125 Years: Spring training is an economic home run

Corey Perrine/Staff
Evelyn Rivera, an employee, tests speakers at the ticket booth Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. About a dozen people, with tents, were in front at the ticket office. A bar was setup under a communal tent making the experience more comfortable.

Photo by COREY PERRINE, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff Evelyn Rivera, an employee, tests speakers at the ticket booth Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. About a dozen people, with tents, were in front at the ticket office. A bar was setup under a communal tent making the experience more comfortable.

OVERALL ATTENDEES

Activities

Shopping - 42.3 percent

Museums/historical sites - 28.1 percent

Performing arts - 22.3 percent

Nature-based - 20.6 percent

Other outdoor recreation - 16 percent

Golf - 14.2 percent

OUT OF STATE ATTENDEES

Shopping - 46.2 percent

Museums/historical sites - 15.6 percent

Performing arts - 12.1 percent

Nature-based - 20.6 percent

Other outdoor recreation - 16 percent

Golf- 14.2 percent

Source: Bonn Marketing, Inc., Florida Sports Foundation

They come wearing Boston Red Sox jerseys and Minnesota Twins caps. They come from the upper Midwest and New England.

Others pop in sporting the jerseys, T-shirts and caps of other teams — the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies. The most important things they bring, though, aren’t articles of cloth ing. It’s money, their cash and credit cards.

Every year around this time thousands of baseball fans flock to Florida ballparks for spring training. They come and they spend. They spend a lot.

A 2009 study, the most recent conducted, pegged the combined economic impact of the Twins and Red Sox on Lee County at $47 million. The total was nearly even, with the Red Sox generating $23.9 million and the Twins responsible for $23.5 million.

Where was all that money spent? The study, which was commissioned by the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, pegged the numbers this way: $12 million on shopping and more than $11 million food and beverages.

Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Complex, said the impact may be greater in 2013. One reason may be when the study was done.

“At the bottom of the Great Recession if that’s what we’re calling it,” Mielke said.

The depths of the economic downturn was also when the Florida Sports Foundation commissioned a study for the statewide impact of spring training. That 2009 study estimated the impact at $752.3 million.

The 15 Major League Baseball teams training in Florida are scattered around in 12 of the state’s 67 counties. The five counties directly north of Collier all have teams. Two are in Lee, the Twins and Red Sox. Charlotte County has the Rays. The Baltimore Orioles are in Sarasota, the Pittsburgh Pirates in Manatee and Pinellas County has two teams — the Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays.

Two teams — the Florida Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals — share a stadium in Palm Beach County.

Collier County has never been the site of big-league spring training. But the Twins and Red Sox are short drives north of the county line. Certainly some of that economic benefit seeps south into Collier restaurants, hotels and attractions.

Jack Wert, executive director of the Collier County Tourist Development Council, said no study has been conducted to gauge just what spring training means.

“We haven’t felt the need,” Wert said.

He knows some fans may stay in Collier or dine in Naples or make side trips to Tin City or the Mercato or Fifth Avenue South.

“We feel some,” Wert said. “But not nearly what Lee County feels.”

Lee County has had two teams since 1993, when the Red Sox left Winter Haven for City of Palms Park. They arrived two years after the Twins, who followed a similar path, moving from Central Florida to Southwest Florida. In their case, they moved from Orlando.

Most of the impact for Lee County’s hotels is felt by what is called in the trade the “inland” properties, hotels not by the beach.

Jim Larkin, general manager of the Crowne Plaza Hotel and also president of the Lee County Hotel Association, said about one-third of his hotel’s March business is related to spring training.

It comes at a time of year when both room prices and occupancy rates are at their highest.

Some of the plusses of having the teams in town can’t be measured in just dollars. Larkin said there’s a buzz that is generated when big-league ballplayers past and present stop in the hotel or its restaurant, Shoeless Joe’s Sports Café.

“We derive such great benefit,” Larkin said of spring training.

Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall said spring training is one part of what she termed the county’s strongest industry — tourism. But not the largest.

“The beaches are our golden egg,” Hall said.

The state study, which was commissioned by the Florida Sports Foundation, estimated that nearly 1 million fans — actually 939,281 — attended Grapefruit League games that year from other states. Nearly half of that number — 361,032 — came primarily to attend spring training.

What did they do while in Florida other than watch ballgames? Nearly half (42.3 percent) said they went shopping. Nearly 30 percent visited museums and historical sites and a little more than 20 percent attended a performing arts venue.

About 20 percent engaged in what the study termed “nature-based” activities.

To help more businesses benefit from the presence of two teams and their fans, the third annual Business of Baseball Breakfast Summit will be held Tuesday morning at the Plantation Golf and Country Club.

Baseball officials such as Twins assistant to the president Bill Smith, Red Sox director of Florida operations Katie Haas and Fort Myers Miracle president Steve Gliner will be in attendance.

“We’re trying to offer access,” said Colleen DePasquale, executive director of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce, one of three groups presenting the event.

South Fort Myers accountant Bill Dabroski plans to attend the breakfast. He resides between the two spring-training ballparks, JetBlue Park and the Lee County Sports Complex.

As a baseball fan, he likes to being around the game. As an accountant, he likes the business opportunities.

That’s why he’s involved in the baseball breakfast summit.

“To see how we can participate with the teams,” Dabroski said.

And maybe funnel some of those spring training dollars to their businesses.

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