Budweiser commercials, and you’re left with games.

“Sport, game, organized play, of some kind or another is a significant part of almost every culture and society we have experience with. And so just from that alone it must be meeting some kind of need that we have,” Klein said.

It’s in our nature. Games may have begun as tests of running speed, hunting skill or strength, but over time they became something in their own right.

“Why are we trying to hit the ball over the net? There’s no real reason, other than the experience of hitting the ball over the net,” he said.

Eventually, new teams arrived — football, baseball and hockey. But the Suns’ fan base has the deepest roots.

ASU professor and former sports columnist Paola Boivin says that’s in part because of the success they’ve had over the years.

Phoenix Suns Gorilla the Valley flag
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
The Gorilla pumps up the crowd at Phoenix Suns Arena during Game 5 against the Los Angeles Lakers on June 1, 2021.

“They’ve got great tradition in town, they’ve had more success consistently I think than a lot of the teams in town, and people have stuck with them,” Boivin said.

Other teams haven’t been so lucky. The fans showed up, but some of them would root for the visiting team. The most obvious reason for that is that we’re a city of transplants. But there are other reasons.

“It’s a complicated city, it’s a multi-layered city. It’s a city that attracts all kinds of different people,” Boivin said.

We’re still growing and evolving as a city. We’ve learned that things like stadium location matter. So can winning.

We’re here. We packed our stuff, made a home in the desert. Some of us will move to other places, but a lot of us aren’t going anywhere. We’re home.

Why is it so hard for Valley teams to get fans in the stands? The answer is complicated

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When the Cardinals came to the Valley, they had a lot to overcome.

For nearly two decades, they played at Sun Devil Stadium. Most of the time, they finished with a losing record.

A lot of fans showed up to root for the opposition, especially when Dallas came to town, because before the Cardinals arrived, local stations carried the Cowboys feed. Arizona Republic columnist Kent Somers recalls covering those early Cardinals games.

Sun Devil Football Stadium in Tempe
Getty Images
An aerial view of Sun Devil Football Stadium in Tempe.

“I remember looking out from the back of the press box at Sun Devil Stadium in those days and just watching Cowboys fans stream in that stadium,” he said.

It wasn’t just the Cowboys. In a city of transplants, old habits die hard.

“So many of us are from somewhere else, and where we formed our allegiances in childhood, and they just stick with us and in a lot of cases they’re passed down to our children too,” Somers said.

But there was another reason.

“You know you can’t lose 10-plus games every year, and win anybody over, no matter what you do marketing wise or how nice your players are or how nice your building is,” he said.

While the Cardinals struggled on the field, the Phoenix Suns made a trip to the NBA finals. Paola Boivin, Arizona State University professor and former sports columnist for the Republic, said the Cardinals also had to compete with sunshine and the great outdoors.

“We care about going outdoors. Or we care about seeing concerts,” Boivin said.

In other words, the transient nature of our community was only part of the problem.

Chase Field in Phoenix
Katherine Fritcke/KJZZ
The Arizona Diamondbacks take the field at Chase Field in Phoenix in 2017.

“I think we’re a big metropolitan city with a lot of things to do,” she said.

Years passed and other teams moved to the Valley — the Coyotes came in 1996, and the Diamondbacks arrived in 1998. And the Diamondbacks made a great first impression, winning an emotional World Series in 2001, in what was just their fourth season. But they weren’t able to sustain their success and interest faded.

The struggle to put fans in the seats isn’t just a Phoenix problem.

“Now of course that’s also true of some other cities like L.A.,” said Shawn Klein, affiliated faculty at the Global Sport Institute at ASU.

A lot of factors play into building a fan base. Location is one of them, as the Coyotes found out when they went to play in Glendale, far from most of the Valley’s big population centers. The Cardinals also wound up in Glendale, but they play on Sunday. Hockey games can take place midweek, and driving from Scottsdale to Glendale in rush hour on Wednesday was a tough sell.

“It’s a real pain in the butt,” Klein said.

The Coyotes now play in Tempe and are looking for a permanent home in the East Valley. Location can also mean places to grab a beer and a bite to eat on game day. Downtown Phoenix now has a ballpark, an arena, brewpubs and restaurants.

State Farm Stadium
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
The Arizona Cardinals play at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

“There’s a lot more going on downtown than there was 10 years ago, 15 years ago. I think certainly for some sports that’s really important,” Klein said.

We’re finally building infrastructure, but there’s still something missing. Every sport is different, but other than the Suns, for the most part they share one common trait.

“They also haven’t been very good, for any sustained time,” Klein said.

The Cardinals have come a long way since those days in Sun Devil Stadium. They’ve been to a Super Bowl. They’ve had popular players, like Larry Fitzgerald, Kurt Warner, Budda Baker and J.J. Watt. And, while not all the fans wear red on game day, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

“I think part of the equation there is that Phoenix is also a great vacation destination during football season,” Klein said. “Because the game is on the weekend. You know, if you’re a Bears fan or a Vikings fan, and it’s November, why not take a weekend out and go to Phoenix and watch a game?”

Arizona Coyotes Mullett Arena
Tim Agne/KJZZ
Several seats remained empty in Mullett Arena as the Arizona Coyotes took on the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

The internet has also made it possible to adopt any team as your own.

“It’s really easy to follow a team from 2,000 miles away,” Klein said.

It takes time to grow a fan base. Some team histories go back a century. The only way to jump start that process is to win.

This could take a while. In the meantime, we might try looking at this differently. We’re not a Suns town or a Diamondbacks town. We’re not just a hockey town or the Big Red Sea. We’re the Valley of the Sun.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to clarify Shawn Klein's position at the Global Sport Institute at ASU.

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