Like everything surrounding Major League Baseball, spring training has become big business. As “pitchers and catchers report” (magical words to fans everywhere) to their respective training camps, a battle is growing over the economic spoils – with Florida and Arizona locked in a battle as tight as any pennant race in recent memory.
While the Sunshine State never had a 100-percent stranglehold on spring training, it was a near-monopoly at times, and that rich history is cause for celebration. State leaders honored that history during the recent Governor’s Baseball Dinner in West Palm Beach, and Gov. Rick Scott put Arizona and its “Cactus League” on notice that Florida is spring training’s true home.
“I want to make sure every (team) that’s in Arizona is eventually back here where they belong, where spring training belongs,” Scott told the sold-out crowd at the mid-February event.
Scott and state sports leaders are eyeing the Cactus League because half of MLB’s 30 teams now play there and in 2014, Arizona attendance surpassed Florida’s “Grapefruit League”: 1.66 million to 1.47 million fans. But, a closer look reveals Florida isn’t exactly facing a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the scramble for spring training supremacy.
First, spring training attendance was up in both states, climbing 9.4 percent overall. Second, the Grapefruit League clearly remains the more popular ticket. Spring games in Florida were played before stadiums more than 87 percent full while Cactus League games last year were played in parks filled to only 66.5 percent capacity.
It’s not clear size matters where stadiums are concerned. In the Cactus League, all but two stadiums seat 10,000 or more, while in Florida only two seat 10,000 or more. Arizona’s overall 44-percent advantage in seating capacity resulted in less than a 15-percent gap in actual attendance. There’s obviously something about Florida, and therein lies the state’s key to success.
John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, laments the growth of Arizona spring training but says the key to long-term victory is to avoid obsessing in the short run about the number of teams in the Cactus League and instead shoring up the commitments of Grapefruit League teams. To continue reaping the $150 million-plus economic benefits of spring training, Webb believes Florida needs to make sure MLB clubs enjoy their share of the spoils.
“When you start upgrading spring training facilities and having more seats, you’re going to have more impact,” Webb told Forward Florida. “They (facilities) used to be to pick your roster and get in shape (but now are) corporately run to where (teams) want it to be successful and sell out games.”
One example is the all-but-sealed deal between the Houston Astros, Washington Nationals and Palm Beach County for a shared facility that would open in 2017. Though the teams’ current homes in Kissimmee and Viera may suffer in the short run, the state avoids two defections to Arizona. This is especially significant for the Astros because Houston is the only team in either league’s western division still conducting spring training in Florida.
The move also reduces the danger of losing the Mets, Marlins and Cardinals, teams also training on Florida’s east coast. By retaining the Nats and adding the Astros, all five teams can take advantage of short-distance, low-cost travel options.
In baseball parlance, Florida is pursuing the time-honored strategy of keeping people on base and waiting for the big hit. It’s hard not to like the state’s chances of going the distance.