Baseball’s Annual Ritual Generates Millions for the State
On Tuesday (March 1), the new year began for those who live by the baseball calendar, as major league teams squared off against each other for the first time in 2016. For Florida, it also signaled the beginning of an annual economic bonanza for the state.
Spring training generates at least $750 million in economic activity, according to the Tallahassee-based Florida Sports Foundation. Roughly half of that activity comes from out-of-state visitors. The Baltimore Orioles spring training alone generates $81 million, according to an economic impact analysis conducted by the Sarasota County government. Overall, professional sports are a $3.1 billion industry in Florida, according to a 2014 study by the foundation.
Other events are more lucrative. The same 2014 foundation study found amateur sports have an economic output of $5.4 billion, and an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) volleyball tournament sells almost 100,000 hotel room nights. But, with the possible exception of a Super Bowl or the Daytona 500, few sporting events in Florida capture the nation’s imagination like spring training.
Though plenty of Floridians will attend games this month, the lure of warm weather in the winter also will bring droves of snowbirds to the Sunshine State to enjoy the spring games. Some will be coming south because their favorite team is one of the 15 that participate in the Grapefruit League (as Florida spring training is known). But, more than a few will come to Florida even if their favorite team plays in Arizona’s Cactus League.
Despite the fact that half of the major league teams conduct spring training in Arizona, Florida remains the true home of spring training in the nation’s imagination. A FORWARD Florida review of 2015 spring training attendance found that Grapefruit League spring games are played in stadiums filled on average to 90 percent of capacity while Cactus League games average less than 70 percent.
The economic bonanza has helped justify the investment of public funds in spring training facilities. Sarasota and the Orioles partnered on a $31-million renovation of Ed Smith Stadium in 2010-11. More recently, Palm Beach County officials agreed to pay most of the costs of a $144 million spring training home that will be shared starting next year by the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals. (The teams currently train in Kissimmee and Viera, respectively.)
Does all this mean that Florida might be in a position to lure some teams back from the western desert. It is possible, but it will be a tough sell.
At the recent Governor’s Baseball Dinner in Bonita Springs, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred downplayed possible changes to the spring training structure.
“I like the equilibrium of having 15 teams in Florida and 15 in Arizona,” he said. “Over the last few years, several stadiums here have created some great fan experiences. Governor Rick Scott has been very helpful in getting funding in place for these stadiums.”
In fact, Manfred seemed to indicate the bigger priority is ensuring equilibrium on Florida’s two coasts. Specifically referencing the coming Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, he said, “It’s a great thing to have a sufficient number of teams on each coast so that not a lot of travel is involved.”
Manfred may or may not have been talking travel hassles for the teams, but it applies to maximizing the fans’ tourist experience.
With smaller, more intimate stadiums than the major league parks used in the regular season, pricing a bit more family friendly than the regular season and multiple teams a short drive away, the Grapefruit League is a near-perfect sports tourism experience.
That adds up to a win for everyone involved.
Rays in Havana
The Tampa Bay Rays, meanwhile, will play a very different kind of game on March 22, when they take on the Cuban National Team in Havana.
President Obama is expected to be in attendance for the historic game, the first time a major league team has played in Cuba since the Orioles visited in 1999. It’s also the first game of its kind since the two countries normalized relations last year.
Interestingly, Cuba once played a significant role in major league spring training. When Major League Baseball still had only 16 teams that all were located east of the Mississippi River, the Caribbean was a viable alternative to Florida for spring training. Instead of playing other major league teams in spring games, they played local clubs and the games often were surprisingly competitive.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were the most frequent spring visitor to the island, but the New York Giants, New York Yankees and other teams trained there as well. According to the website cubanbeisbol.com, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the last team to conduct spring training in Cuba, in 1953.