The value of spring training
Baseball teams have been holding spring training in Florida for 125 years, but it's economics, not tradition, that's behind Sen. Jack Latvala's plan to spend $5 million in state funds on this tradition. The money would be used to help local governments maintain spring training facilities and protect their leases with Major League Baseball teams. It is a small investment, considering that studies have shown that Florida's "Grapefruit League" has an annual economic impact of $753 million. It supports more than 9,000 jobs, though many are part time. A team generates an average $47 million for a host city, and we suspect the legendary New York Yankees are worth even more to Tampa.The Florida Sports Foundation reports that last year about 1.6 million fans attended Florida spring training games, and 61 percent were out-of-state visitors. Latvala's proposal, it should be emphasized, does not throw money at professional sports teams. Rather, it would provide $5 million annually that would be used as matching grants for local governments that need to renovate spring training facilities. The state Department of Economic Opportunity would review the match to ensure it provides a return on investment for taxpayers. This is a reasonable expense that will help protect what is essentially a major state industry — and one that is increasingly threatened. As Latvala, a Pinellas County Republican, points out, 15 years ago every MLB team held its spring training in Florida. Now, Arizona, which has aggressively sought to take teams from Florida, hosts half of the majors' 30 teams for spring training. Leases for at least five teams will be up for renewal in the next few years, and you can be sure Arizona will try to snag them for its Cactus League. Spring training in Florida isn't just a time when big-leaguers work out the kinks from winter and ready themselves for a grueling 162-game regular season. It is a major part of Florida history. Some of the sport's biggest icons — from Babe Ruth to Stan "The Man" Musial — trained in the Tampa Bay area and in other parts of Florida. And from the standpoint of a fan, spring training is unique. Florida's often-cozy venues allow fans to get close to players and coaches, and the smack of the ball off a bat or into a catcher's mitt sounds so much better. Gov. Rick Scott understands spring training creates jobs and has put the funding in his budget. Like the governor, lawmakers should see Latvala's proposal goes to bat for the economy of the state and the communities fortunate enough to host teams.