How the Cardinals' camp tradition in Flagstaff died
When training camp opens Friday, Larry Fitzgerald won’t need a Segway to get from Northern Arizona University’s upper practice fields to the Cardinals’ locker room. Bruce Arians won’t need to borrow Dave McGinnis’ weather button to control rain and storms.
There will be no intimate autograph sessions in the cool shade of Ponderosa Pines. There will be no raucous nights in Old Town Flagstaff. There will be no coffee from Macy’s or burgers from Beaver Street Brewery, no dogs barking on the sidelines and, if it survives the 140-mile trek down the hill, the quarterbacks’ trash-can toss will likely have lost its luster.
When NAU rescinded its offer of a three-year deal in March and Cardinals president Michael Bidwill announced in June that the team would train at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, the two sides didn’t just pull the plug on the team’s oldest Arizona tradition; some argued they pulled the plug on the team’s only Arizona tradition.
“They will definitely lose some of the flavor,” Flagstaff Mayor Jerry Nabours said. “It’s just another day at the stadium now.”
With the exception of 2005, when a norovirus outbreak forced a move to Prescott, the Cardinals have trained on the NAU campus since 1988, the year the franchise moved from St. Louis. But Bidwill made it clear whom he blamed for the end of this relationship when he spoke at an informal media session before the team’s fan fest on June 11 in Glendale.
"Fans need to understand we tried to make the best decision competitively for the team," Bidwill said. "The facilities that NAU had moved us into over the last couple of years were completely substandard for a professional football team, and we were paying big rent up there.
"I hope the business community understands that it was a few people at NAU that really made this decision easy for us. I was not going to let the team be at a competitive disadvantage by continuing to use those facilities."
At issue for the Cardinals specifically were the locker room, training, equipment and storage facilities. When NAU began renovations of the Walkup Skydome, the Cardinals say they were promised improved facilities, but when the renovations were completed, they were moved into the visitor’s side.
NAU President John Haeger declined an interview request, but other NAU officials and Nabours, who university spokesperson Tom Bauer said “knows the situation quite well,” said the school was willing to address several of those concerns and did in fact eventually allow the Cardinals to use the home team training room.
The Cardinals were also given use of the school’s more modern Pine Ridge Village dormitories to house the team, and Nabours said NAU offered to do $50,000 worth of improvements to storage facilities.
“I always felt that if we could have just gotten them to the table to talk, we could have solved this in one day,” Nabours said.
While the Cardinals still insist facilities were the main issue, it is the opinion of both NAU officials and Nabours that negotiations with the Cardinals didn’t break down over facilities, they broke down over the same thing that normally ruins deals: Money.
The Cardinals believed they were paying too much for what they were getting. University officials, dealing with harsh budgetary realities, didn't believe they could afford to give the team a sweetheart deal.
In a meeting last year between NAU and Cardinals officials, team executive vice president and COO Ron Minegar made it clear that his goal was to reduce overall costs of camp, according to correspondence between Minegar and Jennus Burton, NAU’s vice president for finance and administration.
According to documents obtained by FOX Sports Arizona, the cost for use of NAU’s outdoor practice fields and the Skydome in the new proposal was either a daily rate of $5,000 or a fixed rate for 28 days of $100,000. The school’s proposal estimated a cost of $632,427 for use of the dormitories to house players and staff, food at the school’s nearby dining hall, telecommunications, student wages and other associated costs. There were additional costs for classrooms ($125 per room per day or a flat rate of $32,000) video operations rooms, media rooms and other spaces.
Nabours acknowledged the cost to host training camp in Flagstaff had increased significantly. The Cardinals say that increase was 29 percent over the previous deal.
Nabours said the cost increase was partly a reflection of the time that had passed since the last contract had been drawn up six years prior. But Haeger was also given an edict from the Arizona Board of Regents, the governing board for the state’s public universities, that he could not subsidize the Cardinals any more; that he would have to recoup any money spent on the team.
Cardinals spokesperson Mark Dalton said the team was never informed of such an edict, “However, we learned a lot about what it costs to stage a training camp over the last couple of years. Given the amount we paid NAU each year, it seems doubtful that there was any subsidy across the entire operation.”
At the same time the Cardinals were negotiating with NAU, they were also in discussion with Prescott and Glendale about the possibility of holding camp in those cities. Dave Maurer, the Prescott Chamber of Commerce’s CEO, said the city submitted a proposal that would have housed the Cardinals at Embry-Riddle University while the team used the city’s nearby fields.
“Our proposal basically said that if the Cardinals would accept the conditions as they are right now for a couple years, we’ve got some interest, from both the public and private sectors, in developing a sports complex to be used year-round for us but available to the Cardinals,” Maurer said.
The estimated cost of hosting training camp in Prescott was never clearly defined because negotiations never got that far. Maurer said discussions died in February because both the university and the city had other groups interested in their facilities, and they could not afford to wait any longer for the Cardinals to make their decision.
The team was also in discussion with Glendale, but Vice Mayor Yvonne Knaack and council member Gary Sherwood said repeatedly that the Cardinals’ proposal would not work for the financially strapped city.
At issue was the use of the city’s youth soccer fields at Bethany Home Road and 91st Avenue, near University of Phoenix Stadium. The city has managed the fields through its parks and recreation department since February 2012 at a cost of about $280,000 annually. But Sherwood noted that the city has taken in between $80,000 and $85,000 in revenue from the fields, which lease for $25 to $33 an hour.
Under the proposed deal, the Cardinals would have hired Rojo Entertainent Management to take over the management of the fields, with the city paying Rojo about $280,000 annually. But in this deal, Rojo would have kept the first $150,000 in revenue from the fields. Rojo and the city would then split any additional revenue, with Rojo receiving 80 percent and the city receiving 20 percent of it.
Based on previous years’ figures, Sherwood said it was unlikely there would have been any additional revenue to split, and the city would have been out $80,000-plus in rental fees.
“It’s a worse deal than the one we have right now. We lose money. I have no idea why we would agree to it,” Sherwood said at the time. “They still want to make money off of us, and we can’t do that.”
Flagstaff's Nabours said he was frustrated that several attempts to get all the major players at a table to negotiate a new deal for the Cardinals at NAU were ignored by the Cardinals. It is always difficult to measure the economic impact of such an event on a town, but two studies provide a glimpse.
A 2010 study by the Arizona Rural Policy Institute and the Arizona Hospitality Research & Resource Center suggested the training camp brought more than $6 million in revenue into Coconino County annually, with those attending Cardinals practices spending an average of $254 per person per day.
A study by NAU found the economic impact as high as $9 million, but local hotel and restaurant owners have their doubts about that number.
Echoing thoughts of other business owners, Buster’s Restaurant and Bar owner John Schulman said that he hasn’t seen much of an impact from Cardinals camp for “the past two or three years” and that last season in particular, with the Cardinals gone from Flagstaff virtually every weekend during camp due to road games and training at Kansas City’s site, he saw very little camp-associated business.
“It killed me,” he said. “When they are here on the weekends, that’s when people show up, that’s when people bring their kids up and stay. When it’s during the week, it’s just day trips where they come up and leave and don’t spend anything.”
Even so, Nabours said Haeger was under intense pressure from local businesses, the chamber of commerce and residents to keep the Cardinals.
“It’s good for Flagstaff -- not just economically but it puts us on the map,” Nabours said. “We’d be on the Phoenix news stations’ live reports and it would be beautiful up here while everybody was sweltering in Phoenix. It was very positive PR.”
In an effort to keep the team, the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce had committed to assembling a group of businesses to buy a $100,000 skybox at University of Phoenix Stadium. The city also agreed to spend $50,000 in advertising at the stadium on top of the approximately $50,000 annual commitment it had budgeted for training camp and its numerous promotions associated with camp.
“The city’s not mad at the Cardinals," Nabours said. "We’re disappointed that they didn’t seem a little more willing to work on getting this deal done, but we haven’t slammed the door for ever more. We’d take them back next year.”
Nabours still believes Flagstaff offers far more than any other site in the state can, but in selling the idea of training at University of Phoenix Stadium to fans, Bidwill noted that far fewer NFL teams leave town for training camps now (13 of 32) than in past years. Aside from the obvious financial savings the Cardinals will enjoy by staying home, Bidwill floated some advantages that Flagstaff can’t offer – advantages that fans of the Flagstaff tradition will have to live with at least for this season.
"There's 4.3 million who live here in the Valley, and not all of those people can afford to take the time off or to drive up (to Flagstaff) and spend the night," he said. "It's free, it's free parking, it's air-conditioned. (Fans will) be able to catch a practice in the afternoon and not have to drive out of town."
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