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Let's See Some Hustle Out There

Sports Business


Larry Lovejoy, a letter carrier from Dundee, Ill., planned his Florida vacation around Chicago White Sox spring training. He and his 9-year-old son, David, sport matching Chicago Bulls jackets and caps as they watch major- league attraction Michael Jordan play right field during his first intramural innings with the Sox.

But if the Lovejoys plan to catch the Sox in training in the future, they may have to book a flight to Arizona. The Comiskey Parkers have been scouting sites there that would allow them to join the eight-team Cactus League. Publicly, the team says it will honor what remains of its 20-year lease in Sarasota, but officials in two Arizona towns say the Sox are house-hunting in their state.

HARDBALL. No longer is spring training just a warm-up for the regular season. It's become an ever-larger part of Baseball Inc. Most teams claim to break even or lose money, but according to one independent report, altogether they netted $13 million from spring training in 1991.

Clubs looking to cut losses or make money off March tryouts are driving tough bargains with cities for better facilities. They're raising ticket prices and cramming the ballparks with advertising. "They're playing the same game at spring training that they have done with Major League cities, playing one off the other," says Andrew Zimbalist, author of Baseball & Billions.

It's hardball with lots of curves as towns in Arizona and Florida vie to draw new teams or keep the ones they now host. The lure takes the shape of spanking new and bigger stadiums, with luxury boxes, multiple practice fields, and business offices. Sweetheart leases that let teams keep the lion's share of ticket, parking, and concession revenues are another frequent bargaining chip.

The wave started in the mid-1980s, as Florida counties, armed with a new tourist tax, initiated a game of "musical teams." The music hasn't stopped yet.

The Houston Astros moved to Kissimmee in 1985 from Cocoa. A new stadium in Port Charlotte helped lure the Texas Rangers from Pompa-no Beach in 1987.

A developer in Port Saint Lucie donated land and built a stadium to the exact specifications of the New York Mets, who moved there from St. Petersburg in 1988. The Cleveland Indians switched spring training from Arizona to Florida, landing in Winter Haven in 1993 after Hurricane Andrew devastated the city of Homestead.

CLASS ACT. Arizona hasn't been sitting on its mitt. In 1990, the county government that has jurisdiction over Peoria, Ariz., slapped a $2.50 surcharge on car rentals to help finance sports stadiums. This season, Peoria is making its debut as second home to both the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres. Built for $32 million, Peoria's 145-acre facility has a 10,000-seat ballpark, 10 outdoor batting cages, and 12 pitcher's mounds. Each team gets a 31,000 square-foot clubhouse.

The anomaly in the spring shuffle is the Los Angeles Dodgers. The team owns Dodgertown, a 450-acre complex in Vero Beach, where it has held spring training since 1948. "There is no cost to the community, and we pay $300,000 a year in property taxes to the city," says Craig Cullen, Dodgertown's managing director. From Opening Day to the week pitchers and catchers report to camp, Dodgertown does duty as a conference center and an adult baseball-fantasy camp, uhich, along with citrus groves and two golf courses, helps defray the Tinseltown Nine's spring-training costs.

If Vero Beach is the class act of spring training, Winter Haven is one of the hungry hustlers that have to pay to get a team to play. In 1992, when a new stadium in Fort Myers lured away the Boston Red Sox, Winter Haven put up $3 million to renovate its own facility and induce the Cleveland Indians to sign a 10-year contract. Besides the improvements, Winter Haven subsidizes the stadium's operations to the tune of $350,000 annually. By contrast, it spends $400,000 a year on the local library.

PLAYING IN PEORIA. Why the frenzy? Money. Attendance at preseason games has more than doubled since 1983, to 3 million fans in 1993 (chart, page 102). A 1991 study estimated that spring training generated $305 million for Florida. Most of that, some $285 million, came from the wallets of out-of-state visitors. In Arizona, spring training in 1993 meant nearly $266 million in spending in Maricopa and Pima counties, heart of the Cactus League. Of that, some $236 million came from out-of-state visitors.

There are other benefits. Take Peoria, a community of 63,000 west of Phoenix. It now has a single hotel, but since the arrival of the Mariners and the Padres, four companies have begun negotiating to build new hotels, says Maureen Krauss, executive director of the Peoria Economic Development Corp. There's even some international press, with some 22 Japanese reporters in town this season to catch the Mariners, who are giving a tryout to Japanese-born pitcher Mecado Suzuki. "Spring training has given us unprecedented media attention and put us on the map," says Krauss. "Our real ambition is to make people know that we're not the Peoria that's in Illinois."

Fort Lauderdale, on the other hand, no longer feels the need to take part in this scramble for recognition. Although the Yankees have trained there for 31 years, the birth of the Florida Marlins in 1992 has changed local minds. So while the Yanks ponder a move to Tampa, home to George Steinbrenner's American Ship Building Co., Lauderdale officials remain unfazed. "At this point, we're not giving them any additional incentives to stay--we can't afford it," says Jack Mathison, superintendent of special facilities. The sentiment among city leaders "was that [the Yankees] would be nice to have, but we have our own ball club now." The only thing sweeter than snagging a team for spring, it seems, is snagging one for good.Gail DeGeorge in Miami, with Bob Andelman in Sarasota and Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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