For baseball fans, spring training is a time for renewed hopes and a reminder that winter is almost over. But for the major league teams and Arizona and Florida communities, spring training is big business. In Florida, 1.5 million fans attend spring training games with an estimated $750 million annual economic impact, and the state is working to keep the teams from fleeing.
In Port St. Lucie, on Florida's east coast, an hour before the first pitch at Tradition Field, many fans are already in their seats. They're watching the New York Mets take batting practice. The Mets have played at Tradition Field since it was built in 1988 by a developer who hoped it would attract people to the area. And it certainly has.
More than 80,000 people attended the Mets' 15 spring training home games last year, including Guy and Doris DelSignore. They're retired New Yorkers who come down every year for spring training.
"We like baseball and it gives us something to do," Doris DelSignore says. Her husband adds: "We've been with the Mets from 1962, since they started. We're die-hard Mets fans."
With just 7,000 seats, it's a more intimate, relaxed version of the major league experience. Beer vendors work the crowd, while people line up for autographs next to the dugouts.
The Economic Factor
In Florida and in Arizona, spring training has changed from the days when fans easily rubbed shoulders with players and coaching staff. But spring training attracts more people than ever.
Until the housing downturn, St. Lucie County was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. Many residents are retirees originally from the Northeast.
Ed Laughlin isn't from the Northeast. He's from Illinois and works part time at Tradition Field as an usher and member of the security staff. He says he meets lots of Mets fans who have moved here, and many more who come down for several weeks — or several months — each year.
In St. Lucie County last year, a study found that out-of-towners visiting for spring training contributed more than $35 million to the local economy. Laughlin says that means a lot in St. Lucie County.
"This isn't theme park country," he says. "This [spring training] makes it a real vacation spot for a couple of months each year."
Lured By Arizona
The problem for Florida is that communities in Arizona, home to spring training's Cactus League, feel the same way. They've spent big money in recent years building new facilities that have lured major league teams away from Florida's Grapefruit League.
In 2008, after more than 60 years in Vero Beach, the Los Angeles Dodgers left Florida for a brand-new $80 million complex in Glendale, Ariz. Over the next four years, five other major league teams in Florida will be renegotiating their spring training leases.
And even in Port St. Lucie — where the Mets recently renewed their lease — public officials are nervous. "We have a challenge on the East Coast. If the number of teams falls below four, there are out clauses for each of those teams to go somewhere else," says Chris Dzadovsky, a St. Lucie County commissioner.
Over the years, many teams have moved spring training to Florida's Gulf Coast. There are just four major league teams currently playing on Florida's east coast and one of them, the Washington Nationals, could be leaving.
St. Lucie County is working to attract another team to the area. But doing so could be expensive. A recent study conducted by the University of Michigan put the price tag for new practice fields, offices and training facilities at $60 million — a figure that's given Dzadovsky and other county commissioners heartburn.
"I think these numbers here are about the platinum plan. And the county is not prepared to be in the platinum business," Dzadovsky says.
The Governor's Proposal
Faced with rising competition from communities in Arizona, Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently held his own spring training announcement. He appeared in Lakeland, Fla., where he was joined by executives from the Detroit Tigers, one of the five teams due to renegotiate their spring training leases.
Scott is proposing setting aside $5 million annually to create a fund that would help communities pay for upgrades to spring training facilities. "The goal is, is to make sure all these teams that are here stay here, and we continue to grow spring training in our great state," he said.
Dzadovsky says of the governor's proposal, "It's a start" — still far less than what he estimates even a downsized spring training facility would cost.
For the teams, spring training has become a major revenue producer and it makes economic sense for them to be close to their fan base. That's why the Dodgers eventually left Florida for Arizona.
For Florida, the challenge now is to hold on to those teams from the Midwest — teams like Houston — on the map, located just about midway between the Cactus and the Grapefruit leagues.