Bob Sparks: Sports teams are an important part of Florida’s economy

On New Year’s Day, Pasadena, Calif. serves as host for the 100th Rose Bowl Game.  Five days later, the Florida State Seminoles meet the Auburn Tigers for the BCS National Championship in the same stadium. 

When that game ends, baseball fans around the country, but especially in Florida, can start the countdown: five weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

This is no disrespect to football.  We support and root for our favorite teams and college football is great for our state.  In addition to highly attended regular season games, Florida plays host to six post-season bowl games bringing hundreds of thousands of fans and hundreds of millions of dollars into our economy.

But when those games are over, thousands of fans will come to spring training bringing millions more dollars of disposable income.  According to the Florida Sports Foundation, spring training baseball in Florida represents a $750 million jolt to our economy.

The formation of what is called the Grapefruit League (major league teams training in Florida) effectively began 100 years ago.  In 1914, St. Petersburg businessman Al Lang convinced Branch Rickey, whose larger claim to fame was signing Jackie Robinson to play in the major leagues, to bring his St. Louis Browns to St. Petersburg.

The Chicago Cubs trained in Tampa, while the St. Louis Cardinals wintered in St. Augustine.  The fourth club was Connie Mack’s World Champion Philadelphia Athletics, who set up training in Jacksonville.

Many more followed.  Over the years, Yankee fans came to Florida to see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig up close; Red Sox fans came to see Ted Williams; Cardinal fans wanted to see Stan “The Man” Musial; Braves fans came to see Hank Aaron.

Over the past 100 years, many Florida communities served as hosts for Spring Training.  The financial and cultural benefits are clear and for many years Florida had a monopoly with major league teams until 1947 when Cleveland and the New York Giants moved to Arizona.

Major League expansion to the west and an aggressive outreach by Arizona officials lured more teams away from Florida

This has left Florida communities, and to some extent the state, in the position of paying for upgrades of older facilities or construction of new ones.  A reluctance to spend millions of public funds is understandable.  If a community believes it is not a good return on investment, then they can say no, but most want to keep their team.

Some critics argue that multi-millionaires own major league teams and should pay for the stadiums themselves.  This is nonsense on stilts.  There are dual benefits that set the stage for a public/private partnership.

Local economies benefit from the tourism. They collect taxes generated on tickets, parking, concessions, souvenirs and etc.  Hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, beer and soft drinks are purchased wholesale locally.  Fans stay in hotels and eat in local restaurants.

The club benefits from a modern, well-kept facility.

Here is an instructive case history.  In 2008 the Cincinnati Reds were seeking improvements to the aging Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.  The local government was lukewarm to spending money to update the facility, and the voters responded with a “no vote.”

As I watched the County Commission meeting to debate the matter, one got the sense some of the commissioners were lecturing the Reds’ management with a “how dare you.”  Within days, the Reds, who had trained continuously in Florida for 85 years (except World War II), were negotiating with Arizona.

The deal was done shortly thereafter, leaving Sarasota to scramble for a replacement.  Somehow, $31.2 million was packaged together to fund improvements and the Baltimore Orioles replaced the Reds.

A solid argument can be made for the wisdom of investing in professional sports facilities, within reason, of course.

As the start of Spring Training approaches, let’s celebrate the arrival of 13 clubs from out of state and welcome back our two in-state teams, the Marlins and the Rays.  Not long afterward, the regular seasons will start for both along with Florida’s minor league teams in the Southern League, Florida State League and Gulf Coast League.

All of these clubs bring not only economic development, but also jobs.  Let’s hope 2014 is a great year both on and off the field.

Five weeks until pitchers and catchers report!

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.


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