Joe Henderson: While spring training camps sit empty, Florida businesses suffer
Toronto Blue Jays take batting practice before a baseball game against the New York Yankees Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Tampa. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Steinbrenner Field
Take me out to the bawlgame? Lockout leaves Florida fans, businesses crying foul.

This was the week when spring training was supposed to open at all 15 Major League Baseball sites throughout Florida.

It is annually celebrated as a time to enjoy the sun, mild afternoons and perhaps a trip through a time portal to when you were a kid. While some of that may be true, it’s also big business in Florida and Arizona, the other major site for spring training.

The Florida Sports Foundation claims that in 2018, spring training generated $687 million for the state. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic struck, about 1.5 million fans attended spring games throughout Florida.

Many of those people came from out of state, which meant more money for hotels, restaurants, bars and theme parks. It was the best of times.

Ah, but MLB owners and players routinely show a disconnect to life in the real world. So instead of the sound of baseballs landing in leather gloves and that crisp, unmistakable TWACK when bat meets ball, owners declared a lockout while they argue with players over how best to split up a massive money pot.

Yep, fans are again left to sing, “Take me out to the bawlgame” as feuding millionaires and billionaires cry that the other side is unreasonable.

At best, the lockout could lead to a drastically shortened spring training and perhaps a delayed regular-season start.

A list on MLB Trade Rumors showed 24 of the 30 franchise owners are worth more than $1 billion. Tampa Bay’s Stuart Sternberg is a relative pauper in that club, with an estimated net worth of “only” $800 million.

Owners and players have gone down this path before. This is the 9th work stoppage in MLB history, although it is the first one since the players’ strike in 1994-95 that led to the cancelation of the World Series.

Four of those stoppages directly impacted Florida and spring training.

Both players and owners say they’re talking, but we could soon be out of time for a full spring training in Florida.

While the rest of the country might celebrate the thought of salvaging Opening Day, scheduled for March 31, even the loss of a couple weeks in the spring puts a serious crimp on local businesses here struggling to recover from the pandemic.

They counted on this year to recoup some losses as sun-starved northern baseball fans headed south with money to spend. No one outside of Florida thinks about that, however.

Fans want their baseball.

Networks need the games for programming.

There isn’t as much concern for the mom-and-pop restaurants, bars, and hotel workers who put a lot of money in their pockets this time of year. Yes, the latest report shows a solid uptick in Florida tourism dating to last October. An active spring training, however, would push those numbers higher.

Meanwhile, both owners and players should consider this.

The 2020 season was a disaster because of pandemic-related attendance restrictions. Last season wasn’t much better.

Attendance declined 33.9% from 2019 through 2021. Critics say sports like hockey and soccer offer a much faster pace than a plodding baseball game. NFL games last about the same amount of time as baseball, but with more on-field action.

Bottom line: If this lockout goes on much longer, fans will find other things to do. It might just remind them they don’t miss the game as much owners and players believe they do.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


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