Phoenix: Which Sport Reigns Supreme?

Norm Hall

Is Phoenix a baseball city? A football one? We look at the four main sports, and their status in the Valley of the Sun.

I really have no idea. Like, no sense at all. The Suns have tenure, obviously, but I’m not sure what that means. Spring training makes the whole city basebally for a while. I know people get behind the Dbacks when they win. Man, I’m rather stumped on Phoenix. Craig Calcaterra

Ah., the joys of confusing national sports journalists. The quote on the right came as the result of an interview Josh Hamilton did, where he said that Dallas-Fort Worth had "true baseball fans, but it’s not a true baseball town." The implication of that obviously being football meant more to the town than baseball, and led Calcaterra to try and figure out which sport "ruled" in each major city in the nation. Polls have consistently shown the NFL to be the most popular sport, nationwide: baseball, once neck and neck, is now struggling to pass the college version of the game, and is behind it among the 18-24 year old demographic.

But what of Phoenix? Where do the four sports stand here? Calcaterra's confusion is understandable. As just about anyone will tell you, loyalties in Phoenix are flexible, largely because of the large number of transplants. Just 37% of current residents were born in the state. Among "big" cities (population of three million or more), only Washington and Miami have a lower percentage of "natives". Those from out of state tend to bring their loyalties with them: it doesn't mean they won't support the local teams, but interest tends to be more success-driven, as we most recently saw when the Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl.

Phoenix Suns

Arrival: 1968
Most successful year: 1976, 1993
Last season: 18th of 30 (33-33)
Attendance: 21st of 30

As Calcaterra notes, they have tenure - for 20 years, they were, literally, the only game in town, and have certainly had their moments. They sold out 347 consecutive home games in the nineties, and 153 games up until November 2009. while Steve Nash was perhaps the most recognizable sporting face in the state. However, the last couple of seasons have been very tough: they are all but certain to miss the playoffs for a third consecutive year, tough to do in a league where the majority of teams make the post-season. The Suns may not quite have set, but they're likely nearer the horizon than at any point since the late eighties.

Arizona Cardinals

Arrival: 1988
Most successful year: 2008
Last season: 26fh of 32 (5-11)
Attendance: 26th of 32

And it was going so well, too. On October 3, Dan Bickley wrote: "There's a growing vibe that Glendale is the place to be on game day, that nothing replaces being there, that a ticket to the Cardinals game means you'll never leave disappointed." Like many a Bickley pronouncement, this proved wildly incorrect, the Cardinals losing 11 of the next 12 games to lock in another losing season - they have managed just three winning records in 25 years since moving from St. Louis. Yet they have officially sold out 73 consecutive games, including pre-season contests, at University of Phoenix Stadium. As nationwide, so in Phoenix: the NFL still draws.

Phoenix Coyotes

Arrival: 1996
Most successful year: 2012
Last season: 11th of 30 (42-27-13)
Attendance: 30th of 30

Despite their most successful campaign ever, and the best finish of any local side, the Coyotes still struggled to get people through the doors at Jobing.com arena: they, finished last in the league, with crowds 6% lower than the 29th-placed team. This year is no better, and ttey have been stuck in the bottom three for higher than 28th since 2006-07 - the long, ongoing ownership saga has certainly not helped. And yet, the TV ratings are doing well, off to their best start in more than a decade. Can Phoenix ever be a hockey town? We probably won't know, unless some stability is first brought to a franchise that seems forever to have its bags packed.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Arrival: 1998
Most successful year: 2001
Last season: 16th of 30 (81-81)
Attendance: 19th of 30

Admittedly, I am biased, baseball being the only sport I care about, is to the extent I actively root against other Phoenix teams, because I like the fact the D-backs are the only one ever to have won a title [sorry, Arena Football League and WNBA: you don't count]. But I do note that, relative to their league, the D-backs were the best-attended franchise in the city last year. But it's difficult for me to assess objectively how the team stands in relation to others, because I spend so much time hanging out with other D-backs fans. I get a sense there may be less general "Phoenix team fandom" than in some places, but not having lived elsewhere, I may be wildly inaccurate!

Thought it would also be interesting to chart the success or failure of Phoenix teams over the years. So, for each season played by the big four franchises, I assigned a score, depending on how far they got into the post-season, or if they didn't make it, where they ranked overall. The table below shows the scores for each year: basically it's a negative number, each one representing a game or series you fell short of winning it all. However, as MLB has one fewer round of playoffs, I extended the line further, for non-playoff teams (shown in italics) depending on where a team placed in the overall standings during the regular season.

Score NBA NFL NHL MLB
0 Champions Super Bowl winner Stanley Cup winner World Series winner
-1 NBA Finals Super Bowl loser Stanley Cup loser League champion
-2 Conference final Conference final Conference final Championship series
-3 Conference semi Division Conference semi Division series
-4 Conference 1st Rd Wild-card Conference quarter 2nd quartile
-5 3rd quartile 3rd quartile 3rd quartile 3rd quartile
-6 Bottom quartile Bottom quartile Bottom quartile Bottom quartile

I was going to insert a graph of the results, but it looked more like an explosion in a spaghetti factory, and didn't really show very much of interest. However, the best year collectively, was 2001, when the D-backs won the World Series, the Suns made the playoffs, and the Coyotes and Cardinals did not entirely blow chunks. The worst year, easily, was 2004, when all four teams reached the lowest possible score of -6. As well as the D-backs going 51-111, that season the Cardinals went 6-10, the Suns 29-53, and the Coyotes won 22 of their 82 games.The Cardinals .375 was the best win percentage by any Phoenix team that year.

If you look at each team's average score over their time in the city, the Suns have historically been the best (-3.77), followed by the D-backs (-4.4), Coyotes (-4.67) and Cardinals (-5.2). The order is the same if you restrict the period to since Phoenix became a four-team city in 1998, though the margins are smaller (-3.87, -4.4, -4.71. -4.97). It's hardly an awe-inspiring record of success, for any of them.

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