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Spring Training an Economic Boon for Lee County

John Davis, WGCU

Spring training in Florida is a tradition dating back more than a century when the Washington Nationals first came to Jacksonville in 1888.  Today, Florida’s Grapefruit league boasts 15 Major League Baseball teams. The games are more than just an activity for residents and visitors.  Spring training provides an economic boon for hosting communities, especially Lee County.

The Boston Red Sox took on the Minnesota Twins before a full house at their home field JetBlue Park in Fort Myers on opening day of the Grapefruit League. “All our games are sold out this season,” said Boston Red Sox Florida Business Operations Director Katie Haas.  “So, that’s a great problem to have here.”

The Red Sox signed a 30 year agreement at the new ball park two years ago. “The facility is just phenomenal.  It’s state of the art.  It’s everything that we wanted and honestly we were just bursting at the seams at our old facility downtown,” said Haas.  “Also we were a split site facility downtown.  SO, we were two and a half miles apart.  Being here at JetBlue Park allows us to be at one site altogether which is such a competitive advantage and helps to build the comradely with the new guys when they come in every spring.  I think that really played a huge role in the fact that we won the World Series after such a short time of being at JetBlue.”

Meanwhile, Fort Myers’ Hammond Stadium, which hosts the Minnesota Twins, recently completed the first phase of a nearly $48.5 million renovation increasing fan occupancy from 8,000 to 9,300 people.

Ongoing renovations at Hammond Stadium along with the cost of building JetBlue Park comes at a cost of more than $105 million in Lee County tax dollars.  But the stadium upgrades helped broker 30 year commitments from both teams, and with an estimated economic impact of $25 million dollars per team per year for the region, Lee County Parks and Recreation Director Dave Harner said it’s well worth the cost.

“It’s a great boon,” said Harner.  “I mean, people want to come here.  They want to see their teams.  Once they come here and they get to visit Florida they really like the area.  There’s so many amenities and then you add the two teams in, you just can’t beat it.”

Statewide, the six week spring training season provides about a $750 million boost to the state’s economy.

A 2009 Spring Training Study by Davidson Peterson Association found that even with Lee County’s beaches and other attractions, 57% of spring training visitors come for the sole purpose of seeing the Twins or the Red Sox.  According to Lee County Assistant manager Doug Meurer, 65% of spring training attendees travel from their homes in the Massachusetts and Minnesota regions.  

“We heard from our fans too a few years ago when we changed our tickets on sale time from December to January in terms of people saying, ‘I’m not buying my airline tickets until I know I have game day tickets,’” said Haas.  “So we definitely know that people do really base their vacations around our spring training schedule.”

For some local fans like Fort Myers resident Mark Burdis, spring training was part of why they choose to relocate.  “I try to come to two or three games a year,” said Burdis.  “I went to college up in Providence so that’s my connection to the Red Sox and I moved down here.  I got sick and tired of the weather.”

The Red Sox’s Haas, said she knows of many other fans with similar stories.  “Before we renewed our deal with Lee County and got JetBlue and there was talk about us potentially moving to somewhere else in Florida, we got a lot of fan feedback that people have either retired to Lee County because of us being here or they’ve purchased their vacation home because we spring train here.”

Meanwhile assistant to the President and General Manager of the Minnesota Twins, Bill Smith said improvements to Hammond Stadium, like a new 360 degree boardwalk, are intended to attract more fans to the park now that the team is here to stay.

“20 years ago, they bought a ticket, got a hot dog and a drink and sat and watched the game.  Now they want more interaction,” said Smith.  “They want to be able to look at this from different angles.  With this renovation, they’ll be able to stand right above the bull pen, listen to the coaches, watch the players, listen to the banter that goes on.  They’ll be able to be out in the outfield, kind of right in the right fielder’s back-pocket.”

The Red Sox also plan to boost their economic impact by developing a 20 acre property adjacent to JetBlue Park.  That development would add commercial retail stores and restaurants. Even now, the team is using the space to attract more outsiders to the area.

“We are actively programing with events such as fairs, concerts, festivals, taste of the town was out here with about 15 thousand people, car shows, RV shows, you name it,” said Haas.

Even with all the Red Sox home games sold out this season, there’s still hope for those who don’t have tickets due to internal holds or visiting teams not using all of their tickets.  Last minute fans looking to snag them, though, need to show up early.