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Empty Seats: Matthew Casey On The Future Of Sport In Phoenix

Why this matters

Matthew Casey is a reporter for Phoenix's local NPR station, KJZZ. His latest podcast series explores the impact of COVID-19 on the city's sports industry and economy.

Over the last few decades, Phoenix, Arizona has established itself as one of the best sports cities in the United States. It’s the home of multiple professional teams including the Cardinals, the Suns, the Diamondbacks, the Coyotes, and the Mercury. It’s the host of MLB spring training and several major upcoming events including Super Bowl LVII and the men’s and women’s NCAA Final Four tournaments. Every year, hundreds if not thousands of sports tourists flock to the city. 

As we all know, this has not been a typical year. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, Phoenix’s sports arenas and facilities remain empty. 

Matthew Casey, a reporter with the local radio station KJZZ, investigates the impact of sports and COVID-19 on Phoenix’s culture and economy. His podcast series Empty Seats explores the history of sports in the city, the local effects of the sports industry crash, and what needs to happen for a safe return to sport. He says that Phoenix has provided an advantageous environment for teams with its ideal climate, state of the art facilities, state tourism efforts, and cooperating leadership. He states, “My belief is that we’re attractive because our leaders have been willing to work with league executives and owners to make a home for sports here. We have long-running relationships. These are important.”

MLB spring training is a staple of the Phoenix sports industry. Fans from all over the country come to watch their favorite teams play for a fraction of a regular-season ticket. Spring training also boosts revenue for local businesses and creates job opportunities for Arizonians. Casey points out that many retirees volunteer or become employed as support staff. “Working on Empty Seats has given me a better understanding of the level of support staff needed to host just one game,” he says. “Some people told me it was hundreds of people, others have said it was thousands. Based on this, I would think that these retirees are extremely crucial to sports in our community.”

Casey says that it’s still unknown just how much the local economy will be impacted by the cancellation of spring training, but it’s clear that people are feeling the effects. He shares the story of a stadium employee who he interviewed during his project: “It’s devastating. He’s switched from restaurant to stadium work to set himself up for a major career change. He wanted upward mobility and this strategy was working well for him. Now he’s trying to live off $117 a week.”

While arenas remain empty, Phoenix has started on several sports facility improvement projects in hopes of improving the return to sport and the financial outcome. For instance, the Suns’ stadium is under major renovation. During this past NBA season, the Suns exceeded expectations and reignited interest in the team. However, it's unclear just how profitable this project will be. As Casey says, “When the arena renovations are done if the venue has to sit empty or mostly empty because of COVID-19, the city’s chance to benefit from revived excitement about the Suns could be lost.” 

According to a recent Global Sport Institute poll, about 49% of respondents said they would attend a major sporting event while 51% said they would not. Casey attributes this to a matter of individual, personal levels of comfort. With efforts to revitalize the sports scene in Phoenix and across the world, Casey admits that he feels torn between his desire to return to sport and his worries about the virus. In terms of the opportunity to attend a major sporting event, Casey suggests that the decision comes down to an individual’s level of comfort. He’s had to think about himself with the upcoming Territorial Cup. He says, “I would love to go. But would I actually do it? I don’t know. I’d really have to think about that long and hard.”

Eventually, sport will return and so will the fans. As new vaccines are proposed and task forces are announced, there’s refreshed hope we can all get back to the stands soon. But in the meantime, stay safe and stay patient.