Spring Training: From Pastime To Big Business

MLB spring training is well underway, and there's a lot of talk about multimillion dollar renovations at Tampa Bay area stadiums. They're supported in part by local tax dollars.

The Detroit Tigers have unveiled a revamped facility in Lakeland. The New York Yankees have done the same in Tampa, and Dunedin is planning upgrades for the Toronto Blue Jays. Sarasota County is opting to start from ground zero, potentially investing in a new $75 million facility for the Atlanta Braves.

Credit Joe Henderson

WUSF's Carson Cooper recently spoke with longtime sports journalist Joe Henderson, who writes for the Tampa Bay Times and SaintPetersBlog. Henderson says these days, the spring training game is all about the money.

HENDERSON: Somewhere along the line, [spring training] changed from a pastime to a revenue generator for the teams. They began to realize folks are willing to pay big bucks to go to these games. So now what we’ve seen is a fundamental change in the purpose of spring training, and I don’t think it’s for the better, but you can’t put that cork back in the bottle. So now you see these palaces being built all over [Florida] and in Arizona at absolutely mind-boggling prices. There’s a new stadium that opened up in Palm Beach this spring for the Astros and the Nationals – $150 million.

COOPER: Now a lot of these stadiums – I believe like that one – are becoming more and more for mixed use, not only hosting minor league games after spring training is over, but concerts, political rallies, etc. Do you see that as a trend with spring training?

HENDERSON: Well that’s one thing they always use to pitch spending the money to make the improvements – “Hey, we’ll have concerts there!” – like we don’t have enough concert venues in the Tampa Bay Area, I’m just saying. I think the real impact of this is twofold: yes, I firmly believe it does generate a lot of revenue for the state and for the cities in the form of tourism. You go to any spring training game, depending on what team you see, you’re going to see out-of-state license plates. Those folks come down here to get out of the cold frozen North –

COOPER: – You could also argue [tourists] are here anyway, they just happen to go to spring training –

HENDERSON: Well you could, but I think spring training – I’ll concede this much – I think it is a legitimate lure. Is it worth what we’re paying for it? That’s the key question. Revenues are at an all-time high in major league baseball, these teams are raking in the money. They’ve got massive television contracts, attendance is setting records – pay for your own doggone spring training facility, that’s what I’m saying.

COOPER: There’s fear that more Florida Grapefruit League teams will move west. Joe Negron several years ago, of course now the Senate President, has supported incentive programs to help convince teams to stay in Florida. We do love the sport, we love the tradition – is it worth keeping spring training alive?

HENDERSON: It’s getting to the point of diminishing returns, in my opinion. They always say, “Well if you don’t pony up this team is going to leave,” and in some cases, particularly spring training, they do. And I’m sure it is a loss for the restaurants and the hotels and other things in that community. But you’re talking about taxes coming from the broad base of the communities and of the state, and I think the average guy is going to say, “Hey, wait a minute, what’s in this for me?”

COOPER: For a while the Tampa Bay Rays were the only major league team to spring train in the same city where their regular games are being held, before they moved to Port Charlotte. Are the Rays considering a move?

HENDERSON: I think the Rays are very happy in Port Charlotte, that seems to be a very good marriage. For them, it gives them exposure in the southern part of their marketplace, their footprint, if you will. So no, I don’t think they’re thinking about going anywhere. It’s a great facility, close enough to St. Petersburg that they can send pitchers down there to rehab if need be, so I see them staying in Port Charlotte for a long time.

COOPER: You know, there are old school spring training fans who miss those days when those wooden bleachers would give you splinters in the butt, and outfielders had to dodge rusty nails in the warning track. They say spring training has become “Disneyfied,” too big and fancy, and it’s lost its charm.

HENDERSON: They’re right, but that’s kind of the way of everything these days. Spring training Florida style and Arizona style is, in many cases, designed for the high rollers. Take a guess how much a Chicago Cubs spring training ticket, on the secondary market, costs?

COOPER: Gosh, I remember paying three or four bucks!

HENDERSON: Well if you wanted to go on the so-called secondary market right now it would cost you $106, Boston $80 – but there’s good news. You can go to the Ballpark of Palm Beaches and sit on the grassy hill, and only have to pay $15 – to sit on the ground!

COOPER: Yeah, and that beer is cold and those hot dogs taste good at those baseball games for some reason, I can’t figure that out.

HENDERSON: Well there’s a problem looming, not just for spring training but for pro sports in general, and we’re seeing it unfold before our eyes: it’s easier, cheaper and, in many cases, a better experience to watch [sports games] in your “man cave,” on your 55 in. 4K Ultra HD TV, with the beer in your fridge that you paid ten bucks for a six-pack for. And when the game is over you’re not fighting traffic, you’re not fighting other tailgaters and you’re not getting rained on. That’s going to be the next big issue going forward, I think.