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Palm Beach Post (Florida)

A half-century ago, spring training served as a reliable cleanup hitter for Florida's tourism industry. Baseball was the undisputed national pastime, and legends such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson headed south to tune up, a boon for a sparsely populated state hungry for visitors and media attention.

Now, though, the Grapefruit League finds itself eclipsed by Walt Disney World and Sawgrass Mills, picked apart by Arizona's Cactus League and doing business in a state whose economy has ballooned like Barry Bonds' biceps. A stats geek might deduce that Florida spring training has turned into the economic equivalent of a singles hitter.

With state and local officials dangling incentives to wealthy team owners, the Grapefruit League lends itself to Moneyball-style calculations -- and the counterintuitive conclusion that spring training might be bad for business.

If that sounds crazier than Billy Martin in dirt-kicking mode, consider this curveball: Tourism spending is growing faster in Florida markets without spring training than in metro areas with Grapefruit League teams.

In Florida markets that have no spring training or lost teams, tourism spending jumped 21 percent from March 2008 to March 2013, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of data from the state Office of Economic & Demographic Research. In the metro areas that host the Grapefruit League's 15 teams, tourism spending rose only 15 percent during the same time.

Miami, the state's fastest-growing tourist market, saw tourism spending soar 36 percent from March 2008 to March 2013 -- even though no team has played spring ball there for decades. Flagler County, also bereft of spring training, posted a 32 percent increase in tourism spending over five years.

In the Panhandle, hundreds of miles from the nearest Grapefruit League ballpark, tourism spending jumped 27 percent. Collier County, home to no teams after an attempt to entice the Chicago Cubs from Arizona, booked an 18 percent increase.

For those fast-growing regions, spring training proved as irrelevant as a non-roster player sporting a jersey with no name and a uniform number in the 90s.

But Tampa Bay, home to the state's richest concentration of spring training with three teams, saw March tourism spending rise a mere 9 percent over five years.

Hotel data from research firm STR showed an even more pronounced trend. Combined hotel revenue for Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Naples jumped 30 percent from March 2008 to March 2013. Revenue for Tampa, Orlando and Palm Beach County, three markets that host a combined seven Grapefruit League teams, increased only 7 percent.

Despite such mixed results, Gov. Rick Scott and local governments remain avid fans of the Grapefruit League. Like general managers wooing an aging free agent, they're thrusting taxpayer money and public land at baseball owners.

Palm Beach Gardens last fall proposed a $100 million facility for the Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays. That project died when neighbors objected, but Palm Beach County officials have continued to search for a taxpayer-owned site to be shared by the Astros and Washington Nationals.

Scott, for his part, last year earmarked $5 million a year for Grapefruit League facilities.

"Spring training has provided families in Florida with countless job opportunities since the 1800s," Scott said during a visit to the Detroit Tigers' spring training home in Lakeland.

Scott didn't explain how the Tigers' 15 home games at Joker Marchant Stadium would provide more than beer money for ticket takers and concessionaires. Good luck paying the mortgage on a 15-days-a-year work schedule.

"It's a very, very short season," said Neil deMause, co-author of the book "Field of Schemes," a critique of public subsidies for sports teams. "It's not like somebody's going to open a restaurant just for spring training, and then figure out the 11 other months."

Economists look at spring training as a bottom-of-the-order batter, one that long ago lost its slugger spot to theme parks and malls.

"We have been losing spring training teams, and we haven't declared bankruptcy," said William Stronge, a former economics professor at Florida Atlantic University and author of "The Sunshine Economy." "They're a part of our industry, but they're not a dominant part."

It doesn't help that the Grapefruit League plays during Florida's peak tourism season, a time when hotels hit their highest occupancy of the year and airports already are full. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College and author of a number of books about baseball, said tourists drawn by spring training might simply crowd out equally lucrative visitors.

"If baseball fans replace golfers, there's no incremental spending at all," Zimbalist said.

In Florida's small counties, spring training still occupies a spot in the heart of the order, as shown by the Los Angeles Dodgers' departure for Arizona.

In March 2008, the Dodgers' final spring training season in Vero Beach, Indian River County reported taxable tourism-related sales of $44.8 million. Five years later, Indian River County tourism spending was $46.1 million, a 3 percent increase that trailed Florida's 16 percent growth in tourism spending over the same time.

For Broward County, the effect of losing the Baltimore Orioles to Sarasota was more modest. The Orioles played their last spring training in Fort Lauderdale in March 2009, but Broward County experienced a 14 percent bump in tourism spending from March 2008 to March 2013.

Even so, Nicki E. Grossman, head of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, laments the loss of the O's and their 15 games at Lockhart Stadium.

"We miss it every year," Grossman said. "It created 20,000 room nights, and it's just an iconic thing to have."

For other regions, the Grapefruit League's payoff is unclear. On the Treasure Coast, spring home to the New York Mets, March tourism spending rose 14 percent from 2008 to 2013. Palm Beach County, host to two spring training teams, saw tourism spending rise 16 percent from March 2008 to March 2013, matching the state average.

Orlando experienced a 17 percent jump in tourism spending, although the openings of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Aquatica Orlando likely were bigger contributors than the continued presence of the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros.

The Sarasota-Bradenton region, which poached the Orioles and hosts the Pittsburgh Pirates, saw an 18 percent increase. Fort Myers, home to two teams, batted in a 19 percent increase in tourism spending.

Stronge and other economists say spring training is neither a home run nor strikeout. One benefit: It attracts loyal and affluent fans. The Grapefruit League hosts teams from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., large markets with wealthy populations.

But the Grapefruit League also is home to three of the four teams with the lowest regular-season attendance last year -- the Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and Astros.

"We do need to provide interesting things to the people who come as tourists to Florida," Stronge said. "Baseball is one thing you can do. But it isn't as important as beaches or theme parks."

Bad for business?

Florida metro areas with Grapefruit League facilities saw a smaller five-year increase in March tourism spending than those without:

Areas with spring training: 15%

Areas without spring training: 21%

Source: Palm Beach Post analysis of data from state Office of Economic & Demographic Research

jostrowski@pbpost.com Twitter: @bio561

March 30, 2014
 
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