Sunday, December 17, 2017
Sports

Yankees minor league team could move from Tampa to Ocala

TAMPA — The New York Yankees and Ocala officials Tuesday plan to outline a tentative agreement to move the team's Class A Advanced minor league team from Tampa to a new stadium in Marion County.

The good news for the bay area is that Yankees spring training, a much bigger economic driver for Tampa than minor league baseball, is not going anywhere.

"This does not affect spring training in any way," Anthony Bruno, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Yankee Global Enterprises, said in an email Monday.

Still, Tampa could find itself saying goodbye to the Tampa Yankees, who this year drew 118,770 fans to George M. Steinbrenner Field. That was good for fourth in attendance in the 12-team Florida State League. But while the team averaged 1,827 fans per game, the crowds could vary.

"I'm disappointed, but the unfortunate reality is the attendance has always been low, with the exception of when a player on the Yankees' Major League roster is rehabbing in Tampa," Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said.

One evening this year, Hagan showed up for a game and was surprised to see the parking lot packed. But when he heard that outfielder Curtis Granderson, who struggled with injuries this season, was coming up to bat, the big crowd made more sense.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the team's departure is a "business decision for the Yankees" and would not be a significant loss.

"They've flirted with that for probably a half a dozen years," Buckhorn said Tuesday. "It's not going to be an economic loss. ... Keeping the spring training here is far more important. That's a long-term relationship. I don't think the Yankees have any desire to impact that at all. But the Single A club is much less of a factor, if at all."

Before the move takes place, details must be worked out, the team says, and both Ocala and Marion County officials have to sign off on the plan.

"All we're doing is exploring the opportunities," Yankees vice president of marketing Howard Grosswirth said Monday. "Nothing has been finalized. Nothing has been signed."

For the Tampa Yankees, playing here means competing for customers with the Tampa Bay Rays, Buccaneers and Lightning, as well as the University of South Florida football, Busch Gardens and the gulf beaches.

In Ocala's smaller pond, the Single A Yankees would be a bigger fish while remaining close to their Florida State League rivals.

Ocala officials expect the team's fan base there would include retirees from Citrus County, the Villages and Gainesville.

"We don't have all those sports entertainment choices, so here this would be a big deal for us," Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said.

However sad for Tampa fans, losing the minor league team would have "zero effect" on Steinbrenner Field's landlord, the Tampa Sports Authority.

"There's no financial agreement between the Yankees farm team and us," said Bobby Silvest, the authority's vice president of marketing and communications. That means the Yankees do not pay to rent the stadium for the Class A team nor do they collect a ticket surcharge that goes to local government. "We strictly have an agreement for spring training."

Hillsborough County owns Steinbrenner Field, originally known as Legends Field. Part of Hillsborough's tourist tax, which adds 5 percent to hotel and motel bills, is being used the pay off its construction debt. In 2010, a total of $1.9 million from the tourist tax was going to pay off the stadium's construction costs. Updated figures were not available late Monday.

The Tampa Yankees have had a presence in Hillsborough since the mid 1990s, when they began playing at the University of South Florida while their current home was under construction.

The team says it likes the stadium at the corner of N Dale Mabry Highway and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but it has explored the idea of moving elsewhere in Florida since George Steinbrenner, who died in 2010, was running the club.

Besides, Grosswirth said, it's not unusual for minor league teams to move.

"We're not unhappy at all," he said. "Tampa is a great community … (but) we're always looking to improve. Every business is looking to improve."

In 2010, the team was in preliminary talks with an investor group from Orange County about moving the Tampa Yankees to the Orlando area.

Nothing came of those talks, but Guinn, then an Ocala City Council member, reached out to the team through a mutual friend and scheduled a lunch.

Ocala is an area the Steinbrenner family knows well, since it breeds and raises thoroughbred race horses at its Kinsman Farms near the city.

That discussion led to Tuesday's Ocala City Council workshop. No decisions are expected.

The Ocala stadium project has a budget estimated at $60 million, including site development, infrastructure and contingencies.

To pay for it, Ocala and Marion County officials want to ask voters there to raise the sales tax by half a cent for five years.

That would generate an estimated $82.5 million, some of which might be available for other tourist-related projects or restoring local springs, Guinn said.

The move also would have to be approved by the Florida State League, Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball, according to the Ocala Star-Banner.

Assuming the project hits no delays, officials say the stadium could be ready for the 2016 season.

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