Chase Field opened its gates to Arizona State’s wrestling team on Saturday, Jan. 11, and, in doing so, became the first ballpark to host a collegiate wrestling event in history.
But the four-team, open-air wrestling match, the Sun Devil Duals, marked more than a moment in history – it also marked the start of what Chase Field hopes will be an expanded partnership with NCAA athletics, not just for their own venue, but for MLB ballparks across the country.
Working with college athletics itself isn’t entirely new for Chase Field. College football has long been linked to major league venues, both old and new, including the Diamondbacks’ sunny Phoenix home, which has hosted the Cheez-It Bowl for the last two years – formerly branded as the Cactus Bowl. The ballpark welcomed 34,105 college football fans to the bowl game in December as Air Force defeated Washington State, 31-21.
Arizona isn’t the only place where college football games are being played in professional ballparks. The storied rivalry between Harvard and Yale was played at an equally renowned venue in 2018: Fenway Park. Wrigley Field is slated to host Northwestern and Wisconsin this coming fall. The Pinstripe Bowl has been a staple at Yankee Stadium since 2010.
However, despite the flourishing of NCAA football and MLB ballpark partnerships, other college sports don’t often find themselves trying to fill 42,000+ seats – the average MLB ballpark capacity. Baseball, the seemingly more natural fit, is the only other sport to do so somewhat regularly.
Several minor league and spring training facilities have opened their doors to collegiate contests, and even a few major league ballparks host college baseball in early spring when the college season precedes the start of spring training. For example, the Astros’ Minute Maid Park hosts the annual Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic which features six teams from the state of Texas including Baylor, Houston, Rice, TCU, Texas A&M, and Texas State. The Mariners’ T-Mobile Park is set to host the Seattle Baseball Showcase this March with programs from the Pac-12, Big 10, WCC and Sun Belt conferences. Dodger Stadium’s College Baseball Classic will embark on a similar March endeavor before the 2020 season begins.
College wrestling is a whole new world for major league facilities. The decision to enter into this space is an embodiment of the shift in Chase Field’s strategy to reimagine their facility as a “blank slate,” Ryan Holmstedt, vice president of ticket sales and events for the venue, explained. The space can host any number of events and, given the plethora of colleges and universities in the Phoenix area, wants to play host to any number of collegiate sports, he said.
“We want to grow that relationship [with NCAA athletics teams], and I think we saw it as an opportunity to do something really unique at Chase Field,” Holmstedt said. “We have one of the most unique venues in Phoenix. It’s not just a baseball field. It’s a space where any type of college event can be hosted here, and I think this was one of the first steps to showcase that.”
While attendance hovered right around 2,000 spectators for the Duals – less than 6% of attendance at the 2019 Cheez-It Bowl – both the venue and it’s guest were satisfied with the turnout given the late decision to host the event at the ballpark.
The university didn’t begin working with Chase Field until December, just four weeks before the Duals. When the match was initially scheduled last summer, the athletics department did not yet know if Desert Financial Arena, the wrestling team’s typical home venue, would be available as arena scheduling had not yet taken place. When the Sun Devils staff learned that their anticipated venue was unavailable, they had to form a Plan B – a process which Kirt Klingerman, Arizona State’s athletic operations and facilities manager, said took longer than anticipated. Come early December, no space had been secured. The lingering uncertainty led the University to Chase Field.
Klingerman believes that if they had more time to plan, they “easily could’ve put seven to 10,000 people in there.”
Average attendance for the University’s wrestling matches this season has sat around 4,500 fans, with spectatorship peaking when Penn State visited the Grand Canyon State in November. The Sun Devils upset the Nittany Lions, both top-10 teams, in front of a record-breaking 8,522 spectators. Klingerman believes the allure of the MLB venue for a tournament that included another top-10 team in Iowa State would’ve brought in similar numbers had they had sufficient time to market and sell tickets.
But even 2,000 seats filled at Chase Field on an off-season Saturday are more than the ballpark would’ve had without an event to host and, Holmstedt explains, there’s value itself in getting fans to the venue for any sort of event and ensuring they have a positive experience.
“With an event like this, we don’t look at if we’re going to make a ton of money off concessions or tickets necessarily,” Holmstedt said. “The goal is to provide a great experience to the fans in attendance. And absolutely there’s revenue upside, but there’s also upside in potential return value based on the experience those fans had.”
Thanks to the facilities already in place at a venue like professional baseball ballpark, it actually cost Arizona State less to put the Sun Devil Duals on at Chase Field than several other venues they were considering, Wines said. Outside of the price of the venue, Wines’ says the school’s additional costs were minimal.
“Chase Field was a dream for us logistically,” Klingerman said. “Because it’s a ballpark, you’ve got screens, sound, seating that was elevated so it worked perfectly to watch wrestling. You’ve got a podium they set up in the infield after the Cheez-It Bowl and locker rooms and other facilities, all of that is already taken care of. And it’s all professional quality. Those are also all things we would’ve had to rent and set up or go without at another facility.”
The financial deal struck for each event Chase Field hosts is unique to that specific contract, according to Holmstedt, but the venue does dip its toes into several consistent revenue streams whenever their gates open, regardless of what for. From ticket sales to concessions and merchandise proceeds, there’s an opportunity for profit at every event. By giving Arizona State space to sell their own merchandise as well, Chase Field ensured that both parties could benefit financially from the partnership – and both consider the event a success, especially, given the circumstances, as well as a sign of what’s possible moving forward.
Klingerman said he’s already been approached by people within Arizona State athletics about hosting another match at the venue and potentially expanding to include other sports. The event appears to have been the first of many for the two parties, but Holmstedt doesn’t think such partnerships should be limited to Chase Field.
“We think the NCAA and all the colleges here in Arizona present great opportunities for us,” Holmstedt said. “But beyond us, there’s a great trend across all of major league baseball right now to look at their venues as a blank slate. You’re seeing more and more unique events being held at MLB facilities because these stadiums are so great and so easily convertible. And college events could really flourish there. I think the hope is that other stadiums start looking at their facility and their relationship with colleges and the NCAA in the same manner we have.”
College baseball and more bowl games are the easy answers for expansion but, as both the school and venue emphatically explain, they’re not the only ones. “Not even close,” Klingerman says.