Empty Seats: The Sports Fans Are Missing At Glendale's Westgate

By Matthew Casey
Published: Monday, October 26, 2020 - 12:05am
Updated: Monday, October 26, 2020 - 9:13am

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This story is part of a six-part podcast project called Empty Seats, the pandemic versus a sports capital. Download Episode 4 to hear more about the heart of Westgate Entertainment District in Glendale. Visit emptyseats.kjzz.org to get a new episode every Monday through Nov. 9, 2020.

Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Water Dance Plaza at Westgate Entertainment District on Glendale.

Fountains performed in the oval-shaped Water Dance Plaza, which is bordered by a multistory monument of eateries, bars and different entertainment. Gila River Arena connects the oval, and sits directly across from a corridor into the heart of Westgate Entertainment District in Glendale.

“Right before COVID-19 hit, we were close to 100 percent occupied and we’ve never hit that benchmark before,” said Jessica Kubicki, marketing director for YAM Properties, which owns Westgate. 

A huge advantage to owning a business near one of metro Phoenix’s sports shrines was that you were guaranteed crowds for a certain number of days each year. Right now would normally mark the start of the best chance to cash in on this circumstance at Westgate. The National Hockey League's regular season would have just gotten underway inside the arena. The Arizona Cardinals typically approach the midway point of their home schedule a couple blocks south.

gila river arena
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Gila River Arena opened in 2003.

Sports are a big part of marketing for Westgate but the roughly 60 days normally guaranteed to have hockey, football and soccer are just a fraction of the yearly schedule.

“We ourselves before COVID at Westgate hosted anywhere between 250 and 300 events. They could be sports related, but they could not be. And you know, overnight, as everyone experienced, we went from thousands of events to zero,” said Kubicki.

Westgate has survived tough times before. Partly because sports guaranteed top-tier programming that drew crowds. Now large groups of people are a health risk.  

“And of course, we miss having all the sports here, we miss our Cardinals fans, we miss our Coyotes, fans, but we know they'll be back,” Kubicki said.

Exactly when is unclear. The Cardinals have been letting a small number of fans attend home games. Hockey won’t start again until at least the end of the holidays. And NBC Sports reports that one NHL owner has questioned if many teams can survive if they don’t play to a live audience.

The pandemic is a brutal time for businesses near local sports hubs, said economist Jim Rounds.

“And so those that are in an area, like around Westgate or downtown Phoenix, whatever might be, the restaurants are already suffering. And the ones that are disproportionately dependent on sports activities are going to suffer more,” he said.

State Farm Stadium
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

Westgate has a lot of restaurants. There have been government efforts to help these places stay open. But in the restaurant business, even small changes on the price of goods like limes or avocados can mess with the bottom line. Profit margins are always thin.

“So we're going to lose a lot of these businesses. Part of it's going to be based on just the economy shutting down. But the lack of sports patrons going to the restaurant. Sending five times more at the restaurant than they did even on the game. Going there as a family. Having some drinks. Having a dinner. Hanging out with friends for a while. That's where (restaurants) make their money,” he said.

To help the sports shrines bounce back, Rounds wants a jobs package to come out of the next legislative session.

“We need a jobs 2.0 package where we deal with those small businesses that closed. Especially the ones that we're talking about that are very dependent on sports activities,” he said. 

On a Friday night at Westgate, the East Valley duo Brother Coyote played a mix of covers and their own songs to a crowd that’s bigger than I expected. People stayed socially distant inside squares of white piping spread out on fake grass. Live music recently came back.

“So people can bring their chairs and their blankets and post up there and feel safe while doing it. But I long for the day that the sports are back,” Kubicki said.

Missing sports fans have not been quantified, she said. But it’s obvious just by looking.

“Game Day is definitely different. The atmospherics just aren't the same, the traffic's not the same,” she said.

Westgate is not dependent on sports programming, Kubicki said. Safety is driving a conservative approach to events, and she is looking to the sports industry to pave the way for bringing more back.

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