Home Field Advantage for Florida’s Sports Economic Development

An annual rite of passage, spring training attracts visitors and dollars.

Editor’s Note: This is the debut of Forward Florida’s new feature focusing on the business of sports and its impact on economic development in Florida and the Super Region.

Pitchers and catchers have reported, which—for all hard-core fans—means the 2014 Major League Baseball season is upon us. None of the spring training games being played around the Sunshine State (and, lamentably, in Arizona) will count in the standings or provide any real indication of whom will win the World Series. But there are clear-cut spring winners for sports economic development, and Florida and the Super Region are among them.

A study commissioned by the Florida Sports Foundation found the Grapefruit League (Florida’s spring training circuit) generates more than $100 million in economic impact for the state, adds almost $70 million to the Gross State Product and creates nearly 1,500 total jobs with a payroll in excess of $40 million.

Better still, more than half of the 1.6 million visitors to Grapefruit League games come from outside Florida. In addition to money spent at the ballpark, they spend another $57.6 million outside the stadiums.

Currently, nine of the 15 Grapefruit League teams call the Super Region home, and competition is fierce to keep them here. Palm Beach Gardens is trying to lure the Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays away from, respectively, Kissimmee and Dunedin. Fort Myers has been trying to wrest the Washington Nationals from Viera. And, teams seeking a better deal always can dangle the threat of Arizona.

Arizona’s Cactus League is a particularly bothersome issue for Florida sports advocates. Though the Detroit Tigers trained in Phoenix in 1929 and teams made occasional forays to California and the Caribbean, Florida had a virtual lock on spring training until World War II, when travel restrictions kept teams closer to home (one can only imagine the delights of wartime spring training in French Lick, Ind.).

Immediately after the war, in 1946, the Cleveland Indians and New York Giants made Arizona a permanent spring training fixture. Half of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams now call the state their spring training home. Florida sports leaders recognize that Arizona is a logical destination for West Coast and Mountain Time Zone teams, but not as much for anyone else.

“Some of it . . . does geographically make sense,” says John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation. “Arizona threw a lot of money into it, and they did take some of our business.”

Webb thinks that can change over time. He describes the Grapefruit League as “solid with those 15 teams” and says the league will be patient and prudent in luring back teams from Arizona.

“We’d love [bringing a team from Arizona], and we have talked to one of them,” he says. “There’s only one that has a lease up in the next 10 years, and I don’t think the community and the state want to get involved in buying out somebody’s lease.”

Call it a variation on stealing home.

Stadium Money a No-Go?  Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford appears to be seeking a way to depoliticize the process by which the state subsidizes new sports facilities. Daytona, Orlando and Miami should take notice.

In an interview with the News Service of Florida, Weatherford said he does not favor spending any taxpayer money on stadiums in 2014. This mirrors the state’s position last year when it rejected money for improvements to Miami’s Sun Life Stadium. Instead, the speaker wants to create a uniform program for distributing state money to stadium projects.

“Our focus right now is on a process that treats everyone equitably and not writing any checks,” he says. “If you want to be a partner with the state of Florida, then you have to prove there is a return on the investment.”

Weatherford envisions the teams applying to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity “just like everybody else does that wants to create jobs in Florida.” He said the House Economic Affairs Committee is drafting legislation.

Horse Racing a Safe Bet? Despite the inherent risks of gambling, the Florida horse racing industry appears to be safe money. The industry’s annual economic impact is $905 million, according to a recent study commissioned by a group representing Florida racing.

The study also revealed that, including thoroughbreds, quarter horses and standardbreds, the industry accounts for 12,000 jobs statewide. Two-thirds of those jobs and more than half of the dollar impact come from activities away from race tracks, such as breeding and training. Much of the activity is in Marion County, including in Ocala, home to the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association.

Will the windfall success open the starting gates to other forms of gaming? Don’t bet on it yet. A Florida Senate gaming committee is exploring options, but an overhaul of gaming laws—encompassing dog racing, casinos and the like—isn’t likely to break any speed records.

Stay tuned for more on Florida Super Region’s sports economic development updates.