Empty Seats: Virus Hit As Phoenix Sports Pageant Was Set To Peak
This story is part of a six-part podcast project called Empty Seats, the pandemic versus a sports capital. Download Episode 3 to hear more about the lasting local effect of the week in March when COVID-19 crashed the sports industry. Visit emptyseats.kjzz.org to get a new episode every Monday through Nov. 9, 2020.
Chris Baker played Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout on a live-stream through Twitch, a platform that lets people watch video gamers do their thing on the internet. Baker’s green character raced against dozens of other online players as everyone tried to get through an obstacle course fast enough to make the next battle royale.
The 43-year-old has had a lot more time to play video games this year. The pandemic shut down Baker’s charity work. He uses superhero cosplay as a tool to help children, cancer patients, abuse victims, first responders and military families. Baker grew up on an Air Force post.
“Base brats and (I will) support them to my last dying breath. Military is everything for us,” he said.
The pandemic also took away Baker’s living as a concessions supervisor for a company that’s contracted to feed people at Arizona State University athletic events.
“It’s devastating. We stopped working on 3/10 of this year,” he said.
Tuesday of the week in March when COVID-19 crashed the sports industry, and started to shut down the United States, was also supposed to be a really important point in metro Phoenix’s yearly sports bonanza. The Coyotes and Suns hit midseason in February as the Phoenix Open shows golf fans from colder climates that we don’t have to worry about winter. The windfall continues with a NASCAR race. And everything usually peaks as spring breakers flood Arizona to see their favorite baseball teams.
“2020 is just a horrible year. We just need to get to 2021, take a deep breath and move forward,” Baker said.
"2020 is just a horrible year. We just need to get to 2021, take a deep breath and move forward."
— Chris Baker
The end of 2021 is when economist Jim Rounds forecasts Arizona will get back jobs lost to the pandemic. But he warned that the state’s recovery in leisure and hospitality may lag into 2022. Tourism is hurting more than any other industry in the Grand Canyon State.
“You can go down the entire sports list and tie each one at least to tourism in some way,” Rounds said.
The majority of people in the sports labor force are contractors doing jobs like food concessions. Most of them get paid minimum wage and have to travel to different venues to work full-time.
“You end up seeing the same vendors and other employees at a hockey game or a basketball game or a baseball game,” Rounds said.
Rounds does not think sports contractors are a big percentage of the 50,000 lost jobs in leisure and hospitality. He said empty seats at local sports venues have contributed to the decline.
“That's a big part of it. So it's not only no fans allowed at games, but it's also the restrictions on travel and just the economy closing down,” Rounds said.
Which started back in March when Chris Baker stopped working as a concessions manager at ASU athletic events. I first talked with Baker in May. He was on a daily quest to talk with a real person at the Arizona Department of Economic Security about his unemployment claim. The money finally came. Arizona’s meager payments were twice boosted by federal help. But that’s over now and Baker only gets $117 a week.
“I can get by on Top Ramen and water. But I mean, it’s just like, paying the bills and everything else is, yeah,” he said.
Baker’s been through hard times before as a restaurant server making tips. He left the dining room to get experience needed to become an event coordinator, which is a profession he discovered through his charity work.
“So I figured working as a supervisor and working in stadiums and events would help to justify that transition,” he said.
Baker said the sports venue job put him on the right path and kept him financially stable before the pandemic hit. His top priority for going back to work is being able to protect himself from the virus.