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Arizona edges Florida in spring training attendance.

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Published:   |   Updated: April 10, 2014 at 07:21 AM

TAMPA — Fewer fans went to spring training games in Florida this year, with overall attendance down nearly 200,000 to 1.45 million.

Maybe that was because of the large number of rainouts - 13 - or because some teams have cut the number of games they're playing in the state. What's important to those who love to watch baseball in March - or who love to see all the fans and their wallets who come to watch baseball - is that Arizona drew more fans to its games than Florida did.

Florida once ruled the market when it came to spring training, but that number has dwindled over the years. Now, Arizona's Cactus League has 15 spring training teams, the same as Florida's Grapefruit League.

Spring training drew 1.63 million fans to Arizona this year. The Cactus League offered 229 games this spring, compared to 211 played in Florida, where stadiums are scattered across the state and teams may have to travel hours to games. In Arizona, the stadiums all are within an hour's or so drive of each other.

Underlying the numbers is the fear that more Grapefruit teams will head west. The possibility has some legislators arguing for millions in increased state incentives to keep Florida from losing teams to Arizona.

State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, heads the Senate's budget committee and is working on an economic incentives package that will make staying in Florida more attractive for teams considering a move to Arizona. The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to consider the legislation today.

Negron said he wants to include enough in the package, possibly $4 million, to pay for upgrades to some existing facilities, such as Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie and Vero Beach's Historic Dodgertown on the state's east coast. He is working closely on the proposal with Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Negron said the new incentives are intended to keep Major League Baseball teams from leaving Florida for Arizona.

“The main question for me is, can Florida come up with a way to compete with other states but keep it within a reasonable price tag?” Negron said.

This year's spring training numbers that show the Cactus League outdrew the Grapefruit League in total attendance don't do much to quell the fear of losing teams to Arizona, though Florida officials are quick to point out that the average number of fans per game in Florida actually increased slightly.

The Florida Sports Foundation, which compiles attendance figures for the Grapefruit League, said this year's spring training games drew 1,451,092 fans over the 33-day season. That's an average of 6,877 fans per game, a 4 percent bump from the previous year.

Last year, Florida spring training games drew just less than 1.64 million, about the same as the year before. In 2013, fans attended 247 games over 37 days of spring training, with an average attendance of 6,633. Only two games were rained out last year.

Nick Gandy director of communications with the Florida Sports Foundation, said teams are not playing as many games as they have in years past, and that could account for some of the overall dip. He notes that the per-game attendance remained robust.

“The average attendance through the years is good,” he said. “It was up this year.”

This year, 224 games were scheduled, he said, 23 fewer than last year.

“For a reason I have yet to determine,” he said, “teams are playing fewer games.”

The Boston Red Sox played only 15 home games this year, down from 17 last year, he said. The Baltimore Orioles scheduled 15 home games but only played 12 because of three rain outs.

Attendance in Arizona for the Cactus League this year was about 200,000 more than the Grapefruit League, though the 1.63 million fans who took in Cactus League games was down from last year's 1.7 million, according to published reports. The dip in Cactus League attendance came despite record turnouts for the Cubs, which averaged 14,000 per game in a new stadium in Mesa.

In less than a decade, six teams have migrated from Florida to Arizona. It made sense for the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, L.A. Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals to make the move. Arizona is closer than Florida for traveling fans, and Arizona dangled new stadiums and training facilities as incentives.

John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, said leases for four Grapefruit League teams are up within four years, but none appear to be gearing up for a jump to the Cactus League. It wouldn't make sense for East Coast teams to spring train in Arizona, so far from their fan bases, he said.

“I wouldn't say it's a concern,” he said, but the league will rest easier once those teams sign leases to stay. “They all are working on extensions, deals and improvements and their focus appears to be on staying in Florida,” he said, “and they are trying to make it work.”

Many of the teams in the Grapefruit League are here because of tradition. For almost a century, Florida was the only state teams came to to prepare for the regular season.

Whether Grapefruit League attendance is up or down, spring training is a boon to the state, particularly West Central Florida, which is home to the Yankees in Tampa, the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin and the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland.

Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, the tourist bureau that serves the entire region, said the Grapefruit League brings sports fans and their families to the region, and they don't just spend their money at the games.

“Obviously, anything that brings in visitors is good for us,” he said. “We want them to stay overnight, but even if they don't, they still tend to eat at our restaurants or they may combine the game with going to the aquarium or take in something at The Straz.

“Anything that brings people to this destination to have a good time and enjoy what we have to offer,” he said, “that's a good thing for us.”

According to an economic impact study prepared in 2009 by Bonn Marketing Research Group in Tallahassee, spring training pumps $753 million a year into the state's economy. That number has captured the attention of some legislators, who want to make more state money available for incentives to keep teams in Florida.

Dishing money to teams to keep them in Florida is nothing new.

In 2006, Tradition Field received $7.9 million in state incentives spread out in annual payments over 30 years. Last year, the Legislature approved a fund that grants $20 million per stadium over 30 years and $50 million for two-team stadiums over 37 1⁄2 years. Local governments have to match that amount.

Sen. Latvala, said he wants to make it easier for spring training facilities to receive money by spreading state payments to local governments over a longer period of time.

That irks Philip Porter, who says the $753 million economic impact figure is meaningless.

Porter, a professor of economics at the University of South Florida, said taxpayers money is freely used as incentives to build and upgrade stadiums, all to keep teams from leaving.

Economic impacts estimates of sports always are inflated, he said, because those who gather the numbers never include what is spent by the government to attract and keep teams.

“They only count what's coming in,” he said, “not what's going out.”

There are always negotiations going on between governments and teams thinking about heading to greener fields, he said, and that drives up the cost for communities to keep their teams. Typically the beneficiaries are the teams, all of which, except for the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins, are from out of state.

“You've invited the fox into the hen house,” he said, “and the fox has taken the eggs and gone off running.”

When that incentive money leaves Florida, Porter said, local services suffer.

“That's less money, meaning there are more potholes, schools with more portables; police won't have enough to arrest common criminals and the fire department may have to let few houses burn down,” Porter said. “These are the things you have to suffer through because we have to have baseball here.”

He said he wouldn't miss spring training if all the teams went to Arizona.

“I'd much rather Arizona be impoverished than Florida,” he said.

Isadora Rangel of the Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau contributed to this report.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

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