The Sports Professor’s Weekly Sports and Entertainment Dollar

MLB Preseason: Blooming in Arizona and Florida

Whether your flora of choice is the citrus blossom or the cactus flower, Major League Baseball this weekend goes into full bloom, as Spring Training 2012 morphs from inter-squad scrimmages to actual games, stats that matter, and fans savoring dogs and beers under the warm Florida or Arizona sun.

While baseball’s annual rite of spring in the Sunshine State has been around for 87 years, Cactus League games in Arizona are much less mature.  But the younger sibling has caught up in a hurry – for the first time last year, fully half of baseball’s 30 teams opted to train in the desert, consolidated in the greater Phoenix region after the last couple of Tucson stragglers moved north.  Attendance figures show that the cactus cluster even drew slightly more people: a record 1,595,614 attendees at 233 games, versus an estimated 1.5 million for the Grapefruit League.  The Florida operations won the economic impact duel, however, with an estimated economic impact statewide of $753 million, according to a study commissioned in 2009, or about double the Grapefruit League’s estimated take of $300-400 million.

In 2012 each league has a couple of new attractions for baseball fans.  For the first time, Arizona visitors can check out the sweet swing of MLB All-Star Albert Pujols, by virtue of his acquisition by the Los Angeles Angels relocated from Jupiter, Florida to Tempe’s Diablo Stadium.  And down in Fort Myers, Florida, the Boston Red Sox are debuting JetBlue Park at Fenway South, a complex comprising a $78 million, 10,000-seat stadium modeled after Fenway Park, complete with a Green Monster left field wall, and enough training facilities for both the franchise’s major and minor league squads.

Cactus Spines

In Arizona, the Cactus League as a business is decentralized much like spring training in Florida, which is aided by the Florida Sports Foundation, a nonprofit working with the state government which has put up over $105 million since 2001 to help construct and/or renovate spring training ballparks, according to Governing magazine. The Cactus League organization helps market spring training, promote tourism benefits, and advocates on behalf of the region’s baseball franchises.  It works closely with the Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority, created via proposition in 2000 to help fund sports facilities there and chartered to provide $402 million over 30 years for Cactus League stadiums, according to Governing.  As in Florida, most of the ballparks in the Phoenix area are owned and operated by their host cities, which compete tightly with each other to land a franchise and whose generous economic terms are a main reason why so many teams have relocated from Florida over time.

Last year, the hometown Arizona Diamondbacks topped attendance numbers for Cactus League franchises, with 189,737 attendees, followed closely by the Colorado Rockies, with 169,571 (a 115 percent jump from the season before).  Both squads benefited greatly from playing in the graceful new Salt River Fields at Talking Stadium, designed by HKS Sports & Entertainment, which instantly became a huge draw for baseball fans.  The World Series Champion San Francisco Giants and the Chicago Cubs rounded out the league’s top four draws, with about 160,500 attendees each.

2012 is looking even better.  Less than a week after spring training tickets went on sale and largely because of Pujols, the Angels had sold more than 50 percent of their inventory, and as games commence this weekend are reporting a near season sellout.  Likewise, according to industry figures, World Series contenders Texas Rangers ticket sales are up more than 20 percent over 2011, the Diamondbacks and Rockies are up more than 18 percent year over year, and sales for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox are up more than 13 percent.

MLB Network is trending upwards during spring training as well.  On March 7, the MLB-owned cable channel will for the first time in a live telecast mic up infield players and coaches on the field during a game between the Cleveland Indians and the Diamondbacks.  A 14-second delay will be put into place to extinguish profanity (and possibly, spitting).

Grapefruit Sections

The Granddaddy of spring training, Florida has hosted preseason baseball games at 35 different sites over time, bringing sports stars to fans long before the state had any pro sports teams to call its own.  Starting March 3, 15 teams will train beneath the palms in central and south Florida, playing a slate of 236 Grapefruit League games. Nine Grapefruit League ballparks are clustered on or near the state’s west coast, from Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays) and New York Yankees in the Tampa Bay area, down the coast 150 miles or so to Fort Myers (Red Sox and Minnesota Twins).

The rest of the venues are spread throughout central Florida and the east coast, from the Atlanta Braves’ Champion Stadium at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex down to Jupiter, where the Cardinals and newly rebranded Miami Marlins share 7,000-seat Roger Dean Stadium.

The Yankees have been selling out spring training games since 1919, even in their current 11,076-seat Tampa stadium, the largest ballpark in the Grapefruit League, named in memory of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.  It’s likely the team will be handing out samples of its new men’s and women’s fragrances – a pro sports team first – that will hit retail shelves after baseball’s Opening Day next month.

Or, as Jay Leno quipped on “The Tonight Show”: “Starting in April, a new line of New York Yankees perfume and cologne will be available for purchase at Yankee Stadium and much like the real Yankees, the perfume will be overpriced, made in the Dominican Republic, and then go bad about … September.”

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