The Business of Spring Training Baseball

by featured blogger Niral Patel

On the east coast, Midwest and across the Rocky Mountains snow shoveling has replaced baseball as the new national pastime. Maybe that’s an exaggeration though it feels fair in the midst of another chilly, snowy winter season. But our hearts warm whenever a fellow fan utters the phrase “spring training” because—although the heat of Florida and Arizona feel like a spaceship ride away—it means warm weather and baseball are coming home soon.

The practice of Major League Baseball spring training began over 100 years ago as a way for teams to escape the cold, do some team building and finalize the roster. But not every team used to set up camp in Arizona or Florida as they do now—the Yankees would head to New Orleans, the Cubs traveled to Los Angeles and the Pirates would fly to Honolulu. The landscape of the spring training we know today is much different. Now Florida’s Grapefruit League and Arizona’s Cactus League each host 15 teams. And the spring training experience has evolved into big business—sponsorships, tourism, merchandising and tickets bring extra revenue to teams as well as their spring training host cities.

Teams cash in every spring. Back in 2009 Chicago Cubs’ president of business operations Crane Kenney floated the idea that the team might depart its long-time spring training home of Mesa, Arizona. The threat—local government should help upgrade its facilities or else—did the trick. The spring of 2014 arrived with the unveiling of recently renamed Sloan Park along with a massive 70,000 square foot clubhouse and several state-of-the-art practice facilities. Over $100 million in public funds went into the Wrigleyville West venture to ensure the Cubs didn’t escape to Naples, Florida or a neighboring Arizona city. The money flowing into baseball’s pre-season festivities is unmatched across professional sports leagues.

Love the Los Angeles baseball rivalry? Fans will spend upwards of $50 a ticket to an upcoming Dodgers vs. Angels spring training game. Want to visit Tampa and watch a Yankees vs. Red Sox game? The best views in Tampa’s George Steinbrenner Field are priced on StubHub for anywhere from $130 to $590 a seat. Most teams go a step further and offer spring training packages—hotel, rental car, game tickets, exclusive perks—to fans that crave an unforgettable experience. And, of course, there is plenty of spring training merchandise available for purchase around the parks as well as online. While you check out the game you’ll invest plenty of dollars into concessions too—Camelback Ranch, home to the Dodgers and White Sox, features an 18-inch slice of pizza and bacon-on-a-stick. Major League Baseball has stretched revenue collection into March with a first-class experience built around amazing weather, pristine ballparks, sparkling hotels and a plenty of restaurant options.

Host cities win big too. Why would the city of Mesa sink $100 million into baseball stuff? Don’t the streets need repaving? Couldn’t the playgrounds use some new swings and slides? Business folks say you have to spend money to make money and, at least in this case, it’s so true. A 2010 report prepared by EDP & Co resolved “the Cubs generate an economic impact of nearly $138 million to the state during Spring Training, while a recent study by FMR Associates of Tucson estimated the Cactus League delivers $422 million of direct economic benefit to the state.” Invest $100 million into the Cubs and your town will make it back in spades.

 Cities like Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, Orlando and Los Angeles all draw their share of tourists. Nightlife, tall buildings, five star restaurants, theme parks, world-class hotels, historic museums and more lure thousands of visitors annually. Sunshine state cities like Sarasota, Clearwater, and Jupiter as well as Surprise, Tempe, Mesa and others of the Grand Canyon State aren’t natural tourism hubs. But their local government officials know baseball fans will arrive in droves each spring to get a sneak peek at their teams and escape the doldrums of winter. Cities in Florida have spent at least $150 million in state subsidies to refurbish spring training facilities while many Arizona cities have made similar such investments while also passing costs on to travelers by instituting a car rental tax. The lesson: do what it takes to lure a team and keep them satisfied.

 Hope springs eternal. A tradition that began with ballplayers escaping the winter to get in shape for the season ahead has transformed into a big business operation for all. But some things never change. Once you find your seat in the stands under the warm sun, it’s still just pitchers, batters and coaches throwing around the baseball.  

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