TALLAHASSEE — For 100 years, the crack of the wooden bat has heralded the advent of spring in the Sunshine State.
But next year, for the first time, Florida won't dominate. Arizona will host as many Major League Baseball teams for spring training as Florida.
It's a trend that concerns Florida tourism officials and lawmakers, who are determined to keep the Grapefruit League's 15 teams, if not entice others to join. Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Crist met with owners of the Chicago Cubs and promised to "do whatever it takes" to lure them to the Naples area for spring training.
"The Legislature is starting to realize that we must protect our remaining spring training industry and become more aggressive in recruiting some of the teams back from Arizona that we have lost over the years," said Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill.
In the last decade, five teams have left for high-dollar incentives offered by Arizona officials: the Cleveland Indians from Winter Haven, Kansas City Royals from Davenport, Los Angeles Dodgers from Vero Beach, Texas Rangers from Port Charlotte and Cincinnati Reds from Sarasota.
Schenck, chairman of the House Government Affairs Policy Committee, is leading the effort to make the state more competitive and establish protocols for recruiting and retaining teams.
Legislation being drafted would create a pool of money the state can use to award matching grants to communities and teams that want to build stadiums or renovate existing facilities.
Under the current system, the state must ask the Legislature to allocate money. In 2001 and 2006, lawmakers set aside $75 million to help keep teams in Florida, but the money didn't last. In the next five years, about eight teams will begin to renegotiate leases.
"We've got to create a plan so that at least we don't have any more defections," said Larry Pendleton, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, a public-private partnership that awards the state grants.
Pendleton acknowledged it would be difficult to find a dedicated funding source, but he dismissed the idea of a new tourist tax.
"I'm not sure we're going to have the answer right away," he said. "But I'm confident in the next couple years we'll have something in place."
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Lawmakers are feeling more confident after a recent economic impact study showed spring training baseball generated $752.3 million for the state in 2009.
"What it tells me is that even in a down economy … we have a very good story to tell about tourism and Major League Baseball spring training in Florida," Mark Bonn, the study's author, told a legislative committee in November. "And that we should do everything possible to nurture this economic engine."
Bonn, president of a market research firm, obtained figures from the league to calculate stadium and team expenditures and surveyed 1,600 visitors at all 15 spring training stadiums in 2009 to determine how much they spent on average.
The report, commissioned by the state tourism office, estimated that direct spending topped $442 million, but the ripple effect — indirect and induced spending — boosted the state's economy by $752.3 million.
Bonn told lawmakers that spring training spending supported or created 9,205 jobs, though he later acknowledged that most of those jobs are part-time positions.
More than 1.5 million fans attended the season's 259 games, according to the league, but state figures show the total spent on spring training represented less than 1 percent of tourism spending in Florida.
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Bonn's analysis came under fire earlier this year when the Baltimore Orioles moved from Fort Lauderdale to Sarasota after the Cincinnati Reds left for Arizona.
"Our government was telling us things that can't be supported by evidence," said Cathy Antunes, leader of a Sarasota citizens group opposed to spending tax dollars on a baseball stadium.
A prominent sports economist, Philip Porter, also disputed the economic impact of spring training and argued against a government subsidy. He dissected the Bonn report, saying it used an inappropriate methodology.
For example, he said the report didn't account for the fact that a large portion of spring training proceeds doesn't stay in Florida. "You are given their estimate of the positive benefits but you do not know the costs," said Porter, a professor at the University of South Florida, in an analysis sent to Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota.
Bonn rejected the criticisms, saying his report captured what spring training meant to the state economy. A community that loses a team, he said, would lose millions of dollars in its economy.
This fear is motivating lawmakers. "We are not trending in the right direction," Schenck recently told his colleagues in the Legislature. "We are going to try to stop that and reverse the trend."
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.