This article, first published in March 2011, has been updated on February 17, 2012.
In just two weeks, one of the world's most valuable sports franchises will move into a new stadium funded by taxpayers in a county battling double-digit unemployment and a foreclosure crisis. How did that happen?
Back in summer 2010, as the start of a new fiscal year approached,
Yet in the midst of those struggles, the county made one decision that faced little dissent: selling up to $81 million in bonds to fund a new baseball stadium where the Boston Red Sox would play 18 exhibition games in the spring per year.
“At the time we’re spending reserve dollars to keep our county government operating, we’re also spending this outrageous money on professional spring training, without asking (the team) to put very much in,” says Brian Bigelow, the lone county commissioner who opposed the deal.
The Red Sox, who play in the county seat of
The Red Sox previous spring stadium, City of Palms Park, was only built in 1992 -- by Fort Myers taxpayers. To some, the deal represents a giveaway to a team that doesn’t need a handout. The franchise is worth a reported $870 million.
“It was as if it's so important that we retain the Red Sox, it doesn't matter how much we spend," says Bigelow.
But Bigelow’s views are outside the norm, at least among elected officials in
Moving Out West
For six weeks each spring, baseball teams flock to
For fans, it’s an opportunity to see the game’s biggest stars up close, since spring training stadiums are a fraction of the size of their major-league counterparts. They also have the chance to interact with players, who often have a more relaxed demeanor during the exhibition season. The games are immensely popular, drawing more than 3.5 million fans last season, one of the highest attendance figures ever for spring training.
While spring training was once synonymous with
That shuffling of teams encourages municipalities to compete to land teams. Since stadium leases expire at staggered intervals, there’s almost always a battle for at least one team at any time. As a result, teams are able to squeeze out vast sums of public money for their facilities, typically making little or no contribution of their own.
(Click the maps below to see which cities in Florida and Arizona host baseball's spring training.)
Millions in Aid
In 2001, the Florida Sports Foundation – a non-profit that works with the state government – put up $54.5 million in state money for construction and renovation of five spring training stadiums. That money was matched – and then some – by localities. Another $52.9 million in matching funds for four stadiums was issued in 2006.
Even more money could be forthcoming. By 2016, at least four Florida-based teams will have leases that are up for renewal, and many will want renovations. Meanwhile, several Cactus League teams will see their leases expire soon, and
Out west, huge sums are being spent as well. In November 2000,
Initially, the ASTA was slated to provide $402 million over a 30-year period for Cactus League stadiums, says Tom Sadler, its director. So far, ASTA has funded $68.3 million in new construction or renovation at four
Return on Investment
Public officials acknowledge that a huge sum of money has been spent on the facilities, but they consider it an investment. In
“It’s not so much a giveaway as an investment,” says Mark Jackson, director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing, a quasi-government department charged with recruiting and retaining spring training teams in central Florida. “That’s not re-circulating money. That’s new money coming it. It’s essentially making spring training an export.”
Brian Dalke, Goodyear’s deputy city manager, says in his region, spending at hotels, restaurants and bars are highest in the spring training month of March. That’s also the second-highest month for general retail sales, beaten only by the holiday shopping season in December. “The impact is sizable,” Dalke says.
The two also highlight the intangible benefits of spring training. Cities that might otherwise be obscure get cachet and name recognition by serving as spring training hosts, similar to how football has put
Leaders in Charlotte County, Fla. -- which recently funded a $27.2 million stadium renovation for the Tampa Bay Rays prior to their 2009 arrival -- also emphasize the benefits of baseball that can't be measured in dollars and cents. “The value-added in having (
The stadium renovation in Charlotte County was funded by $15 million in state aid, $4 million from the Rays and about $8.2 million is from the county, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported. The generous package was largely the result of the years the county spent in baseball purgatory after the Texas Rangers left following the 2002 season.
Shoemaker says the team fosters a “home town spirit” and is involved with local charities. “Those kinds of things you can’t get any way else,” Shoemaker says.
Economists, on the other hand, have a different outlook. Without a doubt, they say, municipalities get a bad deal when they fund spring training stadiums.
“There’s absolutely no need for any community to invest in a sports team,” says Philip Porter, a sports economist at
Since teams move around so frequently, there’s ample data to determine whether a city suffers financially when its team leaves. But, Porter says, “nothing changes” when a team skips town. Sales tax, property values, and the size of the tax base generally remain at comparable levels, undermining the argument that the stadiums pose a vast economic benefit. “That finding is so universal as to be irrefutable,” Porter says.
A study by
Porter says studies that tout the positive economic impact of spring training – typically commissioned by state and local governments – do so by asking fans at games how much they spend while they’re visiting, then multiplying that figure by the number of people who attend games. That method is flawed, Porter says, because it doesn't account for money spent locally that actually goes to the team and leaves the area, such as ticket sales or stadium advertising purchased by local businesses.
“Essentially you bring a team into the community, you’re not charging them anything for rent, and you’re inviting them to sell things to your community,” Porter says.
Critics also say many people visiting
“Baseball is important, but it’s a very small flash in the pan of our entire tourist industry,” says Bigelow, of
In the case of
“We knew we wouldn’t go into another spring training agreement unless it was a mutually beneficial deal,” Stavres says. Goodyear, meanwhile, gave the Indians a deal
When the team left, Stavres says, “businesses felt the pinch.” Though city sales tax revenue fell $133,000 the year after the team left, that was just a fraction of what it cost to operate the stadium. Ironically, the stadium that at one time was once synonymous with
But 90 miles south Charlotte County is still having its baseball honeymoon. The Rays entered 2009, their first season in Charlotte County, as the reigning American League champions and have continued to be successful. The community has embraced the team largely because during the regular season, it plays in nearby Tampa, making it a true home town team.
Shoemaker, the county official, compared the expense of a stadium to public money spent on parks, libraries and other amenities that make a community an enjoyable place to live. “You as a community decide what quality-of-life items are important to have in your backyard,” Shoemaker says. “It’s just the decision you make. If that’s an expense you want to pay for, that’s what you pay to do business.”