CLEARWATER — For generations of Philadelphia sports fans, a March trip to sunny Clearwater has been a rite of spring. It's a chance to flee the cold and see their beloved Phillies in spring training.
Now Clearwater is trying to lure them to come down a little earlier — for Philly's pro soccer team's version of spring training.
On Thursday night, Clearwater's City Council approved a three-year deal with the Major League Soccer franchise Philadelphia Union to move its preseason workouts from the Orlando area to Clearwater beginning this February.
The team is seeking to leave Orlando because that city now has its own Major League Soccer franchise.
"They wanted to get out of that area," said Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater's parks and recreation director. "They also had a desire, being the fifth-largest sports program in the Philadelphia market, to locate in an area that a lot of Philadelphia sports fans know very well."
Clearwater will spend $100,000 to upgrade its Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex, located across the street from the Phillies' Bright House Field. That includes resodding the field, buying soccer goals and making other improvements.
The team will pay the city $23,000 per year, while the public tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater will chip in another $25,000 per year to offset the city's costs.
Philadelphia Union vice president Dave Rowan said the franchise will work to persuade other Major League Soccer teams to move their preseason training to this area. The team will also hold a preseason scrimmage with the Tampa Bay Rowdies at the Clearwater complex on Feb. 10, he said.
The soccer team's preseason workouts are held through February. The Phillies, which have trained in Clearwater since the 1940s, begin spring training in March. But pitchers and catchers report in mid February, so there will be some overlap between the two teams.
Pro soccer has a long and mixed history in the Tampa Bay area. The Rowdies, this area's original pro sports team, were resurrected in 2010 after being dissolved in 1993. Major League Soccer was also here when the Tampa Bay Mutiny competed from 1996 to 2001.
Contact Mike Brassfield at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.